LONDON—Christie’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Feb. 2 brought in a total of £76.8million ($122.2million), just shy of the high estimate of £77.8million. Following the auction, department director Thomas Seydoux told reporters that in selecting works for sale Christie’s experts had eschewed run-of-the-mill Impressionist pictures in favor of “flashy, colorful, modern pictures by the big names,” which is where the predominant taste of the market lay.
A perfect example of this trend is Pablo Picasso’s vibrant portrait Tête de femme (Jacqueline), 1963, which sold to London jeweller Laurence Graff for £8.1million ($12.9million) against an estimate of £3million/4million. Flashier still was Kees van Dongen’s La gitane, ca. 1910–11, which fetched the second-highest price on record for a work by the artist, selling to a U.S. collector for £7.1million ($11.3million) on a £5.5million/7.5million estimate. The same buyer acquired Alexey von Jawlensky’s highly colorful still life Blue Vase with Oranges, ca. 1907, for £1.3million ($2million), above the estimate of £600,000/800,000. These Fauvist pictures were thought to be the territory of new Russian collectors, and indeed, Christie’s Russian client representatives were seen bidding on the Picasso. But on this evening they appeared to have more success with works by Russian and German Expressionist artists: One such telephone buyer paid a record £6.4million ($10.2million) for Natalia Goncharova’s jazzy Espagnole, ca. 1916 (estimate: £4million/6million); another fended off competitive bidding from dealer Jose Mugrabi to acquire Otto Mueller’s Bathers, ca. 1927, for a record £2.1million ($3.3million), nearly three times the estimate of £500,000/700,000.
The trade hardly bid at all, apart from London-based Ezra Nahmad, who bought Henri Matisse’s small, seductive canvas Nu aux jambes croisées, 1936, for £3.8million ($6million) on an estimate of £2.5million/4million.
Some pictures yielded considerable gains for their sellers: Paul Signac’s Le jardin du Vert-Galant, ca. 1928, which had last sold at Sotheby’s in New York in May 2002 for $724,500, fetched £1.8 million ($2.9 million) on a £1.5million/2million estimate. On the other hand, the consignor of van Dongen’s Les escarpins mauves, 1921, who paid £1.6million ($2.9million) for it at Sotheby’s in London in February 2005, will have garnered little profit from the £2.1million ($3.3million) the painting sold for now, after buyers and sellers commissions have been deducted (estimate: £1,500,000/2,000,000).
The biggest markup of the night was for a 235⁄8-inch-high reduction of Auguste Rodin’s The Kiss, conceived in 1886, reduced in 1904 and cast between 1910 and 1918 in an edition of 65–69. This example, which had sold at Sotheby’s in London in June 2005 for £66,000 ($120,300), sold for £433,250 ($688,868) on a £250,000/350,000 estimate. That price, however, had less to do with market inflation than with condition. The work, in poor condition when it was sold in 2005, was restored by the purchaser, dealer Robert Bowman, who then sold it on; the price it brought now was thus on par with those of other examples from this edition.
Surrealist Art Adds $16 Million
Christie’s persevered with its traditional sale of Surrealist art, which followed the main Impressionist and modern sale and contributed £10.1million ($16million) to the evening’s total. The top price of £1.2million ($1.6million) came for René Magritte’s Le baiser, ca. 1957 (estimate: £600,000/800,000), and was a marked improvement from the £590,400 ($1.1million) the gouache brought at Christie’s in February 2005. Dealer David Nahmad bought a number of lots at prices close to their low estimates. He secured Max Ernst’s Le tambour major de l’armée céleste, 1970, for £421,250 ($670,000) on an estimate of £400,000/600,000, and Courge, 1956, an enamelled ceramic sculpture by Joan Miró and Josep Llorens Artigas, for £145,250 ($230,948) on an estimate of £180,000/250,000. German dealer Michael Haas was also active, buying Ernst’s oil La mer et le soleil, ca. 1928, for £361,250 ($574,388) on an estimate of £330,000/380,000, as well as Jean Arp’s wood relief Constellation, 1932, for £253,250 ($402,668) on an estimate of £200,000/300,000.
The geographic breakdown of buyers was weighted heavily towards the U.K. and Europe (including Russia), which accounted for 73 percent of the 69 lots sold, with the U.S. making up 25 percent and Asia just 2 percent. Asked whether the strong sold-by-lot rate of 87 percent was attributable to the lowering of estimates, Seydoux told ARTnewsletter that on the contrary, in many cases—including the top-selling works by Goncharova, van Dongen and Picasso—estimates had been set quite high, “because we believed in them.” Still, he said, “we never thought these paintings would make so much. The results will shift the public perception of where the market is now.”