Christie’s follow-up to its new 21st century art sale, which brought in $211 million on Tuesday, was a slightly weightier 20th century art auction with 50 lots and a pre-sale estimate in excess of $345 million. Covering works made between 1880 and 1980, the auction made a grand total of $481.1 million, with just one lot unsold. (Prices for sold works include buyer’s premium; estimates do not.)
This week’s marquee sales were bound to be a close call between Christies’s and Sotheby’s. Before they were held, the former’s two sales were expected to bring in $490 million, while the latter’s three-auction marathon the previous evening was estimated at $436 million. But last night’s auction made Christies’s new formula look like a winner. Nine works carried estimates higher than $10 million, so the sale was seen as a test of confidence at the high end of the market.
Carrying the highest estimate of the week—and a third-party guarantee—was Pablo Picasso’s 1932 portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter seated in profile by a window. The painting was last seen at a Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017, where the lender was named as the Earth, Light Foundation in Vaduz, Switzerland. The seller of the work purchased it at Sotheby’s in 2013 for $45 million with premium, against an estimate of $25 million. The elusive owner made a modest gain, having accepted a guarantee and an estimate nearing $55 million.
On Thursday night, bidding started at $55 million for the Picasso, with four bidders from London and New York sparring for the work for 20 minutes. It was eventually won by a bidder on the phone with Vanessa Fusco, Christie’s head of Impressionist and modern art in New York, for a final price of $103.4 million. Typically, a big sale such as this one generates a sense of relief and optimism, but because this auction was held digitally, that wasn’t the case here.
Another Picasso, a guaranteed 1941 portrait of Dora Maar, was among the more highly priced lots, with a $15 million–$20 million estimate. The painting belonged to the Nahmad family of art dealers, who bought it in 1984 for $390,000 (without premium) and showed it in their Picasso exhibition in London in 1988. This time, it went to a Hong Kong bidder below the low estimate for $17.1 million with premium, after a short contest.
Close behind was Mark Rothko’s 68-inch-high untitled indigo and dark green abstraction from 1970. It had previously been in the prestigious Paul and Bunny Mellon collection. Included in Bunny’s estate sale in 2014 with a $15 million low estimate, it had been pursued by dealer David Nahmad and advisor Nancy Whyte before selling above estimate for $39.9 million with premium. The buyer was whispered to have been venture capitalist Sassan Ghandehari and his wife Yasmin, who are based in London. With a $40 million estimate and a guarantee, it sold below estimate for $38 million.
The star Impressionist lot was an atmospheric 1903 painting of Waterloo Bridge in the mist by Claude Monet that carried an estimate of $35 million. Sold to a Japanese buyer in the early 1980s by Joseph Nahmad, it went unsold in 1985 at Sotheby’s in London. In May 1999, following the popularity of a Museum of Fine Arts Boston exhibition about Monet, it was one of six works by the Impressionist that appeared on Sotheby’s rostrum in one sale. There, one mysterious telephone bidder went on a spending spree and picked up Waterloo Bridge for an above-estimate $9.35 million. At Thursday’s Christie’s sale, two of the most active under-bidders were on the phone with the house’s Hong Kong branch. The work sailed past its $40 million estimate as four bidders from London and New York took it to $48.5 million, courtesy of a winning bid from Maria Los, of the New York chairman’s office.
The Post-Impressionist lead part was taken by Vincent van Gogh’s Le Pont de Trinquetaille (1888), which came from Israeli collector Joseph Hackmey, who had disposed of other works in Sotheby’s London March auction. Hackmey bought this painting in 2004 for $11.2 million, and was selling with it with a $25 million–$35 million estimate on Thursday. Backed by yet another third-party guarantee, it brought $37.4 million from a commission bid.
Collector Aaron Fraenkel, who also sold a Picasso in March, parted ways with a Fernand Léger still life from 1938 in the Christie’s sale. In 2014, Fraenkel bought it at auction for $2.2 million at auction via a European dealer. It sold for $4.35 million, nearly double its $2.5 million estimate.
Carrying the flag for modernists was a 1927 Piet Mondrian abstraction. Titled Composition: No. II, With Yellow, Red and Blue, it found its way to Japan in the 1980s and got caught up in the bad debt story when it was sold by Citibank in 1993 for a low estimate $882,500. The work sold below estimate for $26.1 million, most likely to the third-party guarantor.
Work by Pop artists did not fare well. Roy Lichtenstein’s guaranteed Interior, Perfect Pitcher (1994), estimated at $20 million–$30 million, sold for $21.5 million. Andy Warhol’s Two Marilyns (Double Marilyn), 1962, which was guaranteed entirely by Christie’s, also sold below estimate, going for $15.8 million. That painting was owned by Italian cosmetics giant Dario Ferrari, who had better luck with a large alphabet embroidery by Alighiero e Boetti, which sold above estimate for a record-setting $4.6 million.
Christie’s peppered the sale with trailblazing women artists whose markets are still rising. A new record was set for Grace Hartigan, normally the preserve of the American art sales, whose top price of $435,000 was set in 2018. Her sizable and colorful abstraction The Phoenix (1962) had been given a $400,000–$600,000 estimate and was expected to exceed that. It drew three bidders, including one from Hong Kong, before setting a new record of $687,500.
With a Willem de Kooning neatly placed next door (which sold for a double-estimate $10.4 million), the sale picked up momentum with a roughly five-foot square untitled abstraction from 1962 by Lee Krasner. It had been bought in 2005 for $960,000. Krasner’s market has grown immensely since then—a much larger painting by her sold for over $11.7 million in 2019—and that may have made it possible to boost the price of this abstraction. With a low estimate of $5 million, it sold for $7.2 million.
The Krasner was followed by an Alice Neel painting of her doctor’s waiting room, which carried an estimate of at $600,000–$800,000. Neel, who is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has seen significant demand increase in the last decade. Jeremy Lewison, the former head of collections at Tate, advised her estate from 2003 to 2020, brokering a deal with London’s Victoria Miro gallery that placed her in the same stable as leading living artists like Peter Doig and Chris Ofili, as well as representation with David Zwirner in New York. Christie’s 1966 painting, which has been in the doctor’s family collection all along, carried one of the highest estimates yet for Neel, at $600,000–800,000. It attracted multiple bids, including one from Hong Kong, before selling for a record-setting $3 million.
The sale then crossed the pond for Barbara Hepworth’s large 94-inch bronze sculpture Parent 11 (1970), from her late series of works known as “The Family of Man.” Estimated at $2.5 million, Parent 11 doubled the estimate and generated a new record by a whisker, selling for $7.11 million and surpassing the previous $7.08 million record, paid in 2014 for a large bronze sculpture.
The top estimate among the women artists, though, was for a 1970s diptych by Joan Mitchell that measures seven feet wide. Titled Rain (1989), it carried a $10 million-15 million estimate. Christie’s had sold a slightly larger diptych from the Laurence Fertita collection in 2020, for a mid-estimate $14.5 million (not far off the May 2018 record of $16.6 million), to a Hong Kong bidder, signaling that Asian interest may be driving the market after the Mitchell boom appeared to have plateaued. But that passion is still alive, and without any assistance from Asia this time, the painting sold within estimate for $12.4 million.
For those interested in how the sale was split (using Christie’s old categories), Impressionist and modern art made up less than half the lots but contributed more than half to the proceeds. Among the Impressionist star performers were a pair of sparkling, fresh-to-market Seurat oil studies that had been in the Robert Treat Paine family collection for nearly 100 years. One, made for his famous painting A Sunday on La Grande Jatte (1884), sold for an over-estimate $13.2 million.