December auctions of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s Paris saw vibrant bidding and yielded excellent results despite continued economic turmoil in European currency. Sale volume was fairly evenly divided at the two houses, with Sotheby’s realizing a total of €29.8 million ($40 million), of which €15.4 million ($20.6 million) was contemporary sales and €14.4 million ($19.3 million) was Impressionist and modern sales. Christie’s realized a total of €26.1 million, of which €11.7 million ($15.5 million) was contemporary art sales and €14.4 million ($19.3 million) was Impressionist art sales.
Stefano Moreni, who was recently appointed director of Sotheby’s contemporary art department in Paris, said the key was in “finding top-quality works with distinguished provenances, a strategy that had attracted collectors the world over, including numerous new buyers.”
Marine Bancilhon, Impressionist and modern art specialist at Christie’s, said the success is a reflection of “great interest in modern works from important private collections that have never before been seen on the market.”
The highlight of the series was Sotheby’s two-day contemporary sale series on Dec. 7–8. The first installment was a rare and stunning, 100-percent-sold evening sale which totaled €11.3 million ($15.1 million) for 27 lots, compared with an estimate of €6.6 million/9 million.
The top lot was by the prominent French artist Pierre Soulages, a painter of “black and light.” The oil painting 3 décembre 1956, sold for €1.6 million ($2.1 million), surpassing its estimate of €800,000/1.2 million. Another painting by Soulages, 13 novembre 1969, also did extremely well. More than doubling its low estimate of €400,000/600,000, the piece sold for €840,750 ($1.1 million).
The second-highest lot of the evening sale was Jean-Michel Basquiat’s MP, an acrylic painting with Xerox collage, which sold for €1.3 million ($1.7 million) on a €700,000/900,000 estimate.
Yves Klein’s Cosmogonie, COS31, 1960, pigment on paper mounted on canvas, was from a rare series by the artist that dealt with weather. Estimated at €500,000/700,000, the piece sold for €983,150 ($1.3 million).
Sombres nuées, a 1998–99 oil painting by Chu Teh-Chun, surpassed its high estimate of €400,000/600,000 to bring €744,750 ($996,654). Jean Dubuffet’s L’organique tragique, 1957, fetched €624,750 ($836,065), falling just under its low estimate of €450,000/650,000.
Other highlights of the evening sale included Zao Wou-Ki’s ethereal oil painting 12.12.67, 1967, which sold for €432,750 ($579,123), compared with an estimate of €300,000/400,000, and Martial Raysse’s Espace zéro, 1963, a Pop image of an astronaut with a wide smile also estimated at €300,000/400,000, sold for €480,750 ($643,359).
Also among the impressive sales of the night was Tony Cragg’s bronze sculpture Early Forms, 1993, which soared past its estimate of €60,000/80,000 to sell for €216,750 ($290,064).
The contemporary sale on the following afternoon totaled a robust €4.2 million ($5.5 million). Of the 114 lots offered, 97 were sold, representing 85 percent by lot and 95 percent by value. The top seller was Andy Warhol’s bright red and blue Dollar Sign, 1981, a silkscreen and acrylic on canvas, which doubled its low estimate of €150,000/200,000 to sell for €348,750 ($467,234). The second-highest lot was Nicolas de Staël’s oil painting Composition, 1947, which fetched €192,750 ($258,235), exceeding its estimate of €140,000/180,000. Chu Teh-Chun also sold well at the day sale with Ilots noyés de brume, 1982, which more than tripled its low estimate of €40,000/60,000 to realize €144,750 ($193,927). Sotheby’s combined sales achieved a total of €15.4 million ($20.6 million).
At its evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Dec. 8, Sotheby’s Paris realized a strong €14.4 million ($19.3 million), compared with a presale estimate of €11.2 million/15.7 million, for 73 lots offered. Of these, 54, or 74 percent, were sold. By value, the sale realized 85.7 percent.
The sale highlighted works by several Surrealists, including Max Ernst, Roberto Matta, Wifredo Lam and Man Ray (for whom a record for a watercolor sold at auction was set). Three works by Ernst far surpassed expectations, including the auction’s top lot, the oil painting La Carmagnole, 1927, which Sotheby’s reported was the first important oil painting from the 1920s to be put up for auction for many years. It surpassed its estimate of €1.5 million/1.8 million to sell for €2.5 million ($3.4 million). The second work by Ernst, an oil painting on cardboard entitled Fleurs exotiques, 1928, sold for €840,750 ($1.1 million), more than doubling its low estimate of €400,000/600,000. And Ernst’s forest painting La nature à l’aurore, 1937, realized €564,750 ($756,195), comfortably higher than its estimate of €300,000/400,000.
The second-highest lot in the sale was Matta’s Le Pendu (The Hanged Man), 1942, a painting that once belonged to the Museum of Modern Art, New York, before it became part of a private European collection 40 years ago. Offered at auction for the first time, the painting achieved a price of €€1.8 million ($2.4 million), nearly doubling its low presale estimate of €1million/1.5 million.
Lam’s 1945 oil painting L’Arbre aux Miroirs, exceeded its estimate of €700,000/1 million, to sell for €1.2 million ($1.6 million). André Masson’s oil painting of a woman being attacked by birds, Femme attaquée par des oiseaux, 1943, sold for €528,750 ($728,427) against an estimate of €250,000/350,000.
Man Ray’s record-setting Le Beau Temps, 1941, an enigmatic ink-and-watercolor, sold for €516,750 ($691,923) against an estimate of €120,000/180,000.
Several other works on paper performed well, ranging from a gouache by Yves Tanguy to Pablo Picasso’s 1969 pastel and oil crayon on a lithograph, Double Portrait de Mousquetaire, which fetched €600,750 ($827,617), doubling its low estimate of €300,000/400,000. A portrait drawing by Vincent Van Gogh, Tête d’homme au chapeau, said to have belonged to the artist’s friend, painter Emile Bernard, sold for €192,750 ($258,400), nearly five times its estimate of €40,000/60,000.
A pen-and-ink drawing by the German painter and writer Johannes Theodore Baargeld was one of the auction’s biggest surprises. Eine frau/Frauen/Frauentüll und Phidias, 1920, which measured just 81/4 by 53/4 inches, sold for €72,750 ($97,500), more than ten times its estimate of €6,000/8,000.