The art market received a big vote of confidence at Sotheby’s London Impressionist and Modern evening sale, which took in a rock-solid and affirming £103.3 million ($151.9 million).
The tally, including premiums, nicked the high side of the combined estimate of £81.25 million to £101.45 million ($119-143 million) for the 27 lots offered, only three of which failed to sell, for a sleek 11 percent buy-in rate. Nine lots sold for over £1 million and 16 for over $1 million. No artist records were set.
The overall hammer price, before fees, was £90,650,000, more than respectable, although not up to last June’s much larger total of £178,590,000 ($282 million) for 42 lots. Prices reported below include the hammer price plus the buyer’s premium, calculated at 25 percent of the hammer price up to and including £100,000, 20 percent of any amount above that up to and including £1.8 million, and 12 percent of any amount above that. Estimates do not reflect the buyer’s premium.
The evening got off to a torrid start. Marc Chagall’s charming 1955-56 “Deux têtes à la fenêtre,” in gouache, pastel and ink wash on paper laid down on canvas, made £593,000 ($872,000), against an estimate of £250,000 to £350,000 ($362-510,000). Edgar Degas’s circa 1919-1937 18 3/8-inch-high balletic bronze “Danseuse regardant la plante de son pied droit (deuxième étude),” from a posthumous cast, sold for £629,000 ($925,000) against an estimate of £200,000 to-£2300,000 ($290-434,000). Both went to anonymous telephone bidders. The Degas last sold to the father of the present consignor for £13,000 at Sotheby’s London in March 1977.
Several prime French Impressionist pictures were on offer. Camille Pissarro’s luscious 1880 village scene “Rue de village à Auvers,” executed in pastel on paper laid down on canvas, scraped by its low estimate of £500,000 ($725,000) to make £533,000 ($783,830). An identically sized 1892 Alfred Sisley, the shimmering and water-reflective “Bords du Loing,” brought a subpar £965,000 ($1,419,000) against an estimate of £1million to £1.5 million ($1.45-2.17 million).
Needless to say, the pickings in this diminishing category were slim, a dearth compensated for to some extent by the presence of Vincent van Gogh’s somber1882 “Man with an Axe on His Shoulder,” in lithographic crayon, watercolor and pencil paper, which brought £725,000 ($1 million) against an estimate of £400,000 to £600,000 ($580-870,000).
In a more decorative vein, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s fragrant 1917 interior “Femme arrangeant des fleurs” (or “La femme au bouquet-Andrée”) brought £1,265,000 ($1,860,000) against an estimate of £800,000 to £1.2 million ($1.16-1.74 million). A second Renoir, the 1881 oil on canvas “Un jardin à Sorrente,” painted during an Italian sojourn and redolent with classical references, sold to another telephone bidder for £1,385,000 ($2,036,000) against an estimate of £1 million to £1.5 million ($1.45-2.17 million).
Another 19th-century offering, Paul Gauguin’s petite, 12 3/8-by-17 7/8-inch Cézanne-esque still life “Nature morte aux pommes,” painted in 1890, a year before his first trip to Tahiti, went for £3,397,000 ($4million) against an estimate of £2.2 million to £2.8 million ($3.19-4.05 million). It was last offered at Christie’s London in June 2001, when it was bought in against an estimate of £2 million to £3 million.
Of the two heavyweight offerings in the otherwise light evening, the masterful cover lot, Pablo Picasso’s 1909 Cubist gem “Femme Assise,” a key early manifestation of the revolutionary movement, sold to a telephone bidder after a slow but measured slugfest for £43.3 million ($63.6 million) against an unpublished estimate in excess of £30 million. The sum earned was the seventh highest for a Picasso at auction and the most paid for a Cubist work at auction, beating out Juan Gris’s 1915 “Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux,” which brought £34.8 million ($56.7 million) at Christie’s London in February 2014. Picasso’s lover Fernande Olivier is the disembodied subject of the painting, made while the couple was vacationing in the remote Catalonian village of Horta de Ebro, a place only accessible by mule. Museum of Modern Art curator William Rubin, the late great Picasso expert, cited this brief period in Spain as “the most crucial and productive vacation of [the artist’s] career.”
