NEW YORK—At Sotheby’s $238.7 million evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 7, the top lot was Nature morte aux fruits et pot de gingembre, circa 1895, by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906), which fetched $36.97 million (estimate: $28/35 million) after a tug-of-war between two young women taking bids via cellphone in the auction room and a phone bidder with David Norman, Sotheby’s head of Impressionist and modern art. In the end Norman’s phone bidder won out when the painting was hammered down at $33 million.
The Cézanne oil-on-canvas still life was consigned by dealer William Acquavella, who had acquired it at Christie’s London six years before for $18.1 million. Acquavella had secured an undisclosed guarantee from Sotheby’s, a minimum price promised to the seller regardless of the final price at auction.
The second-highest price was $31.1 million, given for the oil-on-canvas Le fils du concierge, 1918, by Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920), a portrait of a seated boy that served as the catalogue’s cover lot.
Modigliani Portrait Sparks Bidding War
The painting, which had made $5.8 million at a Christie’s auction in 1997, was pursued by a handful of buyers. But after bidding hit $20 million, the figure continued to rise, with just two bidders staying in the competition—Swiss dealer Doris Ammann on a cellphone in the room and a bidder on the phone.
The final price paid by Ammann generously surpassed the $18 million high estimate and was just below the Modigliani auction record of $31.4 million set at Sotheby’s two years ago.
New York dealer David Nash expressed surprise at the strength of bidding for the portrait, especially when compared with the $15.9 million paid the following night at Christie’s for a Modigliani nude—a subject, he told ARTnewsletter, that typically is more “salable and desirable.”
Sotheby’s Norman also addressed this issue after the sale, noting “the incredible duel we saw for the spectacular male portrait by Modigliani. Despite the fact that it wasn’t a female or a nude, collectors responded because it exemplified quality.”
Another Modigliani portrait at Sotheby’s, Paul Guillaume, 1916 (estimate: $5/7 million), fell below expectations for $4.8 million to the Nahmad family of art dealers.
The painting had been at auction twice in the last ten years; the last price was just a notch above the $4.6 million realized for the same work at a Sotheby’s sale in 2000. In 1996 it sold at Christie’s for $3.1 million (hammer) to hotel and casino mogul Stephen A. Wynn’s Bellagio Gallery of Fine Art, Las Vegas.
A bronze sculpture by Henri Matisse, Figure Decorative, 1908, cast in 1950, was Sotheby’s third-highest lot, despite an underestimate hammer price of $11.5 million ($12.9 million with premium) against presale expectations of $12/18 million. The work had been auctioned by Sotheby’s little more than four years before, in May 2002, when it made $8.3 million (ANL, 5/14/02, p. 3).
Of the 12 works by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), five were bought in. These accounted for more than half the evening’s unsold lots. One high-priced casualty was Le sauvetage, 1932 (estimate: $12/16 million), which was bought in when bidding climbed no higher than $10.75 million.
Another disappointment for the auction house was La Plage à Trouville, an 1870 oil by Claude Monet (1840-1926). The work drew few bids and was bought in at $15.2 million, below the $16.5 million low estimate. (Six years ago it sold for $16.6 million at Sotheby’s London.)
Of the lots “that didn’t fly that night,” Sotheby’s Norman told ARTnewsletter, “many quickly found homes” in immediate postsale transactions.
Of the Picassos that were sold, the top price was $10.7 million, for Le femeur, 1953, an oil on panel estimated at $9/12 million, given by a phone bidder. The same work had been sold at Christie’s in 1989, when it fetched $2.86 million.
The colorful oil-on-board Starnberger See (Lake Starnberg), 1908, by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), attracted several interested buyers, including one bidder in the room who jumped in at $7.2 million. The work eventually went to a phone bidder for $9.1 million (estimate: $6/8 million).
Atypical van Gogh Brings $8.9M
Bidding for an 1886-87 oil painting by Vincent van Gogh (1853-90)—A Pair of Shoes, depicting subject matter unusual for him—reached the low estimate of $8 million (hammer), selling for a final price of $8.97 million with premium to a phone bidder.
Among other top-selling lots: A 1958 sculpture by Alberto Giacometti (1901-66), Grande femme Assise (Annette Assise), fetched $4.3 million (estimate: $3/5 million); La partie de cartes, by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), rose above expectations to bring $8.5 million (estimate: $5/7 million); and Nature morte à la raie, by Chaim Soutine (1893-1943), went for $5.4 million (estimate: $5/7 million).
The sale “demonstrated the tremendous strength of the market across the range of Impressionist and modern art,” said Norman, adding that collectors are “willing to break through the traditional
The first lot of the sale, Rue Notre Dame, Paris, 1866, by Johan Barthold Jongkind (1819-1891), brought $721,600 (estimate: $250,000/350,000) from Richard Green, bidding for the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.