A buoyant sale of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s New York on Tuesday night earned $415.8 million on 33 lots, erasing the glum feeling left by Monday’s night’s uneven auction at Sotheby’s that gave the impression that the market was retreating.
The night’s tally, including fees, was at the high end of presale expectations, which were pegged at $326.6 million to $459.6 million, calculated without premiums. The hammer result was a healthy $362.2 million. Impressively, only four of the 37 lots offered by Christie’s failed to sell, for a slender buy-in rate by lot of 11 percent.
Tonight’s take hurdled, by close to 50 percent, the $289.1 million that Christie’s tallied last May over 43 lots, with Constantin Brancusi’s La muse endormie (circa 1909–10) fetching a then-record $57.3 million.
Thirty-one of the 33 lots that sold this round made over one million dollars and of those, six exceeded $15 million. Two artist records were set, including for Kazimir Malevich, whose rare and powerful 1916 Suprematist Composition shattered the previous mark by a hefty $13.7 million, going for $85.8 million.
Seven of the lots, including a Brancusi that provided the other new record (breaking the one set last year), carried third-party guarantees, whereby backers receive a negotiated financial fee for their presale investment.
(Unless noted, all reported prices include the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the hammer up to and including $250,000, 20 percent on everything from $250,001 up to and including $4 million, and 12.5 percent for anything aobve that number.)
Prospects for success were made more challenging with a few presale casualties, including Pablo Picasso’s jaunty self-portrait, Le Marin (1943), featuring the artist seated in a striped sailor’s shirt, which was withdrawn after being damaged during the weekend viewing at Christie’s Rockefeller Center headquarters. It carried an estimate on request in the region of $70 million and was reported by Bloomberg to be the property of embattled casino magnate Steve Wynn.
Another high-value Wynn property, Picasso’s Femme au Chat Assise Dans un Fauteuil (1964), estimated at $22 million to $28 million, was also withdrawn for unspecified reasons. Both had been backed by third-party guarantees.
That said, and despite a dramatic late-afternoon thunderstorm, the sale performed splendidly from the first lot, the bravura Pablo Picasso colored wax crayon over pencil drawing from a spiral-bound sketchbook, Deux nus (1962). Part of a deluxe cache from the Joan and Preston Robert Tisch collection, it sold to a telephone bidder for $3.37 million against an estimate of $700,000 to $1 million.
Other Tisch kit ranged from Alberto Giacometti’s stripped-down oil painting of his brother Diego in a medley of somber grayish strokes, Homme assis (circa 1950), which sold to London dealer Thomas Gibson for $3.61 million (est. $3 million–$5 million), to Pablo Picassso’s crowded L’Atelier, from October 1955, of the artist’s fabulous, palm tree-lined villa La Californie in Cannes, which was chased by four bidders to $9.54 million (est. $6 million–$9 million).
“This was a great bargain,” Gibson enthused as he exited the salesroom, “and I’m thrilled.”
The Tisch lots continued with a lifetime cast of Alberto Giacometti’s iconic, 13 7/8-inch-tall bronze Buste d’homme (Diego au blouson), circa 1953, which sold for $9.09 million (est. $6 million–$9 million) and the widely exhibited and large-scaled 1945 Joan Miró Femme entendant de la musique, animated with the artist’s evocative imagery, which sold to another telephone bidder for $21.7 million (est. $10 million–$15 million).
The Giacometti painting of Diego last sold at Christie’s New York in May 1995 for $772,500 and the Miró last sold at auction at Christie’s New York in November 1990 for $3.85 million.
The Tisch property brought $83.1 million and also included another Giacometti bronze, the multi-stick-figured La Clairiere, from a lifetime cast realized between 1950 and 52, which attracted at least five bidders, selling to an anonymous telephone client for $15.8 million (est. $10 million–$15 million). Additional Tisch lots will be offered at Christie’s postwar and contemporary sale on Thursday evening.
Among the other standout entries from various owners was Henri Matisse’s standing Odalisque, mains dans le dos (1923), of model Henriette Darricarrere outfitted in a low-slung gauze skirt encircled with gold embroidery, selling to another telephone bidder for $14.4 million (est. $15 million–$20 million). Still, that result was far short of the sale price for Peggy and David Rockefeller’s Odalisque couchee aux magnolias of the same year, which fetched an artist-record $80.7 million last Tuesday in the same salesroom.
