Powered by a stellar trove of trophy offerings, Sotheby’s scored a big Impressionist and Modern evening sale, registering £178,590,000/$282,047,187, its second highest tally for any sale held in London. Eight of the 50 lots offered failed to sell for a crisp sixteen percent buy-in rate by lot. The tally fell securely midway between pre-sale expectations of £140,250,000–203,190,00/$221,496,825–320,897,967 and crushed last June’s £121.9/$207.8 million result for the 42 lots sold.
Twenty-five of the 42 lots that sold made over a million pounds and 34 sold for more than one million dollars. Of those, seven sold for over £10 million and nine for more than $10 million. (Prices reported reflect the hammer price for each lot sold plus the added-on buyer’s premium, calculated at 25 percent of the hammer price up to and including £100,000; 20 percent of any amount in excess of £100,000, up to an including £1.8 million; and 12 percent of any amount in excess of £1.8 million.)
The evening started on a high note with Lyonel Feininger’s brashly colored and action-packed “Horn Player in the Village” from 1915, which sold for £665,00/$1,050,234 (est. £220–320,000), and gained speed with Rene Magritte’s fantastic cupboard outfitted tree, “La Voix du sang” from 1948, a rich gouache on paper that brought £1,325,000/$2,092,572 (est. £800,000–1.2 million). The Magritte was last offered at Sotheby’s New York in May 1998 when it went unsold against a $200–300,000 pre-sale estimate.
The pace quickened with Fernand Leger’s geometric composed interior, “La Femme couchée” from 1920, presenting the reclining nude drained of color and posed by a crowded table top still life, sold for £3,397,000/$5,364,882 (est. £3–5 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2007 for $3.4 million.
One of the evening’s main attractions came up early: Edouard Manet’s iconic “Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère” from 1881, an early and smaller version of the grand “Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère” of 1882 that resides at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in London. It sold to a telephone bidder for £16,949,000/$26,767,556 (est. £15–20 million).
This earlier version depicts the blonde-haired barmaid at one end of the balcony bar with her back reflected in the panoramic mirror that also reflects the crowded, brightly lit café and concert hall. The 18 ½ by 22 inch oil was once owned by the storied Dutch collector Franz Koenigs who acquired the work in 1928 and subsequently sold at Sotheby’s London in June 1994 for an arguably modest £4,401,500. It was recently a star of “Inventing Impressionism” at London’s National Gallery, but was pulled from the rest of the tour, including its current run at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The piece was backed by a so-called “irrevocable bid,” meaning a third party outside Sotheby’s guaranteed a minimum bid, assuring it would sell. (It is unclear whether that bidder competed to the end or even won the picture, but Sotheby’s would compensate that party if they turned out to be on the losing end.) Despite the pre-sale hoopla, the painting didn’t ignite the salesroom or the telephones and hammered at £15 million, right at the low estimate.
Another irrevocable bid was arranged for Paul Gauguin’s sensuous, 12 by 18 5/8 inch still life from Tahiti, “Nature morte aux mangos” circa 1891-96, which realized £11,573,000/$18,277,239 (est. £10–15 million). The arrangement of flowers, fruits, and local crockery is executed in the artist’s vibrant palette and orchestrated in rich brushstrokes, all of it dear to current market taste. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2005 for £3,592,000.
Sculpture played a starring role in the evening’s offerings as Edgar Degas’s scrawny dancer, “Petite danseuse de quatorze ans” — a bronze created posthumously from the circa 1879–81 wax model retrieved form the artist’s studio, complete with muslin skirt and satin hair bow — sold to an otherwise unidentified woman seated in the fourth row of the salesroom for £15,829,000/$24,998,740 (est. £10–15 million).
It too carried an irrevocable bid and joined a fairly large cast of other 41.3-inch-high bronze dancers from the 1922 edition that always attract big numbers at auction. This example was last offered at Christie’s New York in November 2011 but went unsold against a then-steep, $25–35 million estimate. This time, bidding opened at £7.5 million and escalated at £500,000 increments until £13.5 million when the bid was split to a £250,000 increment and ultimately hammered at £14 million. It topped the previous high for a Degas dancer set at Sotheby’s London in February 2009, when another version from the edition made £13,257,250/$18,833,996.
At a more modest price point level, Camille Claudel’s 15 3/4–inch-high lifetime cast bronze of her teacher and lover, “Buste d’Auguste Rodin,” rocketed past expectations and sold for £821,000/$1,296,605 (est. £400–600,000).
