Art market

London Impressionist and Modern sales: Yes, it’s good, but will it last?

Picasso, Matisse, Miró and Dalí suggest that great works of art continue to command great prices in changing markets


Four successive evening sales of Impressionist and Modern art, with each house offering its regular Part I catalogue preceded by an estate collection, took place in the middle of last month. Including a second and less important estate, a daunting list of 234 works of art were auctioned.

Under any circumstances, it posed a challenge for the market, particularly since there were a dozen paintings of considerable value and importance, more than had appeared in any single set of sessions in New York or London for six years.

The four sessions were launched with the sale of the collection of modern art formed by the late Donald Stralem and his wife, Jean, who died at the end of last year. Although they were regarded as captive clients of Christie’s throughout their lives, their executors unexpectedly steered this business towards Sotheby’s in one of those twists which maintain a balance between the two rival houses. Christie’s had committed itself to the Colin collection, and to Pamela Harriman who had consigned three potentially expensive works of art, and senior management at Sotheby’s argued successfully that its competitor could hardly be expected to promote a third special situation as well.

The Stralem catalogue comprised forty-six paintings and sculptures, for all but two of which auctioneer Simon de Pury found buyers on the evening of Monday 8 May, raising $59.2 million (£37 million), a grand achievement by any set of measures.

The two disappointments were a bland still-life by Odilon Redon (lot 12) and a weak portrait by Chaim Soutine (lot 27), but they were minor inconveniences in an auction which produced two spectacular prices for the two most significant pictures in the collection.

In a protracted competition, Picasso’s Blue Period portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto (lot 14, unpublished estimate $7-10 million) was pursued by two telephone bidders. In the end it emerged that it was Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber who made the winning bid of $26.5 million for this difficult but biographically important canvas, bought for his Art Foundation. A new auction record was established for Matisse’s celebrated composition, “La pose hindoue” (lot 23). A second painting by Matisse (lot 33, unpublished estimate $2.5-3.5 million), a more interesting composition but a less commercial image of a young girl at a piano, was purchased by a collector advised by London agent Aysa Chorley for $5 million.

One interesting tactical plan concerned the collection’s eight paintings of varied quality by Vuillard (lots 39-46). In chronological terms, they belonged near the front of the catalogue but Sotheby’s chose to feature them as a postscript and evidently made the correct decision. Two self-portraits fetched markedly different prices: a contre-jour effect of the young artist (lot 40, estimate $200,000-300,000) being one of the evening’s bargains when it was purchased by TWA chairman Carl Icahn for $160,000 (£100,000). A more characteristic exercise of the established master (lot 45, estimate $300,000-400,000) commanding a bid of $680,000 (£425,000). The final lot of this group was a Nabi set-piece, a musical group (lot 46, estimate $600,000-800,000) which provided a seal of success for the evening when it was sold for the surprisingly high price of $1.45 million (£906,250).

The following night’s Part I auction presented a slightly different set of results and may have been the single weak link in four nights of brilliant activity, with sporadic rather than consistent bidding for twelve lots of Impressionist paintings from the estate of Mrs John Barry (Nin) Ryan, followed by a further fifty-eight lots of mixed properties.

The Barry catalogue (lots 47-58) will have proved a financial embarrassment to Sotheby’s, which is believed to have given guarantees worth more than $11 million. Three of those twelve lots failed to find buyers, and the other works raised just $7.14 million, the highest prices being paid for Cézanne’s landscape (lot 53, estimate $2.5-3.5 million), which earned a bid of $2.1 million (£1.3 million), and Monet’s Vernon church (lot 55, estimate $2.5-3.5 million) which was sold for $3.4 million (£2.1 million).

The remainder of the sale comprised fifty-seven lots, forty-three of which found buyers and raised proceeds of $31.88 million.

