NEW YORK—The star of Sotheby’s sale of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 2 was Nu assise sur un divan (La Belle Romaine), 1917, an oil on canvas by Amedeo Modigliani from what experts consider the artist’s most important series of nudes. Bidding on the large painting, given an unpublished estimate in excess of $40 million, opened near $37 million and escalated steadily as five Sotheby’s specialists vied for the work on behalf of clients on the phone. The hammer eventually came down at $61.5 million, for a price of $69 million with premium, a new record for a work by Modigliani. The price surpassed the $52.6 million record for a sculpture or any work by the artist, and shattered the previous record for a painting of $31.4 million. The painting had last been sold at Sotheby’s in New York in November 1999, when it was sold by a private Asian collection for $16.8 million.
In all, the evening sale achieved a total of $227.6 million, falling within the overall estimate of $195 million/266 million. Following the auction, Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of Impressionist and modern art in New York, noted that four works sold at prices above $15 million each, compared with only two last May. Indeed, buyers showed a high degree of selectivity, with the top lots drawing intense, often protracted bidding, while other lots were passed over with little or no bidding. The sell-through rate at the auction was 75 percent, with 46 of the 61 lots finding buyers. The sold-by-value rate was higher, at 87 percent, reflecting the higher-than-expected prices for many of the sale’s top lots. Shaw, who said the sale produced “multiple bids from every major corner of the world,” noted increased bidding from both Russian and Asian buyers.
The second-highest price of the evening was for Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, 1917–19, a Claude Monet water lily painting, which carried an estimate of $20 million/30 million and was pursued by several phone bidders before selling for $24.7 million. The work had previously been sold at Sotheby’s auction of the Reader’s Digest Collection in November 1998, when it fetched a price of $9.9 million.
The Monet was one of two works sold to benefit Miami-based YoungArts—the core program of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts—which together brought a total of $43.8 million. The other was a Modigliani portrait, Jeanne Hébuterne (au chapeau), 1917, which was estimated at $9 million/12 million and sold for $19.1 million. The same painting had fetched $3.5 million at a Sotheby’s sale in May 1996.
Another painting that sparked prolonged bidding from at least four phone bidders was Danseuse dans le fauteuil, sol en damier, 1942, a portrait of a reclining woman by Henri Matisse, on the auction block for the third time in the past decade. The work had been sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2000 for $4.95 million, and again in 2007 for $11 million. This time, it carried an estimate of $12 million/18 million and sold for $20.8 million to a buyer on the telephone with Sotheby’s U.K. chairman Mark Poltimore. Earlier in the sale, Matisse’s bronze sculpture Deux négresses, conceived in 1907, completed in Paris in 1908 and cast ca. 1930, sold for $8.5 million, just clearing the low end of the $8 million/10 million estimate. In 2001, the same work had sold for $7.6 million at Christie’s.
The sale featured five works by Pablo Picasso, four of which found buyers. The top price for a work by the artist at this sale was $5.4 million, paid for the oil on canvas Homme au fanion, 1969, falling within the estimate of $5 million/7 million, on measured bidding. Homme et femme, 1921, a charcoal and pastel on paper featuring a “stylistic hybrid” of the artist’s Cubist esthetic and his later interest in the classical figure, according to Sotheby’s catalogue, also drew modest bidding, selling for $5.3 million on a $5 million/7 million estimate. A later Picasso painting, Homme et femme au bouquet, 1970, failed to sell after bidding stalled out around $5 million (estimate: $6 million/8 million).
Three bronzes by Henry Moore, a maquette estimated at $600,000/800,000 and two working models estimated at $1.2 million/1.8 million and $2 million/3 million, attracted almost no bids and were bought in.
Results were also mixed for several bronze sculptures by Rembrandt Bugatti consigned from the collection of S. Joel Schur. Of four works on offer, a sculpture of an elk, conceived ca. 1913–14 and cast between 1913 and 1922 (estimate: $750,000/1 million), and another of a nude woman lifting a cat, conceived ca. 1906 and cast in 1908 (estimate: $1.2 million/1.8 million), each sold for $1.2 million. A sculpture of an elephant, conceived circa 1909–10 and cast between 1909 and 1925 (estimate: $900,000/1.2 million), sold for $1.1 million, while a sculpture of a tiger, conceived and cast in 1907, failed to sell against an estimate of $1.2 million/1.8 million.
Sotheby’s Russian-art specialist Sonya Bekkerman won Marc Chagall’s Jour de fête (Le Rabbin au citron), ca. 1924, for a phone buyer, against competition from another bidder on the phone, for a hammer price of $3 million ($3.4 million with premium), against an estimate of $3 million/5 million.
Among the buyers in the room was Martin Zimet, chairman of French & Company, New York, who acquired a lifetime cast of Aristide Maillol’s bronze Torse de l’action enchainée, conceived in 1905, for $2.99 million, roughly quadruple the $500,000/700,000 estimate. The work was consigned from the estate of philanthropist Clarence Day.