Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Sale Weathers a Softer Market
Auguste Rodin's "L'Éternel Printemps" (1901–1903), estimated at $8-12 million, sold for a record $20.4 million. (Sotheby's )

Auguste Rodin’s “L’Éternel Printemps” (1901–1903), estimated at $8-12 million, sold for a record $20.4 million.
(Sotheby’s )

Faced with a more discriminating market fixated on both quality and value, the Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale suffered a rather bumpy ride.

Twenty-one of the 62 lots offered failed to sell, for a buy-in rate by lot of 34 percent, the highest in this category since November 2012. Because the casualties included some of the more expensive lots, the $144,546,000 tally fell short of presale expectations of $164.8 million to $235.8 million. (Estimates do not reflect the buyer’s premium, which is calculated on a sliding scale: 25 percent of hammer prices up to and including $200,000; 20 percent of any amount in excess of that up to an including $3 million; and 12 percent for any portion of the hammer price above that figure.) The results also fell far below those of last May’s mammoth Sotheby’s evening, at which 49 lots brought a total of $368,344,000, led by Vincent van Gogh’s landscape “L’Allée des Alyscamps,” which fetched $66.3 million.

Tonight, the top lot price was $20.4 million. Still, 32 of the 41 lots that sold made more than $1 million, and of those, six exceeded $5 million. Two artist records were set.

In another indicator of a softer and more cautious market, Sotheby’s took a conservative approach to guarantees, offering only two so-called irrevocable bids,” in which, according to the fine print at the back of the catalogue, a third party has provided a bid “during the sale at a value that ensures the lot will sell.” The value of the IBs ranged from $5.8 million to $7.5 million. This plus the sale’s performance paint the picture of a market that is lively when the stars align but unwilling to reach for run-of-the- mill works, especially if they are over-estimated.

The evening got off to a decent start with René Magritte’s petite 10-by-7 ½-inch gouache on paper “La Folie almayer,” from 1955, depicting a deeply rooted feudal tower, which sold for $514,000 (est. $500-700,000). The market loves this artist, especially his gouaches. There were three additional Magrittes in the sale. The 1963 oil-on-canvas “Les Jeunes amours,” featuring three different-colored apples landing on a beach, made $2,170,000 (est. $1.2-1.8 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2004 for £442,400 ($809,772). Another Magritte oil on canvas, the early, 1926 “Le Message à la terre,” which bore the catalogue symbol of an irrevocable bid, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $2,290,000 (est. $2-3 million). The enigmatic composition, dominated by an Yves Klein-esque chunk of a scarlet sponge, sits within a picture frame offering yet another landscape view. Sotheby’s also had a financial stake in the guarantee.

Still on the Surrealist front, Leonora Carrington’s 1939 fantastical portrait of her lover, “Bird Superior, Portrait of Max Ernst,” showing Ernst’s spectral figure cloaked in a radiant coat of red feathers, sold to another telephone bidder for $490,000 (est. $300-500,000). London dealer Pilar Ordovas was the underbidder.

The stakes grew higher with a stunning rare-to-market Paul Signac, “Maisons du port, Saint Tropez,” from 1892, blazing with Mediterranean light and executed in his Seurat-influenced Pointillist style, which sold to another telephone for $10,666,000 (est. $8-12 million). New York private dealer Nancy Whyte was the underbidder in one of the evening’s relatively few bidding battles.

The small painting, capturing the spectacular village by the sea, was from the collection of Ambassador John Langeloth Loeb Jr., who inherited it in 1996; his parents acquired it in 1958 from the now defunct Knoedler Gallery. It was last exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum’s traveling Signac retrospective in 2001, which also dropped anchor in Amsterdam at the van Gogh Museum and in Paris at the Grand Palais. Beyond this impressive history, it was also enhanced by the Op 237 visible on the lower left of the canvas, part of the numbering system devised by the artist, who was an ardent sailor.

Two Fauve period lots, both rare to the market, carried among the highest estimates. One was Maurice de Vlaminck’s color-saturated and widely exhibited 1905 oil on canvas “Sous-bois,” depicting the southern France island of Chatou, which sold to Nancy Whyte for $16,378,000 (est. $12-18 million). Speaking of the Vlaminck and the Signac, Whyte said, “Both pictures are pretty rare to the market and top quality.”