Modernist works from the 1920s attracted strong interest, as evidenced by Fernand Léger’s classic, color-charged Le grand dejeuner (1921), featuring a trio of female nudes clustered around a small red table, which sold to a telephone bidder for $19.4 million (est. $15 million–$25 million). It was the sale’s cover lot and had carried no guarantee. A larger version from the same year is enthroned just a few blocks away from Christie’s, at the Museum of Modern Art.
A related Léger picture, Les trois femmes au bouquet, painted just a year later, in 1922, also sold to the telephone for $13 million (est. $12 million–$18 million).
That price paled next to the result for the rare and highly polished Brancusi bronze, La jeune fille sophistiquee (Portrait de Nancy Cunard), a unique 1932 cast that is mounted on the original artist-carved, cruciform-shaped marble base, sold to an anonymous telephone for a record $71 million (estimate on request in the region of $70 million). New York private dealer and former Sotheby’s rainmaker Tobias Meyer was the underbidder. It carried a third-party guarantee.
Another version of the Brancusi, in carved walnut, resides in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, and the sale’s example hails from the Stafford family, which acquired the sculpture directly from Brancusi in 1955. This is what you call fresh to market.
The work’s subject, Nancy Cunard, the British-born heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune, was a Parisian cultural fixture, made more famous by Man Ray’s 1926 black-and-white photographic portrait of her with bangles fashionably covering her slim arms. Cunard never posed for Brancusi and only discovered the sculptures years later, describing them as “exquisite things.”
The piece had been on extended loan to the Metropolitan Museum for 40 years.
The Brancusi was matched in rarity and quality by Malevich’s extraordinary and epoch-making abstraction Suprematist Composition (1916), which sold to New York dealer Brett Gorvy of Lévy Gorvy for a record $85.8 million (estimate on request in the region of $70 million). Buttonholed as he exited the salesroom, Gorvy declined comment.
The Malevich last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2008 for a record $60 million when the artist’s heirs offered the restituted picture to the market.
The painting, displaying a universe of boldly colored rectangles and a single blue square, was included in the Malevich retrospective at Tate Modern in 2014 and was last exhibited in New York at the Di Donna Galleries in its “Paths to the Absolute” exhibition in 2016.
There were surprisingly few offerings in the Impressionist field, perhaps a sign of the times, as top-class entries are rare to market and somewhat out of fashion, though Christie’s offered a widely exhibited Vincent van Gogh townscape with a rich patina, Vue de l’asile et de la Chapelle Saint-Paul de Mausole (Saint-Remy), from the autumn of 1889, and it sold on what appeared to be a single bid from the telephone for $39.7 million (est. $35 million–$55 million).
Working with just a single genuine bidder, auctioneer Adrien Meyer expertly guided the picture home, the mark of a cool-headed navigator.
The painting features the town’s tower and chapel, used in part as an asylum for the mentally ill, where van Gogh lived for just over a year, till May 1890.
The picture last sold at Christie’s London in February 2012 for the equivalent of $16 million and prior to that sale sold to actress Elizabeth Taylor’s father, Francis Taylor, at Sotheby’s London in April 1963 for £92,000, who bid on her behalf.
In between those two sales, a court battle over the ownership of the painting went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted Taylor possession of the painting in 2007, rejecting an appeal from descendants of Margarete Mauthner, a Jewish woman who said she was forced to sell the painting before fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939. The heirs had sought the return of the picture under the 1998 U.S. Holocaust Victims Redress Act, but the court ruled they had waited too long to file their suit.
Tremendous and surprising interest was evident in Edouard Manet’s stunning portrait, L’Italienne (1860), which sparked a drawn-out bidding battle that ended with New York dealer Andrew Fabricant of the Richard Gray Gallery snaring the prize at $11 million (est. $3 million–$5 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York back in October 1978 for $440,000.
“This is a beautiful painting of a relatively unattractive woman,” said Fabricant as he left the salesroom, “and seven people chased it. This was a real verismo Manet,” using an opera term to describe the Italian sitter, Agostina Segatori, who had a love affair with van Gogh. Fabricant also marveled at the difference between this evening’s sale and Sotheby’s on Monday. “It was like night and day,” he said.
That impression was shared by Guy Jennings, managing director of the London-based Fine Art Group, who noted, “There’s nothing wrong with the market if you’ve got the right material.”
The evening action turns to postwar and contemporary art at Sotheby’s on Wednesday.