NEW YORK—The spring auction season opened with a bang on May 4, when Christie’s held a $335.5million evening sale of Impressionist and modern art that broke the record for the most expensive painting ever sold at auction and included one of the highest-ever totals for a group of works from a single owner, the Collection of Mrs. Sidney F. Brody (the late Los Angeles philanthropist Frances Brody).
The star of the sale was Pablo Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 1932, from the Brody collection, a portrait of the artist’s lover Marie-Thérèse Walter. The painting, which Brody and her husband had purchased from New York dealer Paul Rosenberg in January 1951 for less than $20,000, soared to a final price of $106.5million with premium against an unpublished estimate of $70million/90million. The price was well above the previous record of $104.2million, paid for Picasso’s Rose Period Garçon à la pipe, 1905, at Sotheby’s in May 2004. Some observers say the newest auction record indicates a change in the taste of many buyers in recent years; previously most top collectors would not have considered buying later Picassos, let alone regarded them as masterpieces.
However, Christie’s head of Impressionist and modern art, Conor Jordan, told ARTnewsletter, “the best Marie-Thérèse pictures have long held a place in collectors’ hearts for their fusion of line, color and subject, a sort of baroque romanticism. These pictures have been making strong prices for many years.” Jordan points out that when Le miroir, 1932, was sold at auction in November 1989 it brought $25million, at the time the third- or fourth-highest price for Picasso. Furthermore, he noted, in the sale of the collection of Victor and Sally Ganz at Christie’s in New York in 1997, Le Rêve, 1932, sold for more than $48million, and Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Eva), 1913, a Cubist picture, sold for around $25million.
Picasso Portrait Sparks Bidding War
As Nude, Green Leaves and Bust opened, at $58million, seven bidders were vying for the work. Minutes later, auctioneer and Christie’s honorary chairman Christoper Burge took note of a bid of $82million coming from “a new place,” indicating that another bidder had joined the chase.
As the hammer price closed in on $90million, the competition narrowed down to two bidders, one on the phone with Christie’s president Marc Porter and the other on the phone with Nicholas Hall, head of Christie’s department of Old Master paintings. Bidding paused briefly near $89.5million, and Porter drew a laugh from the audience, saying “Just a second” while he spoke to his client. “Just a second?” Burge replied. “Sure.”
Minutes later, Hall’s client won the painting with a final bid of $95million. According to art-world experts, those who were in the running for the painting include Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and hedge fund manager Kenneth Griffin. Another well-known hedge fund manager, Steven A. Cohen of Greenwich, Conn.–based SAC Capital, was also said to have been among the handful of bidders. It was Cohen who, in a highly publicized incident in late 2006, had made a deal to buy Le Rêve from Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn for $135million. The deal was canceled, however, after Wynn accidentally put his elbow through the painting, making a three-inch tear in the canvas. Wynn later settled a lawsuit against his insurer, Lloyd’s of London, for a reported $40million, according to a source familiar with his claim (ANL, 4/17/07).
A few lots before, the same buyer who won Nude, Green Leaves and Bust had set another record, acquiring La Treille, 1953–54, an oil and sand on canvas by Georges Braque from the Brody collection. Estimated at $3million/5million, the work sold for $8.9million hammer on a last-minute final bid increase of $100,000, with the buyer again relaying bids over the phone through specialist Hall. With premium, the final sale price was $10.2million.
In all, the Brody collection, which made up the first 27 lots of the sale, took in $224.2million, surpassing the previous record for a single-owner sale of $206.5million, which was set by the Ganz collection at Christie’s in 1997. All 27 of the Brody lots were sold, though a ca. 1955 untitled standing mobile by Alexander Calder, which carried an estimate of $250,000/350,000, had been withdrawn, according to an announcement from Burge before the sale began.
Other top-selling works from the Brody collection that evening include Alberto Giacometti’s elongated bronze Grande tête mince, conceived in 1954 and cast in 1955. The work was estimated at $25million/35million; bidding opened at $18million and quickly rose to a final hammer price of $47.5 million from the room. With premium, the final price was $53.3million.
Another star offering from the Brody collection was Giacometti’s wiry green- and brown-patinated bronze sculpture Le Chat, conceived in 1951 and cast in 1955, which leaped past its $12million/18million estimate to sell for $20.8million ($18.5million hammer), to a buyer on the phone with Brett Gorvy, Christie’s cohead of Postwar and contemporary art.
Christie’s experts clearly recognized that the bidders were skeptical of the $20million/30million estimate placed on Henri Matisse’s painting Nu au coussin bleu, 1924. Bidding started at around $10million, and the competitors included the Nahmad family of dealers, who placed a bid around $11million. The work sold well below estimate to a buyer on the phone with Ken Yeh, Christie’s chairman, Asia, for a $13.2million hammer price ($15million with premium).
One of the major surprises at Christie’s was Les buveurs d’absinthe (Les Déclassés), 1881, an oil by Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850–1924) consigned from the collection of Raymond and Miriam Klein. Many observers said the painting, a depiction of dreary absinthe drinkers at a table under a faded wall painting of grapes and a “Vins de Bourgogne” sign, was more appropriate for a sale of 19th-century European art.
Bidding on the work, which was estimated at $400,000/600,000, opened at $280,000 and rose by leaps and bounds. Paul Gray, a director of Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago and New York, was one of the underbidders, dropping out before the bidding reached $1million. The painting eventually sold for a $2.6million hammer price to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Including premium, the final price was $3million, a record for the artist, far surpassing the previous auction record of $464,500, paid at Christie’s in New York in 1998.
Following the sale, Jordan said there was “demand across all price ranges,” and added that the auction was marked by “forceful bidding from new buyers on a very strong night. For really good works of art, the market is incredibly strong in depth.” The same day as the sale, the Dow Jones Industrial Average had plummeted more than 1,000 points before partially recovering for a loss for the day of 200 points, but the drastic fluctuation seemed to have no effect whatsoever on buyers at the sale.
Other works from the various-owner portion of the auction sold well, including La Main, conceived in 1947 and cast in 1948, a rare bronze sculpture of an outstretched arm by Giacometti, which sold for $25.8million against an estimate of $10million/15million.
Other Picasso paintings that featured among the top lots include Femme au chat assise dans un fauteuil, 1964, which exceeded its estimate of $10million/15million to sell for $18million to a buyer identified by Christie’s executives after the sale as Greek collector Dimitri Mavrommatis. Le peintre et son modèle, 1964, sold for $10.7million ($9.5million hammer) to a phone bidder, with premium just making the low end of its $10million/14million estimate.
Of the 69 lots offered in the evening sale, a total of 56, or 81 percent, found buyers. By value, the auction was 86 percent sold, within the overall estimate of $262.8 million/368.3 million.
Christie’s day sales of Impressionist and modern art and works on paper on May 5 realized a total of $24.5million for 279 lots offered, of which 233, or 84 percent, were sold. The top lot was Reifendes Wachstum, 1921, a watercolor and collage by Paul Klee. The work, which was featured on the cover of the catalogue, brought in $1.1million against a $700,000/900,000 estimate. An additional 52 items from the Brody collection were included in the day session. All but one were sold, bringing the overall total for the Brody collection to $225.9million.