Tonight Christie’s hosted a strong Impressionist and modern sale in New York that brought in $202 million, adding to the $1.7 billion it has totaled at various auctions during this record-setting week for the house. The sale featured works from the collection of the late John C. Whitehead, the former Goldman Sachs chairman and deputy secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, which collectively accounted for $58.4 million of the night’s haul. Ninety-three percent of the lots found buyers.
The sale’s star lot, Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black (1929) by Piet Mondrian, accounted for nearly a quarter of the total sum. The geometric canvas attracted heated bidding that began at $10 million and quickly shot up as several Christie’s specialists fired off bids while speaking with clients by telephone and a couple of in-house paddles waved the price higher and higher.
Brett Gorvy, head of contemporary art at Christie’s, entered the fray at $32 million dollars. By $36.5 million, the battle was between him and adviser Amy Cappellazzo, the former Christie’s macher, who was seated in the fourth row with a client on the phone. They fired back and forth, inching the price up by million and half-million increments. “Thank you for your patience,” auctioneer Andreas Rumbler told the room as Cappellazzo’s client deliberated deep in the volley. Her client came through, and the piece sold after 10 long minutes for $45 million, $50.6 million with buyer’s premium. The last time the piece came on the block, exactly 18 years ago to the day at the same house, it sold for $3.8 million. The sale set a new record for the Dutch artist, previously $27.6 million, which was set at Christie’s Paris in 2009.
As the next lot took off, Gorvy blew a congratulatory kiss to Cappellazzo from his desk.
Love was in the air. Kim Heirston, the elegant six-foot-tall art advisor, planted a peck on her husband’s cheek “in honor of Brancusi,” she said, as they left the sale room in triumph. She had just scored the sculptor’s plaster head, La Muse Endormie I (1912), for a client with a winning bid of $8 million, the low-end estimate for the piece.
“I’m over the moon,” Heirston said. “I’m so excited because it’s such a masterpiece really. It’s been in the Armory show and that’s amazing.” The work was the evening’s fourth-highest estimated lot and ultimately the seventh most expensive.
The two Monet paintings faired poorly compared to their counterparts at the Sotheby’s Impressionist-modern sale last week, the cream of which pulled in $54 million. Les meules à Giverny hammered for slightly above its low-end estimate, at $14.5 million ($16.4 million), while Paysage de matin, a work from the Whitehead collection, attracted meager bids in creeping increments as small as $50,000 before hammering for well beneath its low-end estimate of $6 million, at just $3.9 million ($4.53 million with premium). The buyer was represented over the phone by Ksenia Apukhtina, a Christie’s senior client advisor based in London.
“The Monet market’s been unbelievably strong, which brings out the quality, but also encourages high estimations,” said Brooke Lampley, head of Impressionist and modern art, after the sale. She noted that the second work lacked the signature haystacks of the more successful piece. “The work from Whitehead doesn’t have some of the qualities that people typically look for in benchmarking the price of a Monet in the sense that it did not have a trademark subject matter. People are very attached to the subject matter as a price point for the artist.” The last time the Whiteread painting was at auction, exactly 30 years ago today at Sotheby’s New York, it sold for $418,000.
The same client who bought Paysage de matin also purchased Amedeo Modigliani’s stunning portrait of the South African-raised bisexual writer Beatrice Hastings (a nom de plume) through Apukhtina, who bid against another Christie’s rep until the hammer fell at $14.2 million ($16.1 million with premium). The piece was the third-highest-priced lot, following a painting by Fernand Léger that fetched $17 million and the Mondrian.
The crowd thinned considerably around 6:30 p.m. when a mass exodus of audience members and journalists left, some likely headed to the contemporary art sale at Phillips. (Christie’s normally would have held its Imp-mod sale last week, but it moved it to avoid conflicting with the opening of the Venice Biennale.) But while the energy tapered, the waning competition apparently left room for some steals: the same phone bidder snapped up Pierre Bonnard’s Sous l’arbre for $785,000 (estimated between $1 million and $1.5 million) and Berthe Morisot’s Dans la véranda for $2.52 million (estimated between $2.5 million and $4.5 million).
At a press conference following the sale, Christie’s executives touted their week of successes, emphasizing the strength of the Impressionist and modern market. “This is the highest sale total for any series of Impressionist and modern sales in our history,” said Lampley. “This week, so far, we’ve sold close to $700 million and we will certainly break $700 million tomorrow.”
Forty-two percent of the lots sold above their high estimates, going to bidders from 34 countries.