Auctions in New York this week have been relatively subdued, and while that trend did not break last night at the headquarters of Christie’s at Rockefeller Center, the Impressionist and modern sale held there did set new records for two cornerstones of modern art—Claude Monet and Wassily Kandinsky, whose high marks now stand at $81.4 million and $23.3 million, respectively. The auction netted $246.3 million, with 39 of the 48 works finding buyers, for a solid sell-through rate of 81 percent by lot.
The top lot of the evening, and the week thus far, was the record-shattering Monet, Meule (1891), a roughly 28-by-36-inch painting of a grainstack—all purples, pinks, blues, and reds—against a blazing horizon. Christie’s told press that the work’s estimate, available on request, was in the region of $45 million, but it easily surpassed that, going for $81.4 million after more than 10 minutes of bidding. (All prices include buyer’s premium.)
The Monet had last appeared at auction at Sotheby’s New York in May 1999, where it sold for $11.8 million—quite an increase in value, even when figuring for inflation and ownership costs. (The seller tonight picked it up in 2002 from the winning bidder at that sale.)
The record-breaking Kandinsky was less of a surprise. Painted late in the artist’s career, in 1935, the piece, titled Rigide et courbé, had been estimated to make between $18 million and $25 million, putting its $23.3 million finish squarely in the expected range. Seeing it was a rare experience: the work had not been included in a museum exhibition since 1949, and had been held by the same family since acquiring it at Sotheby’s in London in 1964, back when Lyndon B. Johnson was president.
Looking across the top 10 lots of the evening, the majority finished squarely within their estimates, suggesting that specialists had correctly gauged the state of the market, and carefully managed sellers’ expectations. One piece from those 10 sold for under its estimate, a Cézanne still life that went for $6.97 million against an $8 million low estimate, and three works leapt over their high estimates, the Monet (and in what a fashion!), a Léger that made made $6.97 million against a $6 million high estimate, and a late-career Miró sculpture that handily beat its $5 million high estimate, also selling for $6.97 million.
The evening featured a few major passes. A modestly sized Picasso Dora Maar from 1943, estimated to sell for between $9 million and $12 million, failed to find a buyer. Ditto for a Cézanne landscape, painted by the maestro between 1879 and 1980, which had been expected to make in the zone of $10 million to $15 million on the block. Another Picasso, larger and later, did find a buyer, though: Homme à la pipe (1969), which sold for a within-estimate $18.4 million. Its high estimate had been $20 million. The work had last appeared at auction in November 2007, at Sotheby’s New York, where it made $11.8 million.
The week’s evening sales conclude Thursday with a contemporary auction at Sotheby’s in New York.