The second Fauve lot was André Derain’s 1906 chromatic seascape, “Les Voiles rouges,” which he painted in London at the height of that short-lived movement. This failed to sell and went nowhere after the final $12.5 million chandelier bid (est. $15-20 million). “We had people who were lined up to bid, and for whatever reason, they didn’t pull the trigger,” Simon Shaw, co-head of Worldwide Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby’s, said of the Derain, adding that the rarity of the work, with no similar examples seen at auction, made it difficult to estimate its value. Both Fauves paintings were previously owned for many decades by Texan oil heiress, art patron and philanthropist Sarah Campbell Blaffer, who acquired them from Knoedler Gallery in the 1950’s.

The buy-in of the Derain took some of the wind out of Sotheby’s sails, or so it seemed to this spectator. Some momentum was regained, however, as the sail pushed further into the Modern era. Fernand Léger’s handsome 1945 circus scene, “Composition au cheval blanc,” portraying trapeze artists and the bridled white stallion of the title sold to a telephone bidder for $4,170,000 (est. $3.5-5 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 1990, at the height of that era’s art boom, for $1,870,000.

Sculpture made a very big impression, as evidenced in the performance of Auguste Rodin’s spectacular cover lot, “L’Éternel Printemps,” carved in 1901-03, which sold to another telephone bidder for a record $20.4 million (est. $8-12 million). Oslo dealer Ben Frija, of Galleri K, was the tenacious underbidder, sending hand signals to auctioneer Oliver Barker with his client tethered to his cell phone. The he 26¼-inch-high white-marble sculpture of nude lovers caught in an embrace throbbing with passion is believed to be the fifth of 10 known versions of the subject, at least five of which are cloistered in museum collections. A marble of this subject has not been seen at auction in more than 20 years.

Standing in sharp contrast both to the realism of Rodin and its stellar performance, Joan Miró’s 82¾-inch-high bronze “Oiseau,” produced from a lifetime cast in 1981 and number three of an edition of six, flopped, bought in at a chandelier bid of $5.6 million (est. $6-8 million).

Although first-rate Impressionist works have steadily become more difficult to source, Sotheby’s managed to rope in a few. Claude Monet’s imposing 1884 view “Marée basse aux Petites Dalles,” capturing the rough-hewn beauty of the Normandy Coast sparked a bidding war, selling for a whopping $9,882,000 (est. $3-5 million). London dealers Gladwell & Patterson were the underbidders. And the artist’s “Camille a l’ombrelle verte,” a charming 1876 depiction of his wife, appearing almost as an apparition in the dazzling sunlight as she clutches a fresh bouquet in her free hand, sold for what appeared to be a single telephone bid of $9,434,000 (est. $9-12 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2007 for £4,164,000/$8,279,602. Yet another Monet, “Pres Monte-Carlo,” from 1883, sold to Gladwell & Patterson for $6,970,000 (est. $5-7 million). Altogether, Monet qualifies as the evening’s standout earner, contributing some $26 million to the underwhelming tally.

If there is one great artist where supply is not an issue, it is Pablo Picasso, and Sotheby’s offered eight of his works from various periods. Unfortunately, the quality and estimates of some of these made them less appealing in this cautious market and four failed to sell. Of the survivors, the somber 1953 oil-on-canvas nude “Buste de femme” went for $3,890,000 (est. $3.5-5 million), and “Paloma,” a charming 1952 portrait of the artist’s daughter at play, sold to a telephone bidder for $4,506,000 (est. $4-6 million).

It was clear the buyers knew exactly what they wanted and spurned the rest. One lot that fell on the right side of that equation was Édouard Vuillard’s sublime page-size interior “Marie brossant un vêtement à la fenêtre.” The 1893 oil on board sold to London private dealer Rory Howard for $850,000 (est. $500-700,000). Similarly, Alberto Giacometti’s striking “Atelier,” an oil on canvas from 1950, sold to storied London dealer Thomas Gibson for $3,250,000 (est. $2.5-3.5 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York in November 2007 for $3.8 million, so one might say Gibson got a bargain. In the same vein, the 1943 Pablo Picasso pen and ink “Homme couché et femme assise,” formerly in the collection of the late dealer and works-on-paper collector Jan Krugier, brought $586,000 (est. $500-700,000).

“I think the things that are attractive and sensibly priced go,” Gibson said moments after the sale concluded. “The appetite for works is very selective and should be.”

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