Since the fall of 2008, the market for Impressionist and Modern art has thrived amidst a general decline in the greater market for fine art, especially contemporary art. And although contemporary art has begun to show signs of a recovery in emerging markets like China and is poised to see major sales next week at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, tonight and tomorrow evening will witness a major test of whether Impressionist and Modern art can continue to generate strong demand.
A number of works by canonical names are up for sale—Picasso, Giacometti, Renoir, Munch. Beyond the eight-figure estimates and the hype arising from the auction houses’ flashy catalogue covers, however, are two particular works, both nudes, by Henri Matisse, which are worthy of comment. Visually, they are very similar in terms of subject matter and, at least at first glance, in style. Their estimates differ considerably.
The first work is Nu au Coussin Bleu (1924, pictured left), which will be auctioned at Christie’s in this evening’s highly publicized sale of Property from the Collection of Mrs. Sidney F. Brody. This work is estimated to sell for $20,000,000 to $30,000,000. Although two of Matisse’s paintings have exceeded this range in the past—Les Coucous, Tapis Bleu et Rose (1911) for $46,055,344 early last year at Christie’s and L’Odalisque, Harmonie Bleue (1937) for $33,641,000 at Christie’s in November 2007—a successful sale of Nu au Coussin Bleu will further cement his position as one of the most highly valued modern artists. It would also be the highest priced nude by Matisse to ever sell at auction, beating Nu Couché Vu de Dos (1927), which sold for $18,496,000 at Sotheby’s in May 2006.
Tomorrow at the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, Sotheby’s will auction an earlier nude by Matisse, Nu au Fauteuil, Jambes Croisées (1920, pictured below). Its estimate is significantly lower at $2,500,000 to 3,500,000.
Why are these two works, painted four years apart and so similar at first glance, so very different in estimated value? It comes down, in part, to provenance. Nu au Coussin Bleu, for sale at Christie’s this evening, was part of an extraordinarily high-profile collection for many years, changing hands only once in 1964. Nu au Fauteuil, Jambes Croisées has had at least six transfers.
Ultimately, these two Matisse nudes are part of different peer groups. 1923/1924 represented a breaking point for the artist, as it was then that Matisse perfected his method for depicting nude models. The numerous works of scholarship cited by Christie’s catalogue note for Nu au Coussin Bleu confirm the advances in technique achieved by Matisse in the mid-1920s. The catalogue makes the claim that by 1924 Matisse was pursuing a “more sculptural approach to his painting,” to meet “a new need for concentration and construction,” and one that might just just pre-figure his paper cut-outs.
Matisse’s nudes painted before 1924 have brought extremely modest (at best) results during past auction sales. The average price realized for this group is quite low at just over $4.7 million, including the 1995 sale of La Pose Hindoue, 1923. The peer group has also suffered from a high number of buy-ins at auction, seven in total.
Tomorrow evening’s sale of Nu au Fauteuil, Jambes Croisées is the second time the painting has been put up for auction; the first time in 2006 resulted in a buy-in at Sotheby’s, which makes this work particularly interesting.
The market for this lower-profile peer group may be turning. This past February, Nu au Fauteuil, which failed during its last attempted auction sale in 1999, sold for $1,324,526 at Sotheby’s. Should Nu au Fauteuil Jambes Croisées see similar success, we could take the result as confirmation of a strengthening market for the peer group in particular and evidence of continued robustness in the market for Impressionist and Modern art.