Though a work on paper, sculptor Henry Moore’s “Two Women and Child” from 1948, executed in gouache, watercolor wash, wax crayon, colored crayon, pen and ink, and pencil, sparked a bidding battle, finally selling for a whopping £2,165,000/$3,419,184 (est. £300–400,000).
In the increasingly rare to market realm of Impressionist paintings, Claude Monet’s cinematic view, “Fin d’apres-midi, Vetheuil” from 1880, fell flat and bought in at a chandelier bid £3.8 million. (est. £4–6 million). Like many of its brethren this season, this picture has come up before, selling at Sotheby’s New York in May 2010 for $6,242,500. It might require a few more years of market retirement.
Still, it was the Modern era that churned hardest as evidenced in part by the cover lot, Kazimir Malevich’s indelibly rare “Suprematism, 18th Construction” from 1915, offered by his heirs and backed by yet another irrevocable bid. It sold meekly to the telephone for £21,429,000/$33,842,820 (est. £20–30 million). It was last shown in the blockbuster “Malevich” retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2014.
A radical inventor of so-called “non-objective” painting, the artist is best known for his stark, black or red on white abstract compositions; this color-charged example, with its seemingly welded trapezoidal forms of color fused planes, has a more decorative though rigorous appeal. In fact, when it was first shown in Moscow in 1915 at the Lemercier Gallery, the show was titled “Exhibition of Modern Decorative Art.” When this painting and others were stored in Berlin by an architect friend after Malevich’s exhibition there in 1927, the artist returned to the Soviet Union and never lived to leave again to retrieve them. The works ultimately wound up in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum and remained on view there for many years before his heirs were able to restitute the paintings in 2008. The sky-high record still stands at $60 million, set at Sotheby’s New York in November 2008 when “Suprematist Composition” from 1916 sold.
The evening’s surprise top lot and, so far, the most expensive work of the season, Gustav Klimt’s rather stunning “Bildnis Gertrud Loew (Gertha Felsőványi) (Portrait of Gertrud Loew (Gertha Felsőványi))” from 1902, fetched £24,789,000/$39,149,268 (est. £12–18 million). Unlike some of the other priced offerings, the picture wasn’t backed by a financial guarantee, so the seller didn’t have to share any of the upside. The picture was recently restituted to the heirs of the Felsőványi family and exquisitely captures the frail beauty of the red-haired and pale-complexioned young woman, executed in Klimt’s symbolist style, and further accented in her fashionably close-fitting white dress.
Bidding opened at £9 million and slowly accelerated to a drawn-out, 15-minute-long battle between a telephone bidder and the aforementioned woman in the salesroom until the hammer price–winning bid of £22 million was met by resounding applause in the salesroom. At one point in the marathon bidding, auctioneer Henry Wyndham looked out at the room and asked, as if fishing for another bidder, “Is there anybody else out there?”
Another restituted work also sparked a bidding war as Max Liebermann’s striking “Two Riders on a Beach” from 1901 — the first work to be sold from the headline-making Cornelius Gurlitt artworks that were hidden in Germany from public view for decades — made £1,865,000/$2,945,394 (est. £350–550,000). The painting, restituted from the Gurlitt estate this year to the heirs of its former owner, the Breslau collector David Friedmann, represents a diplomatic side of the auction business.
“There was a particular accent on restitution,” said Helena Newman, Sotheby’s chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art Europe, “which is an area Sotheby’s has been at the forefront of.”
Other high-flyers outside the restitution orbit included Pablo Picasso’s convincingly studious “Deux personnages (La Lecture)” from 1934 that sold for £16,389,000/$25,883,148 (est. £13–18 million) and Chaim Soutine’s bowtied and red-vested “Le Valet de chambre” from 1927, which rushed past its high estimate and realized £10,789,000/$17,039,068 (est. £6.5–8.5 million.) The Marie-Therese Walter inspired Picasso last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 1998 for $3,192,500. The Soutine buyer was the same unidentified woman who fielded winning bids throughout the evening via her cellphone.
The current taste for Modern, color-rich works was evident throughout the sale as Andre Derain’s Fauve period London scene, “Londres: Le Quai Victoria” from 1906-07 surged to £6,981,000/$11,025,093 (est. £6.5–9 million).
“Seven works selling for over £10 million is unprecedented for a sale here in London,” Newman said.
The evening action resumes on Monday June 30 at Phillips’ Berkeley Square salesroom for the start of the contemporary art season.