Sotheby’s began its November evening sales tonight with a $269.7 million Impressionist and modern art evening auction in New York, beating the low estimate of $204.1 million but not quite reaching the high estimate of $295.2 million. The house scored a winning sell-through rate of 92 percent, with just seven of the 64 lots failing to find buyers.
And while the sale looks good on paper, the energy in the room was low—it was noticeably quiet as those with paddles ceded dominance to the phone bank. Often the phone dominating was that of Sotheby’s Asia chairman Patti Wong.
“The big story tonight is about Asia—it’s no secret that there was a lot of Asian activity,” said Simon Shaw, global co-head of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, during the press conference.
Shaw told ARTnews that “The material this season was in line with Asian taste, as it was a lot of blue-chip.”
“We get a lot of new Asian bidding each season,” he added, saying that even new collectors aren’t hesitant to bid on eight-figure works.
Wong did, however, lose out on the night’s biggest picture, Marc Chagall’s Les Amoureux, (1912-1913), which has been in the same private collection since the owner’s family bought it from the artist’s Paris gallery in 1928. It was in the unenviable position not having a guarantee, but fears were assuaged as soon as Wong and Sotheby’s Russia director Irina Stepanova cut into auctioneer Helena Newman’s chandelier bidding to start sparring, bringing the bidding well above the high estimate of $18 million to get to $25 million, when Wong started to speak loudly in Chinese onto the phone and then signal it was out. It hammered for Stepanova’s bidder at $25 million, or $28.5 million with fees.
This was a new record for the artist, besting the mark that had held since 1990, when Anniversaire (1923) sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $14.9 million.
“The property that we sourced, the key names that define this category, were all here tonight,” Newman said after the sale, remarking on the rare quality of the Chagall.
Other records achieved tonight were for Vilhelm Hammershøi, and for a Georgia O’Keeffe work on paper.
After losing the night’s star lot, Wong came back with a vengeance, securing one work after another only to yell out the same paddle number after. Monet’s Les Glaçons, Bennecourt (1893-1894) hammered at $20.5 million for Wong’s client with the paddle L0016 after she fended off offensives from Sotheby’s Asia CEO Kevin Ching and Impressionist & modern art senior vice president Melissa Post. With the advance,the price became $23.4 million.
The same paddle then purchased Georgia O’Keeffe’s Yellow Sweet Peas (1925) for $4.4 million a few lots later, and then, later in the sale, Monet’s Les Arceaux de roses, Giverny (1913) for $19.4 million. As the sale wound down, Chagall’s Le Grand Cirque (1956) came up on the block, and Wong had to beat back a feisty James Mackie as he tossed out bids of small increments, forcing her to move up by a few hundred thousand dollars each go-around. The back-and-forth continued for long enough to get rushed by Newman, and Wong finally caused Mackie to pause at $14 million, where it hammered. Again, the paddle number was L0016, and that client will end up paying $16 million with fees. It’s now the second most expensive Chagall sold at auction.
During the post-sale press conference, Newman was asked whether it was possible for a single paddle number to be used for two different collectors, and she responded that it was “highly unlikely.”
The full-throated support of Asian bidders—or at least this one bidder—caused the totals to improve on the last few Imp-Mod sales held at the York Avenue sales room, reversing a downward trend in the sector and breathing new life into the sales of historical material. This past May, the house managed to salvage a sale after its top lot Egon Schiele’s Danaë (1909), was withdrawn before the sale, pulling out a $173.8 haul with out a work that was supposed to bring in $30 million to $40 million.
The sale a year ago was even spottier, netting just 157.7 million—much of which was raked in when Edvard Munch’s Pikene på broen (1902) sold for $54.4 million. That’s a 71 percent increase year-to-year.
But the sale tonight reflected a somewhat sturdier Imp-Mod market—even if 17 of the lots had irrevocable bids or third-party guarantees, which accounted for the lack of pop in the salesroom.
And while there were no embarrassing failures like in years past, this was not the blockbuster that the house might have hoped for after a less than ideal first day of the auction gigaweek. On Monday afternoon, Sotheby’s had to soldier ahead with its American Art despite losing its star lot—Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop (1950) which was estimated to sell for $20 million to $30 million; it was pulled along with a slew of other work consigned by the Berkshire Museum. After months of controversy regarding the institution’s deaccessioning, an associate justice on the Massachusetts Appeals Court placed an injunction on the sale of the work, preventing Sotheby’s from including them in the sale.
And then, on Monday evening, arch-rival Christie’s recorded a mammoth Impressionist and modern art auction, notching a $479.3 million total that was just shy of the category’s highest grossing sale in history.
On Tuesday, even though Newman maintained a white glove sale until the 30th lot and consistently managed to find buyers for nearly every work as the sale wound down, with a dozen lots left to go people started streaming out, already late to dinner.
The New York sales continue tomorrow with the Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Christie’s.