LONDON—Sotheby’s opened the series on Feb. 8 with a 42-lot sale that garnered £68.8 million ($111 million) against an estimate of £55 million/74 million. The sale felt sluggish at times as ten lots, or 24 percent, went unsold, including a painting by Alberto Giacometti estimated at £3 million/5 million. Thirteen other lots sold at or below their low estimates. This latter group included Marino Marini’s large painted bronze, Idea for the Rider, 1955, which was estimated at £3.7 million/4.5 million and given a guarantee and an irrevocable bid, all in line with the record- breaking £4.5 million ($7.2 million) Marini at Christie’s last October (ANL, 11/2/10) . In the end, it appeared the irrevocable—and only—bid won the sculpture through New York’s department cochair, David Norman, for £4.18 million ($6.74 million) including the premium. Another top lot, Claude Monet’s early Impressionist painting, Argenteuil, fin d’après-midi, 1872, sold below its £3.5 million/4.5 million estimate, for £3.4 million ($5.5 million). The painting had been acquired at Christie’s New York in November 1990 for $3.5 million (£1.8 million).
But by then, the sale had already been redeemed by Pablo Picasso’s La Lecture, 1932, one of the sought-after series of portraits of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, which carried an estimate of £12 million/18 million. Offered but unsold by Christie’s in New York in May 1996 with a $6 million/8 million estimate, this smallish painting on board is strikingly colored, and saw numerous bidders take it beyond the estimate to £25.2 million ($40.7 million). The buyer was Sotheby’s chairman of Russia, Mark Poltimore, who bids for Russian clients and had just secured a sensuous nude ink drawing by Henri Matisse for £735,650 ($1.2 million), against an estimate of £400,000/600,000, using the same paddle number.
Other Picasso buyers at the sale included New York dealer William Acquavella, who snagged The Painter and His Model in a Landscape, 1963, for £2 million ($3.2 million), against an estimate of £600,000/800,000, after a tough bidding battle with New York’s David Nahmad, whose family collection includes other examples from this Picasso series, and London dealer James Roundell, who outbid Ezra Nahmad to buy a 1943 still life, Compotier et verres, for £800,850 ($1.3 million), against an estimate of £600,000/800,000.
Among the top sellers was German artist Lyonel Feininger’s eye-catching semicubistic Side-Wheel Steamer at the Landing, 1912, which doubled estimates to sell for £3.2 million ($5.2 million) compared with an estimate of £1 million/1.2 million, though the estimate, coming from the estate of a deceased owner, might have been considered quite tame.
Other good, if not spectacular results for German artists were Lovis Corinth’s Chrysanthemums and Roses, 1912, which sold to the same buyer who bought the Feininger, for £632,250 ($1 million) on an estimate of £380,000/450,000, and Max Liebermann’s Impressionistic Beer Garden near the Havel under Trees, 1922, which sold for £881,250 ($1.4 million) compared with an estimate of £550,000/750,000. Both prices were double the amounts paid at auction five years previously.
Record prices were scarce, though a 1952 Giorgio Morandi still life did fetch a record (in pounds) of £1.38 million ($2.23 million), on an estimate of £800,000/1.2 million, and a record for a work on paper by René Magritte was set when the gouache Le Maître d’école, 1955, sold for £2.5 million ($4 million), compared with an estimate of £800,000/1.2 million, after two phone bidders left seasoned Paris dealer Daniel Malingue trailing in their wake. The sale was the first of several remarkable prices for Surrealist artists that week.
With few successful bidders in the room, those who were present stood out. In addition to the ones mentioned above, London dealer Simon Theobald claimed Fernand Léger’s purist gouache Composition, 1926, for £265,250 ($427,872) on an estimate of £150,000/250,000, as well as Paul Klee’s geometric oil on cloth P Fourteen, 1931, for £825,250 ($1.3 million), compared with an estimate of £700,000/1 million. And, after an evening of underbidding Picassos and Morandi, David Nahmad secured Yves Tanguy’s small oil Lumen, 1949, for £469,250 ($756,426), against an estimate of £350,000/450,000. Asked whether he thought this was now a good time to sell, Nahmad gave a guarded response, cautioning that you have to measure the price of art against the declining value of money.
In an interesting comparison, Sotheby’s £21.5 million ($34.5 million) day sale realized a better unsold rate of 20 per cent for the 266 lots offered than the select evening sale. Each of the top three lots made over $1 million, which was more than the lowest eight lots the evening before. The top lot, Juan Gris’s La Mandoline noire, 1926, fetched £926,050 ($1.5 million), compared with an estimate of £350,000/450,000, which was the highest price Sotheby’s had ever taken in an Impressionist day sale in London. Second highest was the cover lot, the Pointillist Saint-Tropez, 1892, by Maximilien Luce, which sold to London dealer Richard Green for £881,250 ($1.4 million), compared with an estimate of £500,000/700,000.