NEW YORK—Christie’s opened the spring season with a short but powerful evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on May 1 that realized $117 million for 31 lots offered. Of these, just three were bought in, for a sold-by-lot rate of 90 percent, and a sold-by-value rate of 96 percent. The presale estimate was $90.5 million/130 million, accounting for a withdrawn lot, an Alberto Giacometti bust that had been estimated at $8 million/12 million.
The sale featured numerous fresh-to-the-market works from major private collections, including that of Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen Jr., the grandson of legendary collectors H.O. and Louisine Havemeyer, who bought the works directly from the artists.
The star of the sale was a Paul Cézanne watercolor on laid paper, Joueur de cartes, 1892–96, a study for one of the artist’s most famous works titled The Card Players. Of the seven known drawings and watercolors that Cézanne executed as studies for the painting, three are in private collections. This work on paper had been assumed lost by experts, but it was in the Texas collection of Heinz Eichenwald since 1935 and passed by descent to the owner, who consigned it. It sold for $19.1 million with premium, compared with an estimate of $15 million/20 million.
Despite its rarity and sterling provenance, bidding was cautious at best, as even connoisseurs may have had reservations about paying an eight-figure price for a watercolor, some observers said. Auctioneer and Christie’s Europe president, Jussi Pylkkänen, who made his debut heading a US evening sale, opened the bidding at $11.5 million, after which the work drew a handful of bids, and moved up in measured increments before being hammered down at $17 million to a buyer in the room.
Bidding was far more lively for the other top lots in the sale, such as Henri Matisse’s floral still life Les Pivoines, 1907, which sold on a phone bid through a Christie’s representative to a European collector, for the same premium-inclusive price of $19.1 million, against a lower presale estimate of $8 million/12 million.
Also the target of competitive bidding was Pablo Picasso’s small, but boldly painted Le Repos (Marie-Thérèse Walter), 1932, which depicts the artist’s mistress with eyes closed and her head resting on her arm. It was sold for $9 million to a buyer bidding through Impressionist department head Brooke Lampley. The painting had last been offered for sale at Christie’s in November 2002, when it sold for $3.1 million on an estimate of $2.5 million/3.5 million.
The tightly edited evening sale was a marked contrast to last November’s offering, when buyers shunned high prices and the $140 million sale fell $70 million short of its low estimate (ANL, 11/8/11).
Following the auction, Lampley said the house had “tailored the sale to artists and quality that the market was looking for.” However, in numerous instances, buyers snapped up works at lower-than-estimated levels, indicating that consigners had lowered reserves—the undisclosed minimum at which they agree to sell—prior to the sale.
Other top-selling lots included Claude Monet’s haystack painting Les demoiselles de Giverny, 1894, which sold for $9.6 million on an estimate of $9 million/12 million.
An international dealer, bidding through Christie’s deputy chair Conor Jordan, acquired two of the highest lots. These included Picasso’s large green-hued painting Deux nus couches, 1968, which sold for $8.8 million on an estimate of $8 million/12 million, and Joan Miró’s L’arête rouge transperce les plumes bleues de l’oiseau au pâle bec, 1951, which sold for $4.3 million, albeit missing the $4.5 million/6.5 million estimate.
Also buying multiple lots was a US dealer bidding on the phone with Christie’s specialist Adrian Meyer. These included Picasso’s “Musketeer” painting titled Mousquetaire et nu assis, 1967, which sold for $4.2 million, also missing the estimate of $5 million/8 million, as well as Aristide Malliol’s lower-priced, bronze nude sculpture, Vénus (sans collier), conceived in 1928 and cast after 1994. It was consigned from the collection of John W. Kluge and sold to benefit his alma mater Columbia University. Again, the final price, $542,500, was below the presale expectation of $600,000/800,000.
The same buyer also acquired Pierre Bonnard’s painting of a sleeping woman in a bright yellow dress, Femme endormie, ca. 1928, which sold for $1.4 million, below the $1.8 million/2.5 million estimate. Last offered for sale at Piasa, in Paris in December 2007, it brought a price of €1 million ($1.5 million), on an estimate of €1.2 million/1.7 million.
Other works with trackable auction histories, indicative of how prices have fluctuated, include Henry Moore’s large Reclining figure, conceived in 1956 and cast in 1961, which was estimated at $4 million/6 million and sold for $5 million. Last offered at auction at Christie’s New York in May 2006, it sold then for $3.6 million, on an estimate of $3.5 million/4.5 million.
A much more recent return to the market was Moore’s Two Piece Sculpture, conceived and cast in 1966, which was offered now with a $700,000/900,000 estimate and made a hammer price of $600,000 ($722,500 with premium). According to the catalogue provenance, the work was offered last November at Sotheby’s, where it fetched a higher $782,500 on an estimate of $800,000/1.2 million, marking a loss for the owner who had now consigned it to Christie’s.
A Marc Chagall oil, Violon et village, 1960, that was estimated at $1.8 million/2.5 million, found no takers. It had last been sold in June 2009 at Aguttes, France, for €1.2 million ($1.6 million) on an estimate of €1.2 million/1.5 million.