The unabashedly stark, geometric breakdown of form turns the sitter’s faceted head into a kind of stacked sculpture in shades of green and gray. In fact, Picasso’s first Cubist sculpture is the famous 1909 “Tête de femme (Fernande),” extant in one bronze and two plaster versions, the latter famously photographed by Alfred Stieglitz. Remarkably, Picasso painted Fernande some 26 times between 1909 and 1910, according to Picasso scholar Josep Palau i Fabre. The present version was acquired by the seller at Sotheby’s London in 1973 for £340,000.
Analytical or otherwise, Cubist works are extremely rare to auction, and a painting of this unquestionable caliber easily quelled any market jitters. Bidding opened at £28 million and cruised slowly along at £500,000 increments as two bidders played a cat-and-mouse game of upping the ante. One of them was Amy Cappellazzo, the newly installed co-chairman of the Fine Arts Division, who lost out to the anonymous telephone bidder. Hearty applause from the salesroom greeted the winning bid, an appreciative indicator of a nervous market.
The second star, Amedeo Modigliani’s sublime 1919 seated portrait “Jeanne Hébuterne (au foulard),” depicting the artist’s swan-necked lover and muse outfitted in a blue dress and posed on the edge of a high-backed chair, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £43.3 million ($56.6 million) against an unpublished estimate in excess of £28 million. It was the only lot in the sale carrying a last minute so-called ‘irrevocable bid, a form of a third-party-backed guarantee. That arrangement was announced by auctioneer Helena Newman just as the painting came on view in the salesroom.
The three-quarter-length portrait depicts Hébeturne with a serene yet melancholic air. Tragically, and ironically, it was completed shortly before both the artist and the sitter died, just two days apart in January 1920. Hébuterne, 22 years old and pregnant with Modigliani’s second child, leapt to her death from their apartment window following her lover’s passing.
The picture was last on public view in 1986 at the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo. It last sold at Christie’s London for £1.9 million in June 1986, too long ago to make a reasonable comparison. A better though still distant indicator might be “Jean Hébuterne (Devant une porte),” from 1919, which sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2004 for $31,368,000.
Bidding opened at £25 million and crawled along at £250,000 increments, as five telephone bidders duked it out. Its price was the fourth highest for the artist at auction. The painting has been requested for inclusion in the Tate Modern’s Modigliani retrospective, slated for November 2017.
The Picasso and the Modigliani are the two most expensive works to sell at auction in London since February 2010, when Alberto Giacometti’s iconic bronze sculpture “Walking Man” brought a then-record £65 million ($104.3 million) at Sotheby’s.
The only major casualty among the big-ticket lots was Auguste Rodin’s 68 1/8-inch-high, posthumous bronze cast “Eve, grand modèle—version sans rocher à la base carrée,” originally conceived in 1881, which was bought in at £6.2 million against an estimate of £8 million to £12 million ($11.57-17.36 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 1998 for $1,014,500
Better luck greeted Alberto Giacometti’s early, 1925 oil on board “Portrait of Diego,” depicting the artist’s brother seated formally in an armchair with folded hands and sporting a bow tie, which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £1,325,00 ($1,948,545) against an estimate of £500,000 to £700,000 ($725,000-1.02 million). David Norman, Sotheby’s seasoned worldwide co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art — one of many experienced hands to announce his departure from the firm in the past six months — took the winning bid in his last auction for the company, The robust price might be attributable to the painting’s inclusion in the recent National Portrait Gallery (London) exhibition “Giacometti: Pure Presence,” which opened in 2015, as well as to the fact that it came to market from the artist’s brother Bruno Giacometti, following the death of Diego.
Another high achiever was Wilfredo Lam’s 1969 Picasso-like figurative-abstraction “Fruits tropicaux,” in oil on canvas, which sold to another telephone bidder for £1.145,000 ($1,.7 million), topping the high estimate of £850,000 ($1.23 million).
“The sale was very strong, overall,” said Helena Newman, Sotheby’s chairman of Impressionist & Modern Art, Europe, who made her evening sale debut as auctioneer. “It felt healthy and deep, with global bidding. I think the whole, global art market will breathe a sigh of relief.”
The Impressionist and modern action continues Wednesday evening at Christie’s.