The catalogue included fifteen pictures and works of sculpture consigned by retired Madison Avenue dealer Klaus Perls (lots 69, 70,76, 77, 79, 82, 84, 86, 87, 89, 93, 96, 98, 110, 111), apparently offered without reserve. His stock contained several important works of art of which the sale’s cover lot, an impressive and thickly textured portrait of Dora Maar painted by Picasso in 1938 (lot 98, estimate $2-3 million), fetched the highest price when it was purchased by a telephone bidder for $2.8 million (£1.75 million). The Nehmad partnership paid $2.35 million (£1.5 million) for Picasso’s excellent study of a seated figure in Turkish costume (lot 110, estimate $3-4 million), which is related to his series of the “Femmes d’Alger”. A rare limestone head carved by Modigliani (lot 76, estimate $1.5-2 million) was acquired by New York dealer Peter Blum for $950,000 (£593,750). In a confidential comment to The Art Newspaper, one leading expert has expressed his reservation about the authenticity of this work, pointing out that photographs published in Ambrogio Ceroni’s catalogue raisonné show it in an unfinished state.

The evening’s disaster was the failure of Toulouse-Lautrec’s tender portrayal of lesbianism (lot 65, unpublished estimate $4-5 million), which attracted one telephone bidder who was not prepared to pursue the picture alone. With a problematic subject and a whopping estimate, disingenuously based too closely upon the price which was achieved for another work by Lautrec at Christie’s, New York, exactly six months previously, it was the single serious casualty of the week.

As a result, “Cygnes refletant des elephants” (lot 100, estimate $2.5-3.5 million), an important Surrealist composition by Salvador Dalí, became the evening’s most expensive lot when it was purchased by a European private collector for $3.2 million (£2 million).

The collection of seventy-six paintings and sculptures belonging to the estate of Ralph and Georgia Colin covered a wide range of tastes and values. Christie’s, which auctioned it on the evening of Wednesday 10 May and found buyers for every lot, had set a global reserve, and auctioneer Christopher Burge indicated that he could give considerable latitude provided that there were genuine bids. Business was brisk and the collection raised $34.97 million.

Modigliani’s marvellous nude figure (lot 24, estimate $7-10 million) commanded the highest price of the evening, being purchased by a telephone bidder for $11.3 million (£7 million), a new auction record for the artist’s work.

As soon as Vuillard’s luncheon painting (lot 9, estimate $600,000-800,000) attracted the attention of five bidders, one of whom acquired it by telephone for the handsome price of $1.4 million (£875,000), it was apparent that Christie’s was romping home with a triumph. Other works which attracted considerable interest included Miró’s fine “Constellation” (lot 16, see caption); a bright and intense watercolour by Paul Klee (lot 31, estimate $300,000-400,000) for which a bidder competing with Olivier Berggruen paid $650,000 (£406,250); and Soutine’s carcass of beef (lot 37, estimate $300,000-400,000) for which a German bidder bid $460,000 (£287,500).

With this achievement tucked under his belt, Mr Burge approached the final session of the week, his Part I catalogue which he offered on the evening of Thursday 11 May, in ebullient form. It contained forty-one lots, for thirty-four of which there were buyers who spent $53.3 million.

Ambassador Pamela Harriman consigned three lots with mixed results. The cover lot was Picasso’s affectionate Neo-classical portrait of his wife Olga and their son (lot 124, estimate $9.5-12.5 million) which resulted in a contest between two telephone bidders, one of whom captured it for $10.9 million (£6.8 million). PaceWildenstein has been exhibiting a closely related but even less highly finished version of a similar composition.

Mrs Harriman’s portrait by Renoir (lot 112, estimate $5-7 million) was purchased by a telephone bidder for $5.1 million (£3.2 million). But a rather weak picture in Matisse’s late style (lot 134, estimate $2.5-3.5 million) fetched just $1.02 million (£637,500), the buyer being the Nehmad partnership.

The highest price of the evening was the telephone bid of $12 million (£7.5 million) paid for a rather beautiful portrait of a young man painted by Van Gogh at the end of 1888 (lot 116, unpublished estimate $7-9 million). The canvas had been consigned by a member of the distinguished Swiss dealing family of Nathan.

During the preview weekend preceding the auctions, concern was expressed that the houses were offering too many lots for the market’s comfort. As the week progressed, confidence mounted and it drew to a close in a mood of optimism not experienced for five years.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Yes, it’s good: will it last?'


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