Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern auction report: Record price for Modigliani

No market for the mediocre, however


The indomitable optimism of D.D. Brooks, ceo of Sotheby’s, who always manages to say something positive about a sale, however badly it had gone, could not disperse the gloom caused by the poor results of the Impressionist and Modern sale on 16 November. Only nineteen of the forty-one lots sold—most of them at the low estimate—for a total of $37,216,500.

The first part of the evening was more reassuring. The dispersal of thirty-seven works from the Reader Digest Collection, all works bought between the Forties and Sixties and fresh to the market, with some masterpieces among them, totalled $86,583,200 (94.4% sold by dollar) achieving two world records.

Last season has been a brilliant one and still fresh in the memory in August when the experts set the estimates for the Impressionist and Modern sale. The names of the artists may have merited the optimism, but the quality of the paintings often did not. That is the only explanation for the twenty-one lots unsold out of the forty-one offered, too many of them feeble Renoirs and Picassos and works bought by the Japanese during the “bubble years”.

In the Reader’s Digest sale, the delicate and moving Portrait of Jeanne Hébuterne by Amedeo Modigliani achieved a new record of $15, 127,500 and inevitably detracted from the sale of the second Modigliani of the evening, “Jeanne Hebuterne in an armchair”. This was bought by Nancy White for $9,902,500. The second record of the sale was the extraordinary Alberto Giacometti, “The forest, seven figure and a head”, bought by art investment advisor, Simon de Pury, for $7,482,500.

In the second part of the evening, the few sales rarely went above the low estimates. The only high points were “Haymakers at Eragny” by Camille Pissarro ($3,137,500), “The mouth of Port-Goulphar” by Claude Monet ($2,422,500); “Weisser Klang” by Wassily Kandinsky; “The potato-gatherers” by Maurice Vlaminck ($1,872,500) and, finally, the exciting “Toppling man” by Alberto Giacometti ($2,642,500).

According to Alexander Apsis, head of the Impressionist and Modern Department, the sale was dominated by American buyers, with a good sprinkling of Europeans and no Asians at all. There were at least ten new buyers, in the forty to fifty age-bracket, interested in works even at two or three million or so.

The two sessions of the Impressionist and Modern sale on 17 and 18 November yielded better results, totalling $26,938,750 (70% by dollar). Some of the bought-in lots from the previous evening (including two of the three unsold Reader’s Digest pictures: “The muse” by Constantine Brancusi and “Young woman in blue going to the conservatoir” by Renoir) were also sold by private treaty, thereby, said D.D. Brooks, raising the grand total to $50 million. The twenty works by Paul Klee were all sold bar one (95% by dollar), realising $4,838,625.