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Picasso musketeers duel at London auction houses

Sotheby’s wins against Christie’s with bolder version of the work and higher sale

Christie's vs Sotheby's: Picasso's musketeers

london. Two late Picasso “musketeers” painted a day apart exactly 40 years ago—both titled Homme à l’épée, 1969—dominated the impressionist and modern sales held at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in London on 23 and 24 June. The first sold for £5.75m at Christie’s, within the pre-sale estimate of £5m-£7m and more than double the £2.7m it achieved at auction in February 2005.

The highest price of the evening was the £6.3m paid for Claude Monet’s Au Parc Monceau, 1878, well above its high estimate of £4.5m. The other high achiever was a small, exquisite Joan Miró painting, Peinture (Femme se poudrant), 1949, which was estimated at £2.2m-£2.8m and sold for £3.96m.

Fourteen of the 44 lots failed to sell, however, including Picasso’s Buste de jeune garçon, 1964 (est £600,000-£900,000). The total sales figure was £37m, around the pre-sale low estimate, and Christie’s department head Thomas Seydoux said estimates in the middle market needed to be “fine tuned”. Both houses had difficulty gathering strong works for the sales, with potential sellers preferring to wait for an improved market before consigning works to auction.

Sotheby’s sale the following evening was a far livelier affair. It featured only 27 works, but made £33.5m, with just four lots remaining on the block.

The sale started out well with the first five lots making well over their estimates; a private Asian buyer scooped up Miró’s large Personnages devant l'oiseau-fusée qui s'enfuit, 1974, for £959,650 (est £400,000-£600,000). Then a group of three Giacometti sculptures from a private collection, possibly Swiss, made comfortable prices, with the highest of £3.4m given for Buste de Diego (Aménophis), 1954, cast in 1955, by a telephone bidder. The three works made a total of £7.4m. With the room well primed—for the first time in years not full to overflowing—the evening’s star turn came on the block. This was Picasso’s Homme à l’épée, 1969, painted just a day before Christie’s version. But this example was bolder and more colourful—and carried both a guarantee and an “irrevocable bid” symbol, meaning that the house had effectively pre-sold the work to someone, who would share in the upside if it sold to someone else for more. Two bidders wanted the work, one on the telephone and the other in the room, Lebanese financier Samir Traboulsi. He won the work at £6.98m, just under its low estimate. A Renoir flower piece made an over estimate £2.84m—it was thought in the trade to have been consigned by luxury goods mogul Bernard Arnault.

The sale “sent a very positive message to the market”, said Sotheby’s co-chair Melanie Clore, noting that there is “still a very healthy ongoing market for great impressionist and modern works of art”.

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