As the month came to a close, Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their series of Impressionist and Modern sales in London. With the day sales and works on paper sales being rather… “Ho-hum, nothing to write home about,” we typically turn to the evening sales to gauge the health of the market, but these results could not be more disparate.
The week started off with Sotheby’s Evening sale on Monday night and things got rolling quickly; by the time they hit their first unsold lot (18), the top three lots had already sold. Leading the way (far far away), was Monet’s iconic Nympheas (1906), bringing over £31M ($54M) on a £20-30M estimate. In fact, this was the second highest price ever paid for Monet’s work at auction – though well behind his record of $80.5 million, which was paid for Le Bassin aux Nympheas (1919) back in 2008. Taking second was a Mondrian, Composition with Red, Blue and Grey from 1927, which sold for £15.2M ($25.9M) — it was expected to bring between £13-18M. This particular work has never been sold at auction and achieved the second highest price ever paid for a work by the artist at auction. Rounding out the top three was another Monet, La Seine a Argenteuil, painted in 1875, just a year before his wife Camille became gravely ill. The work ended up selling for £8.5M ($14.5M) on a £7-10M estimate. The sale, as a whole, went incredibly well — 42 of the 46 (91.3%) found buyers while sale’s total of £121.9M nearly surpassed the presale estimate of £86.2-123.9M.
Sotheby’s day sale on Tuesday was mediocre at best with the top three lots (out of 354) reaching a combined total of just £2.5M. These included a Chagall, a Schiele, and Renoir’s Femme allongee; the latter of which was the only work to eclipse the £1M mark (barely – £1.022M/$1.74M), although it was only estimated to bring £500-700K. Chagall,s Les tulipes, which took second, had remained in a private Swiss collection for over 30 years and sold for £638K (Est. £350-450K – $1.087M) while a pencil on paper by Egon Schiele nabbed third at £578K ($923K) on a £200-300K estimate. With a lot of help from the buyer’s commission, the sale’s total squeaked it into the presale estimate range although over 100 lots failed to sell; the 247 sold lots (69.8%) totaled £23.1M ($39.4M – est. £22.4-31.7M).
Now we can move to the other side of the coin which can only be described as disappointing. Christie’s evening sale offered more lots, sold less work, and failed to scratch the surface of their presale estimate range (even with premiums added in). The top lot of the night was Kurt Schwitters’Ja – Was? -Bild, more than doubling its estimate of £4-6M when it sold for £13.9M ($23.7M), which is a new record price for a work by the artist at auction (previous record was only £1.3M). Second went to a Giacometti which featured an incredibly rare golden patina and is part of the renowned series of 9 sculptures known as the Femmes de Venise. The sculpture was estimated to bring £8-12M and sold for just over £9M ($15.3M). L’artiste et la modele nu by Henri Matisse took the third spot when it realized £6.8M ($11.5M – est. £7-10M). This work, painted during Matisse’s early years in Nice, has been featured in almost every major exhibition of the artist’s work in the last few decades. Even more interesting was the failure of the catalog’s cover piece, Giacometti’s La Main, which carried a £10-15M ($17-25M) estimate; this had a significant impact on the final numbers. As I noted earlier, the results were pretty poor… only 40 of the 60 works sold (66.6%) and the total with premiums yielded just £85.7M, quite a bit short of the £96.4-141.4M presale estimate.
We’ll wrap this up with the Works on Paper and Day sales which took place on Wednesday (results are combined). The top lot of the day was Giacometti’s Table grecque rectangulaire, which to me, simply put, looked like a very, I mean very, expensive coffee table. The bronze table, conceived in 1965, was estimated to bring between £120-180K but ended up realizing just over £650K ($1.1M – Damn it Timmy, how many times do I have to tell you to use a coaster!). Taking second was a work on paper by Oskar Schlemmer, bringing £548K ($931K) on an estimate of £200-300K. A Renoir took third, Paysage du Midi, selling for £542K ($920K) on a £480-700K estimate. Again, the overall results were just “middle of the road” — typical of the day sales. Of the 243 works were offered, 185 sold (76%) and the total take was £22.8M ($38.7M – Est. £19.1-28.3M); they too needed those premiums to sneak them into their pre-sale estimate range.
People are always interested in knowing how each individual market is holding up and it is really difficult to use the results from one set of sales to make a definitive statement, especially when those results are all over the map. My personal impression is that Impressionist and Modern markets are pretty healthy and the results of these sales are a clear statement that it is all about the specific works being offered. When the right piece hits the market, it will garner a strong price and when an average work is offered, the result is just that … average.