Sotheby’s achieved a total of $157.7 million at its Impressionist and modern art evening sale Monday night, kicking off a week of fall auctions in New York by passing its $142.8 million low estimate and selling 81 percent of the works on offer. The highlight of the 42-lot auction was Edvard Munch’s Pikene på broen (Girls on the Bridge), 1902, which beat its pre-sale estimate of $50 million, going to a bidder on the phone with Impressionist and modern co-head Simon Shaw for $54.4 million. (All sales prices include buyer’s premium, unless otherwise noted.)
“Munch is a great friend of ours at Sotheby’s,” a smiling Shaw said after the sale, referring to a certain Munch, The Scream (1895), which became the priciest work ever sold at auction (a record later eclipsed) at Sotheby’s New York in 2012, when it made $119.9 million.
There was also one new artist record on the night, for László Moholy-Nagy—EM 1 Telephonbild (EM 1 Telephone Picture), 1922, went for $6.1 million, well above the artist’s previous record of $1.6 million.
“What we saw tonight continued what we’ve seen for the past six months: there is a demand for high-quality works of art,” Shaw said.
And yet, apart from the Munch—which may become the week’s top lot in a year when the frequency of eight-figure works is way down from years past—the primary topic at hand was how the market would react to the shocking, utterly confounding result of last week’s presidential election.
Art market experts told ARTnews the day after the vote that the market would be at the very least impervious to the changing of the guard, with some suggesting that possible tax breaks under a Trump regime will allow for an even more robust high-end luxuries market. When asked Wednesday how the election would affect the fall sales, Amy Cappellazzo, co-head of the Fine Arts Department at Sotheby’s, said bluntly, “Trump is probably better for the art market if you analyze it.”
That bleak kind of optimism may be a little muted after the sale on Monday, which failed to reach its high estimate, even after sales in a post-Brexit London successfully vanquished their high barrier. This, of course, may have to do more with a contracting market than the malevolent political forces at hand; Jeremiah Evarts, the head of the evening sales in New York, said he had not a single bidder back out between the election and the sale tonight.
“We definitely had the election in mind, but since today was a good night, all signs indicate that the market won’t be affected,” Everts told ARTnews. “There’s a buffer—for better or for worse, there’s a buffer.”
The sale began with a rapping of the gavel from Helena Newman, the new chairman of Sotheby’s, Europe as of this summer—in a bit of unconditionally cheery news, on Monday she became the first female auctioneer to helm an evening sale in New York. (Shaw mentioned this during the press conference, and the staff broke into a fierce round of applause.) Once the crowd chatter died down, out of the gate we had Yves Tanguy’s La Prodigue ne Revient Jamais III (1943) hammering right at its pre-sale estimate of $600,000, making it $732,500 with the buyer’s premium. Joan Miro’s Personnage (1935) also went for more than anticipated, selling to the bidder on the phone with Oliver Barker for $1.2 million at the hammer, or $1.45 million with fees.
And then came the Moholy-Nagy, which solicited a number of bids in the room as well as on the telephones, with Newman darting left to right at the outset to catch the popped paddles. The first to jump in was Mathias Rastorfer, director at Zurich’s Galerie Gmurzynska, who battled telephone bidders until in came, at $3.5 million, Hauser & Wirth associate director Eugenie York (who happens to also be Princess Eugenie, House of Windsor, eighth in line to the British throne). Bidding from the middle of the rows, York stayed in until Cappellazzo entered on behalf of a phone bidder at $4.3 million, but Cappellazzo could not fend off a resurgent Rastorfer, who pulled off the purchase to the tune of a $5.2 hammer price, or $6.1 with premium.
“It’s actually a precious piece, it’s one of those rare objects,” Rastorfer said as he left the Sotheby’s room near the end of the sale. He was standing with Isabelle Bscher, one of Gmurzynska’s partners. “We sold it in the ’80s, and it was coming up again. We looked at other things, but mainly we were here for that.”
After successfully selling the next six lots, many for over their high estimates, Newman opened bidding on the Munch at $43 million, and Simon Shaw was able to ratchet his bidder to $50 million before things stalled. Newman, faced with crickets, drew out the silence.
“Any advance?” she said, peering over the quiet audience. “Something might be happening? Something?”
She turned to the the specialists flanking her on the right.
“It’s a long conversation I see, a long debate,” she said.
She turned to the the specialists flanking her on the left.
“Wanna say 51? Give it a try?” she begged.
She turned to Sotheby’s Asia chairman Patti Wong.
“Should I bring the hammer down, Patti?” she said.
Finally, after some time without a single bid, Newman smacked the wood and it went to Shaw’s bidder at a $50 million hammer.
(Wong’s inability to get a client to bid was indicative of a larger lack of Asian buying, it seemed; Sotheby’s wouldn’t comment on the nationality of the Munch buyer, but Newman insisted that the buyers and bidders were “global,” coming from Russia, Asia, and Europe.)
The sale continued, with it neither gaining excitement nor completely derailing. A Picasso sculpture, Tete De Femme (1951), saw Alan Hobart, a dealer at the London–based Pyms gallery, beat out Shaw’s bidder while talking on a cellphone, nabbing the work at a $7.3 million hammer, or $8.45 million with fees.
“I viewed it, I vetted it, I bought it,” Hobart said after the sale. He said that the work was “extremely rare,” and would be included in the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s sculptural works.
A Picasso painting, Le Peintre et son modèle (1963), was another one of the night’s highlights: it was the only other eight-figure lot of the night (along with the Munch), and it sold for $12.9 million, just over its low estimate of $12 million.
While the house did move the three lots that carried a third-party guarantee—the Munch; Le Peintre et son modèle; and van Gogh’s Nature morte: vase aux glaïeuls (1886), which sold for above its low estimate of $5 million at $5.86 million—there were eight lots that were passes, including one that must have particularly stung: Matisse’s Femme en bleu à table (1923), which was supposed to sell for $5 million to $7 million, found no love whatsoever.
Compared against the same sale last year, which brought in $306.7 million with just a few more lots (the market was already contracting then), tonight’s event was down an astounding 48 percent, and some said political events may have been a factor.
“It’s predictable the way things are going, but yeah, we’re suffering—there’s the elections in Europe, and then the election here, and we’re suffering, ” Hobart said when I asked if last week’s result would affect the market.
Rastorfer, for his part, said that he thinks at least his primary business—that would be Impressionist and modern—will actually be fine in the wake of the election. The emerging market, not so much.
“I think we’re going to see a refocusing of the Imp-mod market, and a reduction in the younger contemporary market,” he told me. “From our standpoint, that’s a very good thing.”
We’ll see how the contemporary market is doing, when the New York sales continue tomorrow with the postwar and contemporary art evening sale at Christie’s.