A Mild Bang at Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale
Detail of Edvard Munch's "Girls on the Bridge," 1902, sold for $54.5 million (Sotheby's)

Detail of Edvard Munch’s “Girls on the Bridge,” 1902, sold for $54.5 million

The anxiously awaited, post-election auction season of blue chip art opened with a mild bang at Sotheby’s on Monday evening with Impressionist and Modern Art fetching $157,714,750.

Eight of the 42 lots offered failed to sell for a respectable buy-in rate by lot of 19 percent.

The tally, including premiums, hit the low side of pre-sale expectations pegged at $142.8-182.5 million. The hammer total was $137,150,000. (Estimates do not include the buyer’s premium.)

That figure, however, was far below last November’s $306.7 million result for the 36 lots that sold.

Still, twenty-nine of the 34 lots that sold made more than one million dollars and of those, two eclipsed the $10 million mark.

One artist record was set.

All prices reported include the tacked on buyer’s premium for each lot sold, calculated at the newly bumped up rate of 25 percent of the hammer price (final bid) up to and including $250,000, 20 percent of any amount exceeding $250,000 and up to and including $3 million and 12.5 percent of any amount in excess of that.

The sale got off to a Surrealist start with Yves Tanguy’s ambiguous and dreamy landscape, “Le Prodigue ne revient jamais II”, a petite 11 by 9 inch oil on canvas from 1943 that made $732,500 (est. $400-600,000). New York dealer Emmanuel Didonna was the underbidder.

It last sold at Sotheby’s New York back in November 1994 for $167,500; the difference was not exactly a huge gain.

Diego Rivera’s Picasso look-alike painting, “Sans titre (composition cubiste)” from circa 1916 went for $912,500 (est. $500-700,000). Before Rivera became world famous as a muralist, he spent a decade in Paris and befriended Picasso.

The sale was filled with small scale works by blue chip artists including Joan Miro’s whimsical and slightly monster-like figure “Personnage” from 1935, a 14 5/8 by 12 inch gouache, watercolor and brush and ink on paper, which sold to a telephone bidder for $1,452,500 (est. $700,000-1 million).

On the more obscure side, at least for a work in an evening sale, Frantisek Kupka’s widely exhibited and boldly Modern abstraction, crisply comprised of vertical bands of color, “La Forme du bleu” from 1924, hit $2,172,500 (est. $1.5-2 million). New York art advisor Mary Hoeveler was the underbidder.

In that same avant garde vein, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s proto-Conceptual work from the Bauhaus era, “EM 1 Telephonbild (EM 1 Telephone Picture)” from 1923, manufactured at a German sign factory on the artist’s telephoned instructions in Porcelain enamel on steel, sold to Zurich dealer Mathias Rastorfer of Galerie Gmurzynska for a record shattering $6,087,500 (est. $3-4 million.)

Last viewed at the still-traveling Moholy-Nagy retrospective that made a recent stop at the Guggenheim Museum before it was yanked for the market, it was one of three enamel works executed in that way and the only example still in private hands.

“It’s a piece we sold to a very important collector in the ‘80s,” said the dealer as he exited the salesroom, “and it’s even daring in today’s world, even for the contemporary market.”

Rastorfer declined to identify the client or country he was bidding on behalf of, only saying cautiously, “it went to a very important situation.”

Back to more decorative territory, Henri Matisse’s sensual composition from his early days in Nice, “Nu accroupi devant un aquarium (Nu aux possons rouges)” from 1922 and measuring just 8 ¾ by 10 ¾ inches, brought $1,932,500 (est. $1.5-2 million).

A second and larger Matisse oil from Nice, “Femme en bleu a table, fond rouge” from 1923, featuring a fully dressed model with her arms patiently folded and set against a brilliant red saturated background, failed to sell at a chandelier bid $4.2 million (est. $5-7 million).

It was the priciest casualty of the evening, though hardly surprising given its aggressive estimate.

Color-charged works seemed to attract the most interest as evidenced by Maurice de Vlaminck’s Fauve-period landscape, “Le Verger” from 1906, blazing in summer colors, sold to another anonymous telephone bidder for $7,550,000 (est. $7-10 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2006 for £2.36/$4.3 million.

Though appearing rather dark in reproduction, Vincent van Gogh’s richly painted and evocatively haunting “Nature morte: vase aux glaieuls” in oil on board and laid down on canvas, from 1886, during a brief period when van Gogh was living in Paris, sold for $5,862,500 (est. $5-7 million).

