In the last of the New York evening sales this May, Christie’s netted $141.5 million during its Impressionist and modern art auction, ahead of a low estimate of $134.3 million, in a sale that capped a modestly priced but overall stable week with a robust 86 percent sell-through rate.
Still, there were signs of trouble in the highest price echelon of the Imp-mod market: all three of the lots with low estimates in the eight-figure range barely squeaked by their reserves, allowing them to avoid a pass but not going for bonanza figures that in recent years have become common. These included Monet’s Le bassin aux nympheas (1919), which went for $27 million; Modigliani’s Jeune femme a la rose (Margherita), 1916, which went for $12.8 million; and another Monet, Au Petit-Gennevilliers, which went for $11.4 million.
And though the sale was only a few million dollars short of Christie’s haul at the corresponding sale last November, it doesn’t come close to last May’s Impressionist and modern sale at the house, which totaled $202.6 million and had a very strong sell-through rate of 93 percent.
But with Christie’s being extra careful in this cooler market—there was just one lot guaranteed, Picasso’s Comptoir et verres (1943), and it sold—the objects in the sale were meticulously matched with the tastes of its buyers, resulting in an auction with only one notable pass. And thus Christie’s avoided the crushing blow served to Sotheby’s Monday, when its Impressionist and modern sale sold only 66 percent of its lots en route to a disappointing haul that missed the low estimate by over $20 million. (Sotheby’s recovered with a successful Wednesday night sale of postwar and contemporary art.)
In sports terms, however, Christie’s is winning the week.
“The 90 percent batting rate for the three evening sales is a record, I think?” said Christie’s chairman Jussi Pylkkanen after the sale, referring to the house’s abnormally high sell-through percentage over the past five days. “The sales went on against some uncertainty, but the proof is in the pudding.”
Particularly promising was the enthusiasm of the Asian buyers, many of whom were bidding on the phone this evening through Elaine Holt, a specialist at Christie’s Hong Kong. Holt secured for her client a Barbara Hepworth that went for $4.7 million, way above the high estimate of $1.8 million, and was the underbidder on lots such as the top-selling Monet, Braque’s Mondoline a la partition (Le Banjo), 1941, that went for $10.2 million, and Picabia’s Ligustri (ca. 1929) that went for $2.6 million.
“We have the sales in Hong Kong coming up, and on the basis of the Asian buying it should be a very exciting time,” said Pylkkanen.
(Though I did notice that Beijing collector Edward Zeng, who picked up an Yves Klein at Christie’s during the postwar and contemporary sale Tuesday—Pylkannen bragged that Zeng arrived in New York an hour before the sale—left in the middle of Thursday’s Imp-mod auction without making any purchases.)
Refreshingly, the one major record of the night was a painting by a woman, in an evening dominated by work by male painters like Magritte and Monet and Modigliani. Frida Kahlo’s Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma, 1939—which was one of two works by women artists in the entire sale, alongside 50 by men—sold for $8 million, just above its low estimate but still high enough to become the a new auction record for the artist, as well as an auction record for a work by a Latin American artist.
After a week of evening sales, the auction world cognoscenti may have been suffering from bidding fatigue, as gavel-wielder Andreas Rumbler was often forced to hammer right as a work broke the reserve threshold, making for a somewhat lackluster event. People started to shuffle out of their seats with 20 lots left to go. A fire alarm that echoed through the hallways outside was the source of some excitement. But at least there was competitive bidding on the Braque, with Holt and specialist Connor Jordan going back and forth on behalf of their clients at the other ends of their lines, egging each other on to go up another $100,000, until Jordan captured it when Holt backed off at $9 million, and Rumbler smacked the hammer.
And then there’s the matter of who bought the Monet, the top lot of the night by price. After opening the bidding, the only taker was a man in the front row, who went in at $24 million, a price that Rumbler said he could sell at. (It was a solid $1 million below the low estimate, but apparently this was still beyond the reserve, with premium—such price-setting machinations to avoid flopped lots seemed more prevalent at both houses this week.) And so it stalled at $24 million, with Rumbler waiting as Holt tried to find the phone number of someone she could call who might enter the fray.
“Bear with us,” Rumbler said to the man in front, who had a familiar haircut. Ah, that’s right, it was the mystery underbidder on the Francis Bacon’s Two Studies for a Self Portrait (1970), which went for $35 million at Sotheby’s Wednesday. I had described him as “a young collector with a mohawk-like haircut wearing a velvet smoking jacket,” but when I approached him at Sotheby’s elevator, he refused to identify himself.
But now having successfully nabbed a star lot (he won the Monet after it hammered at $24 million) from plum seats in the front row, he was more forthcoming: his name is Glenn Fuller, and he works for the London gallery Gladwell & Patterson. His card describes Gladwell & Patterson as “experts in fine art since 1752,” though no one in the press scrum seemed to have heard of them, and Christie’s senior vice president Brooke Lampley thought it necessary to publicly reveal the gallery’s involvement in the purchase because so many reporters were curious (the gallery’s located in Knightsbridge, which isn’t exactly Mayfair). He was buying on behalf of a client.
“I actually got it this time!” Fuller told me upon leaving the Christie’s headquarters, much more animated than he was after losing out on the Bacon diptych. “And I’m delighted.”
It’s telling that Fuller left immediately after securing his prize, as the sale room started to clear out shortly after, and by the time the last lots sold it was not even half full. The day sales officially wrap Friday afternoon, but people seem to be checked out—dealer David Benrimon was overheard on the phone explaining that he had to fly out to Cannes, France, for the film festival. And life goes on.