On Tuesday, and amid most of the art world’s late spring break to the opening of the Venice Biennale, Sotheby’s kicked off New York’s auction season with a strong sale that saw impressive results for Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet but no artist’s records and few other highlights in a category where auction houses have struggled to find the same kind of impressive materials and booming results seen in the contemporary market.
All told the sale totaled an impressive $368.3 million, placing it at the higher end of a pre-sale estimate of $257 million to $351 million (those estimates calculated without buyer’s premiums, around 15 percent on average for the night). Of the 65 lots on offer, 15 failed to sell, for a below average sell-through rate of 76 percent.
The evening’s total sum was boosted by its top lot, Vincent Van Gogh’s rich Arles park scene L’Allée des Alyscamps (1888), which after some seven minutes of bidding between five potential buyers, sold for $66.3 million to a middle-aged Asian gentleman in the room in rim-less glasses and a leather jacket with a built-in hood. (Sotheby’s declined to let anyone speak to him, or reveal his name or country of origin.) The total approaches Van Gogh’s record of $82.5 million, achieved at Christie’s in 1990 for Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), which was purchased by the elderly businessman Ryoei Saito, who then terrified the world when he said he wanted to be cremated with it.
At the press conference after the show, Sotheby’s Co-Chairman for Impressionist and Modern Art Worldwide David Norman noted that when he came to the house in the 1980s “the most valuable Van Goghs were the blue and rose periods,” and noted that this very painting had in fact sold for just $2.4 million at Christie’s in 1985. Now the world has come to recognize the value of works like L’Allée, he said.
Five works by Claude Monet fared well and accounted for $115.4 million of the evening’s total, led by the second highest achieving lot of the evening, a Nymphéas from 1905 that carried a guarantee and an irrevocable bid that sold to an “American private” collector on the phone for $54 million, after seven long minutes of bidding dominated by just two Sotheby’s phone bidders.
(The evening’s auctioneer Henry Wyndham was patient all night, and even generously brought back a Monet that had failed to sell at lot 49 around lot 64, when the room was nearly empty. It sold to a single phone bidder for $6.4 million.)
The majority of the excitement in the room wasn’t even in the room but above it, in a sky box, where Leonardo DiCaprio could be seen enthusiastically bidding on an early lot with a blonde—The Chagall? The Giacometti? The Miró? What are blondes into these days?—and then making out with her. Some new white privacy screens installed in the booths’ windows did nothing to prevent his identification; who else wears a newsboy’s cap with a ponytail? (Plus a source of ours saw him in the hallway asking for a cheese knife.)
And even if most people are in Venice the sale managed to draw at least one other big name: Tad Smith, Sotheby’s new CEO and president, who after the sale could be overheard telling the buyer of L’Allée something cryptic to the effect of “Geneva might be coming up short these days,” but declined to give a comment on the auction (“No, no, ask [Sotheby’s spokeswoman] Lauren [Gioia].”)
Who could possibly want to be in Venice right now?
“Venice is for newer, more cutting-edge contemporary stuff,” said dealer Ezra Chowaiki outside the sale room, “This is for older—”
“The better stuff,” interjected collector John Bloomberg, who had just purchased Été à Moret by Alfred Sisley for $3.8 million.
“Sisleys are the new Monets,” he added.
At the press conference the other head of the Impressionist and Modern department Simon Shaw said he thought the sale proved the same thing, that the market is “very vibrant for great examples of Impressionist and Modern art, and compelling.”
The New York spring sales continue next week with a contemporary sale at Christie’s on Monday.
Additional reporting by Zoë Lescaze.