NEW YORK—Results for Impressionist and modern art varied considerably at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Sotheby’s evening sale, on May 3, yielded $91.3 million, well below the estimated $127.3/183.9 million estimate. Twenty of the 65 lots offered failed to find buyers, a fact Sotheby’s experts admitted was due, in part, to some overambitious estimates.
The next evening Christie’s pulled in $142.9 million, the high end of the $111.2/149.64 million estimate. The house sold 52 of 59 lots, setting a record for the most expensive sculpture at auction when a recently rediscovered marble-and-stone piece, Oiseau dans l’espace, 1922-23, by Constantin Brancusi, fetched $27.5 million (estimate: $8/12 million).
“The whole lesson is to get your estimates right,” David Norman, Sotheby’s cochairman of the Impressionist and modern art department, told ARTnewsletter. “If the estimates are too high, you are disadvantaged from the start.”
How did Sotheby’s, coming off a wildly successful 2004, consistently end up with outsize estimates? “You are in a dance with the consignor’s expectations,” Norman explains. “Last year was unbelievable for us, so it was hard to convince consignors to keep their estimates reasonable.”
In the weeks before the May Impressionist and modern art auctions in New York, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s spotlighted recently rediscovered modernist artworks. Sotheby’s heralded a swirling, colorful painting by Wassily Kandinsky, Two Riders and Reclining Figure, circa 1909-10, praising it as a “rediscovered masterpiece” and a “brilliant abstract work”—fresh to the market, “unseen for nearly a century and largely unknown to scholars.” It bore an estimate of $15/25 million.
Christie’s had its own marquee lot, the “previously unrecorded” Brancusi bird, which the house touted as a “keystone in the history of 20th-century sculpture.” Christie’s experts said the sculpture was the first example of the artist’s famous series and has a dramatic back story, involving a mysterious Parisienne, the collector Léonie Ricou. Her early death and the work’s disappearance for decades only heightened demand.
These star lots had the potential to elevate each sale. By the time both sales were over, however, this was not to be: The $27.5 million Brancusi was a record for the artist as well as for a sculpture at auction—a healthy addition to Christie’s $142.9 million total. At Sotheby’s the Kandinsky faced complete rejection, drawing not a bid in the house.
Where estimates were reasonable, works sold better. At Sotheby’s, for example, Auguste Rodin’s 1903-17 cast of Eve (estimate: $600,000/800,000) realized $2.4 million; and Claude Monet’s 1885 La Manneporte, Marée Haute, fetched $2.6 million, jumping the $1.2 million high estimate. Later in the sale a 1936 painting by Max Beckmann, Self-Portrait with Crystal Ball, brought $16.8 million. The work, fresh to the market from the heirs of the original German owner, had been estimated at $10/15 million. (The latest Beckmann price was well below the $22.5 million Ronald Lauder, chairman, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, is known to have paid for Beckmann’s ca. 1938 Self-Portrait with a Horn at Sotheby’s in 2001.)
Another icon that catapulted to top-lot status was Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger (J), which carried an estimate of $15/20 million and was chased down for $18.6 million by front-row habitué and dealer David Nahmad.
Christie’s Vibrant Evening Sale
The next night provided a much-needed lift. The audience at Christie’s May 4 evening sale was more animated and saw active bidding from both dealers and private buyers. Only seven of the 59 lots failed to sell.
After the sale Christie’s experts conceded they had been able to use the second-day slot to their advantage. They called consignors and coaxed lower reserves, allowing several major works that might have gone buyerless to sell. Works that appeared to squeak by included Paul Cézanne’s 1885-87 Les grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan (estimate: $12/16 million), which fell to an anonymous buyer for $11.8 million; and Monet’s large, square riverscape, the 1901 Vétheuil, après-midi, which brought $6.6 million, below the $7/10 million estimate.
Even a small grouping of works that dealers had said were estimated far too high managed to sell well. The estate of Carter Burden—a highly acquisitive New York socialite and descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt—consigned one Balthus and two Egon Schiele drawings. The 1939 Balthus Étude pour portrait de Thérèse, of a pensive teenage neighbor of the artist’s, was estimated at $700,000/900,000. The work made $1.8 million.
Two black-and-white 1918 female nudes by Schiele set a new price level for the uncolored drawings. Mädchenakt en face, Hände vor dem Gesicht, a crayon drawing (estimate: $400,000/600,000), had been tagged as double retail by two dealers, and still sold for $710,000. The second drawing, Stehende von vorne, mit auf die rechte Schulter gelegtem Arm (estimate: $200,000/300,000), went for $352,000.
But the sale’s pinnacle appeared early. When Brancusi’s Oiseau dans l’espace took its turn, the room witnessed a volley of bidding between paddles in the room (London dealer David Juda among them) and several anxious phone bidders. It was a long climb from $4.8 million to the final $27.5 million, but auctioneer Christopher Burge kept the game moving.
The second-highest lot was Picasso’s Tête et main de femme, 1921, which went for $13.5 million against an unpublished estimate of $13 million.
Other important works that found buyers: Alberto Giacometti’s 1960 tall bronze woman Femme Leoni (estimate: $7/10 million) fetched a healthy $8.4 million; and a large 1919 interior by Pierre Bonnard, Intérieur avec des fleurs, brought $5.4 million, comfortably above the $3/4 million estimate.