Though impressively powered by four works that sold for over £10 million apiece, Sotheby’s Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist Art evening sale on Wednesday was marred in part by a trail of unsold works that limited the overall tally to £93,713,500/$134,928,697 — below the low end of the pre-sale estimate of £97,330,000-137,870,000/ $140,135,734-198,506,226. Fifteen of the 53 lots offered went unsold, for a flabby buy-in rate by lot of 28 percent.
The result also trailed far behind last February’s £186.5/$280.1 million auction for 63 lots sold, where Claude Monet’s “Le Grand Canal” from 1908 sold for £23.6/$35.5 million.
On the upside, 18 lots sold for more than a million pounds on Wednesday, and of those five exceeded £5 million; 24 lots sold for over a million dollars and five made more than $10 million. Two artist records were set.
(All prices reported include the hammer price plus the added on buyer’s premium for each lot sold calculated at 25 percent 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 in excess of £1.8 million. Estimates do not include the buyer’s premium.)
The evening got off to a decent start with an iconic Henry Moore bronze, the 11-inch-high “Maquette for King and Queen,” which sold to a telephone bidder for £1,109,000/$1,596,736 (est. £800,000-1.2 million). New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe was the underbidder.
Another mini-Moore lifetime bronze cast, “Family Group” from 1945, sold to another telephone bidder for £269,000/$387,306 (est. £250-350,000).
And Paul Signac’s “Voiles dans la brume (Canal de la Giudecca),” a hazy Venetian scene in oil on canvas from 1904, went for £1,025,000/$1,475,795 (est. £850,000-1.2 million). The picture had last sold at Sotheby’s London back in December 1985 for £143,000, so there was no question about it being fresh to the market.
Trouble, as it were, started early, with Franz Marc’s trio of handsome horses prancing in a pasture, “Grosse Landschaft I/Large Landscape I” from 1909, which flopped at £3.5 million (est. £4-6 million).
Max Beckmann’s sultry, reclining figure “Schlafende am Strand (Quappi at the Beach)” — painted in 1927 when the artist was in Frankfurt and reworked, according to the catalogue note, in 1950 while he was living in New York — did better, selling to another telephone bidder for £1,565,000/$2,253,287 (est. £800,000-1.2 million).
Picasso, represented by eight works in the sale, also performed fairly well. His 1933 “Le Peintre et son modèle,” a 13 ½ by 20 inch charcoal on paper depicting the artist and his young mistress and muse Marie-Therese Walter, selling to a telephone bidder for £1,445,000/$2,080,511 (est. £1.2-1.5 million).
An earlier and rougher Picasso, “L’Etreinte forcée”, a pastel on board from the artist’s early Paris days of 1900 and rather graphically depicting a man’s unwanted embrace of a woman, sold to New York dealer Jose Mugrabi for £725,000/$1,043,855 (est. £700,000-900,000). (Auctioneer Henry Wyndham, peering down from the auction podium at the buyer, declared to the famous dealer, who eschews a registered bidding paddle, “I think we know who you are.”)
And another Picasso, the boldly colored “Tête de femme,” from March 1935, an oil on canvas also showing Walter, took top lot honors, selling to one of the three vying telephone bidders for £18,853,000/$27,144,549 (est. £16-20 million).
Remarkably, the price was far below the $39.9 million result it achieved when it last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2013.
“The reality,” opined dealer Christophe van de Weghe, who attended both the 2013 sale and the one tonight, “is that this painting is worth $24 million” — Wednesday’s hammer price before premium — “and it’s a lot money. Before, it was a case of two people bidding at auction against each other and the price was completely cuckoo.”
Overall, as van de Weghe pointed out, “if you look at what happened in January on Wall Street, this sale is extremely positive.”