It was last offered at Sotheby’s London in June 2002, when it bought in against a £900,000-1.2 million estimate, and this time comes to market bearing a Sotheby’s guarantee, one of only three in the auction. On Monday, it seemingly sold to the irrevocable bidder, since no other bids materialized in the sleepy room.

Another highlight, Pablo Picasso’s large-scaled and boldly painted “Le Peintre et son modele” from 1963, ablaze in high-wattage shades of yellow, pink and green, sold for a relatively tepid $12,906,000 (est. $12-18 million).

The 51 by 63 ¾ inch Picasso was offered by the estate of New York collector Joan Oestreich Kend and was backed by a so-called “irrevocable bid,” meaning a third party had promised to bid an undisclosed amount sufficient to reach the guarantee. That third party, if the sale is successful, receives a fixed fee that can be applied to the purchase price and is reflected here in the less chunky tally. If it’s unsuccessful, the irrevocable bidder also profits, based on an undisclosed compensation related to the final hammer price.

The small print on page 200 at the back of the auction catalogue explains the irrevocable bid concept, though a law degree would help in deciphering the language.

The evening’s sole star was the cover lot, Edvard Munch’s “Pikene pa broen (Girls on the Bridge” from 1902, featuring a cabal-like group of huddled women standing on a jetty and outfitted in colorful dress, their backs turned to the viewer. It went for $54,487,500 (unpublished estimate in excess of $50 million).

Munch painted a dozen versions of the composition and only two, including this one, remain in private hands.

The painting carries a stellar provenance, having been owned at one time by storied art collector and museum patron Norton Simon, who sold the work at Christie’s New York in October 1980 for $3,080,000, and then harbored by collectors Wendell and Dorothy Cherry, whose estate sold it at Sotheby’s New York in November 1996 for $7.7 million. The buyer at that auction sold the painting at Sotheby’s New York in May 2008 to tonight’s consignor for $30.8 million.

The painting set an auction record for the artist each time it has been offered in the past, but it came up short this time, going again to an irrevocable bidder.

No amount of prodding by auctioneer Helena Newman could enthuse the silent salesroom, despite her repetitive pleas, “I can bring the hammer down at $50 million.” That became the hammer price before adjusted fees.

On the sculpture front, Pablo Picasso’s smiling, 19-inch-high “Tete de femme,” a bronze from 1951, featuring the pony tailed visage of his young lover and muse, Francoise Gilot, sold to London dealer Alan Hobart of Pyms Gallery for $8,450,000 (est. $6-8 million).

“It’s a very smart buy,” said Hobart as he departed the salesroom. “It’s from an edition of two with no artist proofs. I’m very pleased with it.”

Auguste Rodin’s 14 ¾ inch high bronze “Penseur, petit modele,” cast posthumously sometime between 1930 and 1940, hurdled its estimate and sold to a telephone bidder for $1,752,500 (est. $700,000-1 million). It also hails from the Oestreich Kend collection.

Rounding out the mostly tame yet mildly successful evening, a large-scale and multi-figured Paul Delvaux painting, “La Route de Rome” from 1979, busy with seated and standing female nudes and deaccessioned by the Foundation Paul Delvaux Museum in Belgium, sold for $2,652,500 (est. $2-3 million).

Another figurative offering, one with a Cubist twist, Lyonel Feininger’s “Raddampfer am Landungssteg (Side-Wheel Steamer at the Landing)” from 1912, which went to yet another telephone bidder for $4,456,250 (est. $4-6 million).

At one time it was in the inventory of world-class Dutch collector/dealer Jacques Goudstikker before it was “Aryanised” by a Nazi fronted gallery in Amsterdam in circa 1940. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2011 for £3.1/$5.1 million, a loss for the seller.

In a sale with few Impressionist offerings, a charming early work by Francis Picabia, “Saint-Tropez, effet de soleil” from 1909, almost a dead-ringer for a Post-Impressionist Signac, went for $1,632,500 (est. $1.2 1.8 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2006 for £612,800/$1,065,739.

It was a timely offering, given that Picabia will be featured in a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art opening on the 21st.

“It wasn’t a great sale,” said Guy Jennings, managing director of the London based Fine Art Fund. “But they managed to sell most of it.”

The evening action resumes on Tuesday at arch-rival Christie’s with a sale of Post-War and Contemporary Art.

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