Christie’s Reassuring London Opener
Max Ernst, "The Stolen Mirror", signed 'max ernst' (lower right); signed again, dated and inscribed 'max ernst' 1941 product of France' (on the reverse), oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 31 7/8 in. (65 x 81 cm.) Painted in 1941

Max Ernst, “The Stolen Mirror”, signed ‘max ernst’ (lower right); signed again, dated and inscribed ‘max ernst’ 1941 product of France’ (on the reverse), oil on canvas, 25 5/8 x 31 7/8 in. (65 x 81 cm.) Painted in 1941

The London auction season opened with a low-key yet reassuring result, as Christie’s Impressionist, Modern and Art-of-the-Surreal evening sale delivered £95,9177,100/$138,024,707 — comfortably above the low end of the £83,650,000-123,310,0000/$120,371,820-177,433,090 pre-sale estimate for the 89 lots offered.

Twenty-two of those 89 lots failed to sell, for a fair-to-middling buy-in rate by lot of 25 percent.

Twenty-seven works sold for over a million pounds and of those, six exceeded £5 million; 34 lots sold for more than one million dollars and nine made over $5 million.

The tally trailed far behind last February’s evening sale of £147/$222.75 million for 70 lots sold, which was led by Joan Miro’s “Painting (Women, Moon, Birds),” a work from 1950 that fetched $15.5/$23.5 million.

(Prices reported include the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium for each sold calculated at 25 percent up to and including £50,000, 20 percent of that part of the hammer price up to and including £1 million, and 12 percent for anything above that. Estimates do not include premiums.)

The evening got off to a buoyant start with a trio of works on paper that zoomed past expectations, starting with Pablo Picasso’s Synthetic Cubism-period “Mandoline” from 1920, which sold for £338,500/$487,102 (est. £150-200,000); Henri-Edmond Cross’s Pontillist styled “Etude pour Scene de corrida” from 1893 which realized £362,500/$521,638 (est. £100-150,000); and Egon Schiele’s child-friendly “Osterreichisches Maderl” from 1910, in gouache, watercolor and charcoal on paper, which brought £782,500/$1,126,018 (Est. £300-500,000).

It was quickly apparent that deliberately low estimates were opening wallets in the room.

Small-scaled works seemed to be the flavor of the evening as Alberto Giacometti’s 11-inch high bronze “Femme debout,” from a posthumous 1976 cast, made £1,082,500/$1,557,718 (est. £400-600,000), and the 16 by 13-inch Fernand Léger oil on canvas “Le moteur,” a mini tour-de-force from 1918, snared £5,234,500/$7,532,446 (est. £4-6 million).

The Léger had last sold at Sotheby’s London in December 1992, an art market lifetime ago, for £460,000.

Though the artist is rarely seen in evening sales territory, a stunning and incredibly detailed George Scholz painting in the Neue Sachlichkeit style, “Badische Kleinstadt bei Tage” from 1922-23, showing an aerial view of a busy village, sold to New York’s Acquavella Galleries for £1,202,500/$1,730.398 (est. £300-500,000).

German works were in high demand as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s power-packed “Bahnhof Konigstein” from 1916, a city scene in oil on canvas hailing from the collection of chemist/collector extraordinaire Carl Hagemann, sold to a telephone bidder for £2,434,500/$3,503,246 (est. £1.5-2 million).

Another Kirchner from a different owner, “Erna am Meer, Fehmarn” from 1913, depicting a somewhat exotic island scene, shot past expectations and sold for £4,786,500/$6,887,774 (est. £1.5-2.5 million).

Results like that seemed to erase concerns in the room that this Impressionist/Modern side of the market might be sliding downwards in a correction. It is clearly still churning away, at least when attractive property is offered.

In a more celestial realm, Otto Dix’s 1919 canvas “Schwangeres Weib (Pregnant Woman),” seemingly launching that stylized figure into space, sold for £2,770,500/$3,986,750 (est. £2-3 million).

Back on French soil, Paul Cézanne’s lush scene “Ferme en Normandie, été (Hattenville)“ from 1882, capturing Cézanne’s early champion Victor Chocquet’s family home, sold for £5,122,500/$7,371,278 (est. £4.5-6.5 million). It had last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 1997 for £3,081,500.

And a color saturated and dynamic Marc Chagall, “Les maries de la Tour Eiffel” from 1928, depicting the artist and his wife set against the majestic tower, sold to Geneva dealer Thomas Seydoux for £7,026,500/$10,111,134 (est. £4.8-6.8 million). It had last sold at auction at the old Sotheby Parke-Bernet house in New York in November 1981 for $600,000.

“I bought the Chagall for a private European collector,” said Seydoux in a phone interview after the sale. “We’re very happy and we thought that was a good picture for that price.”

Reflecting on the evening, Seydoux, the former European head of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern departments, noted, “I thought it was a typical, old-fashioned February sale, like the kind of sale you saw a couple of years ago. Overall, the market is still there but it isn’t really a sexy season.”

Other highlights included a second Egon Schiele, “Selbstbildnis mit gespreizten Fingern” from 1909, executed in oil and metallic paint on canvas and featuring the artist’s famously elongated fingers, which sold to a telephone bidder for £7,250,500/$10,433,470 (est. £6-8 million). It had last sold at auction at Christie’s London in February 2007, arguably at the height of that era’s art market, for £4.5 million.

The long sale was divided into two parts, with the latter, focusing on “Art of the Surreal,” seeming softer in parts due to relatively lower quality and some rehashed material. It racked up ten of the 22 unsold lots in the evening.

Even though it suffered in comparison to its last outing — when it fetched a super-charged $16,322,500 at Christie’s New York in November 2011 — the evening’s standout and top lot was Max Ernst’s extraordinary “The Stolen Mirror” from 1941, featuring references to the Statue of Liberty and Ernst’s narrow escape from Nazi occupied Europe. It sold to telephone bidder for £7,642,500/$10,997,558 (est. £7-10 million). Luckily for the seller, the picture was backed by a Christie’s/Third Party guarantee and it seemingly sold on a single bid.

It was the evening’s big thud.

Another Surrealist offering, though dated way past that movement’s prime, Joan Miro’s “Femme et oiseaux dans la nuit” from 1968, brashly colored in blue, red, yellow and green, sold to dealer David Nahmad after a spirited bidding battle for £5,794,500/$8,38,286 (est. £3-5 million). It was a strong result against the estimate, but it barely exceeded the £5,193,250 result it made at Christie’s London in June 2010, affirming, it would seem, that this was a premature re-entry to the auction market.

One of the evening’s wildest looking entries was Salvador Dali’s “Le voyage fantastique” from 1965, a large-scale gouache and watercolor on paper mounted on board that was commissioned for the 1966 film “Fantastic Voyage,” and that looked more like a Sigmar Polke concoction than anything else (despite the closeup of Raquel Welch’s face). It brought £1,426,500/$2,052,734 (est. £1.2-1.8 million).

“The sale was pretty in line with what I expected, really,” said Jay Vincze, the head of Impressionist and Modern art at Christie’s London. “There was strong bidding at all levels and in all periods. I think we gave the market a pretty encouraging and assuring sale this evening.”

The evening action resumes at Sotheby’s on Wednesday.

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