One interesting aspect of the auction was the relative absence of financial guarantees, either directly from Sotheby’s or anonymous third parties. (One of the few was a so-called “irrevocable bid” carried by Picasso’s “Le Reservoir” from 1950, a depiction of the beautiful Mediterranean town of Vallauris, which sold for £2,781,000/$4,004,084 [est. £2.5-3.5 million].) Say what you might about this sale, it was mostly free of behind-the-scenes financing and therefore more truly reflective of where the market stands.
Of the big-time lots, Henri Matisse’s densely patterned and rather dated looking family scene, “La Leçon de piano” from 1923, offered from the collection of the late Scotsman Royan Middleton, sold to international dealer David Nahmad for £10,789,000/$15,534,002 (est. £12-18 million).
Like a number of high-stakes entries on Wednesday, the painting apparently had its reserve, the secret minimum price for which the seller will allow the work to sell, revised downward prior to auction. Estimates printed in the catalogue were determined in late 2015, before the financial markets went south. Revised reserves are one way to save a work from a buy-in.
In that same revised vein, Claude Monet’s light-soaked “Le Palais Ducal vu de Saint Georges Majeur” from 1908, one of the canvases shown in his “Claude Monet, Venise” exhibition at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris in 1912, sold for £11,573,000/$16,662,805 (Est. £12-18 million). The hammer price was £1.8 million below the low estimate.
There was zero hesitation during the longest bidding battle of the evening for Auguste Rodin’s erotically positioned “Iris, messagère des dieux,” a 32-inch life-time bronze cast from between 1902 and 1905 that sold to a tenacious bidder in the room who beat out several telephones for a record (in pounds) £11,573,000/$16,662,805 (est. £6-8 million).
The sculpture sold to dealer/advisor Ben Frija of Copenhagen’s Galleri K, bidding on behalf of a private European collector. “It’s an extremely rare life time cast of this highly desirable ‘contemporary’ work,” said Frija after the sale. “Along with The Thinker it is Rodin’s most powerful work.”
The price realized for the suspended and headless female figure, certainly one of Rodin’s most daring sculptures, demonstrates how far the market can still go for desirable and rare works.
Though a record price for the artist in pounds, Rodin’s 68.1 inch high “Eve, grand modele-version sans rocher” from an 1897 cast, still holds the record of $18,969,000 set at Christie’s New York in May 2008.
On a quieter scale, a modestly sized Paul Gauguin still life, “Nature morte aux mangos et a la fleur d’hibiscus” from 1887, sensuously painted around the time Gauguin was in Martinique, sold to London dealer and collector Danny Katz for £2,389,000/$3,439,682 (est. £2-3 million).
In the separate-catalogue Surrealist Art portion of the evening, René Magritte’s fantastical gouache on paper “Sheherazade” from 1956, depicting a woman’s face and figure with an elaborately constructed strand of painted pearls, made £785,000/$1,130,243 (est. £500-700,000).
A standout Francis Picabia oil on card laid down on board, “Ventilateur” from 1918, resembling in a somewhat astonishing way one of Robert Rauschenberg combine paintings of the 1950’s, sold to a telephone bidder for £2,389,000/$3,439,682 (est. £1.8-2.5 million).
The standout during this part of the sale, and its cover lot entry, Paul Delvaux’s early and exquisite “Le Miroir” from 1936 — in which a finely dressed seated woman stares at a reflection of herself nude in a mirror — sold for a record £7,317,000/$10,535,017 (est. £5.5-7.5 million). It had last sold at Christie’s London in December 1999, when it made what was then a record for the artist of £3,191,500.
“Overall, I was actually really pleased with the results,” said Helena Newman, chairman of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Europe, “because we had five lots that sold above 10 million and I think it demonstrated a kind of well-functioning, solid market with confidence to bid at these levels, and showing a continuing appetite.”
As Newman accurately observed, “there was a lot of anticipation about how these sales would perform and altogether, it was reassuring and solid.”
The evening action resumes with Post-War and Contemporary Art at Christie’s London on Tuesday.