A Strong Start for Impressionism at Sotheby’s London
Claude Monet's "Nymphéas," signed Claude Monet and dated 1906, estimated at £20,000,000 — 30,000,000.

Claude Monet’s “Nymphéas,” signed Claude Monet and dated 1906, estimated at £20,000,000 — 30,000,000.

Led by a top-class Claude Monet “Nympheas” painting from 1906, Sotheby’s London kicked off the Impressionist and Modern auction season with a strong £121,957,000/$207,875,707 evening sale tally on Monday.

Only four of the 46 lots offered failed to sell, for a slim nine percent buy-in rate by lot. The result, including the buyer’s premium, came close to catching the high end of pre-sale expectations, pegged at between £86.2-123.9/$146.3-210.3 million. (Estimates do not include the commission fees. Twenty-six of the 42 lots that sold made over a million pounds and 34 sold for over a million dollars.

The sale eclipsed last June’s £105,939,000/$165,932,256 tally for the same sale, where 58 lots sold at an 18 percent buy-in rate by lot.

A healthy chunk of the total on Monday came from 17 works consigned from the estate of modern art dealer Jan Krugier, who died in Geneva in 2008 at the age of 80. All 17 sold, for a combined £27,134,500/$46,128,650, well ahead of the £12.6-18.7 million pre-sale estimate.

Their likely success was evident early on, when one of the Krugier offerings, Jean Arp’s abstract painted wall relief “Point-Virgule” from 1927, sold for £422,500/$720,151 (est. £180-250,000). It had last been offered with a much higher estimate in November 2013 at Christie’s New York, at a single-owner Krugier sale that fell flat, including this work then estimated at $800,000-1.2 million.

“The Krugier material was priced attractively in order to entice bidders and it succeeded,” said Philip Hook, senior international specialist in the Impressionist and Modern department of Sotheby’s London.

Other Krugier winners included Paul Klee’s “Beginnende Kuhle (Incipient Coolness)” from 1937, a color-charged composition in oil on board that sold for £1,082,500/$1,845,121 (est. £400-600,000); Pablo Picasso’s “L’Atelier,” an action packed self-portrait with models from 1962 that sold to New York’s Acquavella Galleries for £3,554,500/$6,058,645 (est. £2-3 million); and Wassily Kandinsky’s early landscape “Herbstlandschaft (Autumn Landscape)” from 1911, which fetched £5,570,500/$9,494,917.

Though “Atelier” sold well in light of its estimate, Krugier had acquired it at Sotheby’s New York in May 2008 for a heady $6,481,000.

The Kandinsky also benefitted from a rehabilitated estimate; at its previous outing at the Christie’s Krugier sale it was pegged at $20-25 million and bought in.

Apart from the energetic 1962 Picasso from Krugier, there were eight other offerings by the artist sprinkled throughout the sale, all of which sold, including a jauntily outfitted Marie Therese Walter in a 29-by-23¾-inch composition from an otherwise unidentified private collection. “Portrait de femme,” from 1937, realized £5,346,500/$9,113,109 (est. £4-6 million).

While modern works stood out—including the auction-fresh and ahead-of-its-time Piet Mondrian abstraction “Composition with Red, Blue and Grey” from 1927, which sold to a bidder on the phone with David Norman, who heads Sotheby’s private sales division, for £15,202,500/$25,912,661 (est. £13-18 million)—a painting from the Impressionist epoch made the top price.

That was Monet’s sublime “Nympheas,” depicting his beloved water garden in Giverny, signed and dated 1906. It also went to Norman’s telephone for £31,722,500/$54,071,001 (est. £20-30 million) after a telephone bidding war, beating out the phone manned by Kevin Chang, Sotheby’s chief executive of Asia.

Many in the room assumed the underbidder was Asian, given that buyers from that continent have been helping the market keep its buoyancy, at least for correctly estimated works.

The painting was backed by a so-called irrevocable bid, also known as a third-party guarantee, meaning that it would sell no matter what happened in the salesroom. It probably needed that insurance since it bought in at its previous outing back in June 2010 at Christie’s London, when it was aggressively estimated at £30-40 million.

“A lot of buyers wouldn’t have been in the market in 2010,” Hook opined of the Monet in an interview after the auction—“especially those from the emerging markets in Asia, Russia and South America.”

The Monet didn’t break the £40.9/$80.3 million record for the artist set at Christie’s London in June 2008 for “Le basin aux nympheas” from 1919, but did set the second highest mark for the artist at auction.

It was a strong night for the artist, as two other Monets, from the collection of Ralph C. Wilson, Jr., also made hay. The cover lot, the sun-splashed “Antibes, vue du plateau Notre Dame” from 1888, sold to another telephone bidder for £7,922,500/$13,503,901 (est. £6-8 million), and “La seine a Argenteuil,” an earlier plein air work from 1875, brought £8,538,500/$14,553,73 (est. £7-10 million). Both pictures carried auction house financial guarantees.

Sculpture was also part of the successful mix, with a petite Alberto Giacometti, the 11-inch-high painted bronze “Figurine sur grand scole,” from a 1950 cast, making £1,594,500/$2,717,825 (est. £800,000-1.2 million), and a Rembrandt Bugatti bronze wild animal portrait, “Deux grands leopards” from a posthumous 1934 cast, bringing in £938,500/$1,599,673 (est. £500-700,000).

“We benefitted from a series of realistically estimated properties,” Hook concluded, “which made the whole thing look pretty good.”

The evening action resumes at Christie’s London on Tuesday.

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