NEW YORK—At Christie’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 3, the crowd was thinner than usual and the pace of bidding was measured and cautious. The sale brought in a total of $65.7million, short of the overall estimate of $68.6million/97.1million. Of the 40 lots on offer, 28, or 70 percent, found buyers; by value, the auction was 71 percent sold. The total was considerably lower than that of Christie’s spring sale, a midestimate $102.8million for 48 lots offered, of which 38, or 79 percent, were sold.
Buyers were clearly in charge. Christie’s failed to sell its top-estimated lot, Pablo Picasso’s Tête de femme, 1943. The brightly colored portrait of Picasso’s lover Dora Maar had been owned for the past decade by the same collector, who had acquired it from dealer Dominique Lévy. Bidding was scant, and the work, estimated at $7million/10million, was passed over at $6.4million.
With the failure of the Picasso, the top lot of the sale was the catalogue cover lot, Edgar Degas’s soft pastel Danseuses, circa 1896, which depicts a seated dancer rubbing her foot, flanked by another dancer who rests her head on her arm. Estimated at $7million/9million, the work sold for $10.7million to an Asian collector on the phone with Ken Yeh, Christie’s deputy chairman, Asia.
The second-highest lot, and one of the few to inspire lively bidding that evening, was Auguste Rodin’s bronze sculpture Le Baiser, conceived in 1880–81 and cast between 1887 and 1901, which was estimated at $1.5million/2million. Bidding opened at $1.2million and rose quickly as about four bidders vied for the work simultaneously. The work sold for $6.35million (with premium) to private dealer Christopher Eykyn of Eykyn Maclean, New York.
Among other top lots that exceeded estimates were Tamara de Lempicka’s Portrait du Marquis Sommi, 1925, which was estimated at $2million/3million and sold for $4.3million, and Vasily Kandinsky’s abstract painting Winkelschwung, 1929, which sold for $2.7million to a European collector bidding over the phone.
Work by Kees van Dongen was in demand at both houses. Thé dans mon atelier, 1922–23, was sold to a U.S. collector for $2.8million (estimate: $2.5million/3.5million). La blouse noir, circa 1910, depicting a stylish Parisian girl with a blue headband against a white background, sold for $1.5million, at the high end of the $1million/1.5million estimate. Ten years ago, the consignor paid $442,500 for the painting at Sotheby’s in New York (estimate: $400,000/600,000).
Visage féminin, profil, 1960, a Picasso portrait of a woman in black and brown against a bright green background, also yielded a solid return for its consignor. The painting had been acquired at a day sale at Christie’s in November 2002 for $394,500 on a $300,000/400,000 estimate. Now estimated at $600,000/900,000, it was sold for $1.3million. The same work had also sold at Christie’s in London in November 1989, at the height of the previous art market boom. Estimated then at £400,000/500,000 ($630,000/787,00), it was sold for £440,000 ($692,150). Another lot that had greatly appreciated in value was Nu dans la plaine de Rosas, 1942, an oil by Salvador Dalí. The painting, which was estimated at $2million/3million, sold for $4million. At a Christie’s sale in London in June 2002, the same work sold for £468,650 ($697,395) on an estimate of £300,000/500,000.
Besides the Picasso, other high profile buy-ins included Piet Mondrian’s Composition II, with Red, 1926. It was reportedly consigned by the Nahmad family of art dealers, who had acquired it in June 2004 at Christie’s in London for £1.6million ($2.97million) against an estimate of £1million/1.5million. This time it carried an estimate of $4.5million/6.5million, but was bought in when bidding went no higher than $4.1million. Observers said the estimate was too aggressive and was likely based, in part, on the record $27.2million paid for the artist’s Composition avec bleu, rouge, jaune et noir, 1922, at the Yves Saint Laurent sale at Christie’s in Paris last February (ANL, 3/3/09).
In an e-mail to ARTnewsletter after the sale, dealer Paul Gray, of the Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago and New York, wrote that since the “meager amount of recession-induced ‘pressured selling’ was wrung out of the market by June,” secondary-market dealers and auctioneers are faced with “the usual reluctant sellers again, as was true before last fall.” Gray said that in such an environment, sellers prefer private sales to public ones, as evidenced by the lack of major auction consignments while major works are still changing hands privately. “Nevertheless,” he wrote, “Christie’s got valuations right on 70 percent of their available lots last night and that is no small task at the moment.”