Market sobers up at London’s Impressionist and Modern sales

Results were “solid”, though nowhere near the giddy heights of last year’s sales

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While sparks may not have flown at the Christie’s evening sales on Tuesday, the results were solid given the predictions for a less frothy market in 2016. While the respectable hammer total of £82.5m fell shy of the estimate (£87.3m-£129.1m), the buyer’s premium pushed it up to £95.9m. The sell-through rate was 75%. “You could say there was no fizz in the champagne, but for the first sale of the season it went fine. It was a good, old fashioned London trade sale—it shows the true market,” said the adviser Thomas Seydoux, who bought the fiery red Chagall, Les mariés de la Tour Eiffel (1928), for £6.2m (£7m with premium).

Among the top lots was Egon Schiele’s Self-portrait with spread fingers (1909), an early work in the style of his mentor Gustav Klimt, estimated at £6m-£8m, which went for £6.4m (£7.3m with premium), while the cover lot, Fernand Léger’s small but punchy Le Moteur (1918), sold within estimate for £4.6m (£5.2m with premium) to the dealer Hugh Gibson.

Unexpected interest in a large and colourful late Renoir nude, Femme nue à sa toilette (1913) and an early Cézanne work, Portrait (1866-67), helped both works soar well past their upper estimates, selling, to some surprise, for £3.4m and £1m (£3.9m and £1.2m with premium). A large satirical painting by Georg Scholz, a Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) artist whose work is relatively rare on the market, was snapped up by the New York dealers Acquavella for £1m (£1.2m with premium), twice the upper estimate of £500,000 and an auction record for the artist.

Christie’s Surrealist sale was more muted compared to last year’s, which was bolstered by the consignment of major works by the Belgian businessman Pierre Salik. Nonetheless, it produced the evening’s top lot, Max Ernst’s The Stolen Mirror (1941), estimated at £7m-£10m, which sold for £6.8m hammer (£7.6m with premium) to a third party guarantor. The work had previously sold at Christie’s New York for £10.3m (with premium) in November 2011. Meanwhile, a museum quality Dalì, Pêcheurs au soleil (1929), sold for £980,000 (£1.2m with premium) to a private buyer. The work has been requested as a loan for a Dalì-Duchamp show at London’s Royal Academy in 2017—“we hope the buyer, whoever they are, will honour this agreement,” said the auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen.

Sotheby’s evening sales Wednesday night were very much along the same lines—not stellar, but indicative of a “solid, functioning market”, said Helena Newman, the auction house’s chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art, Europe. Again, the hammer total of £81m (£93.7m with premium) fell short of the £97.6m-£138.4m estimate, and the lack of appetite that transpired at times was peppered with some strong sales. “Buyers are looking for value purchases and are very selective,” Newman said.

The top selling lot was the lifetime cast of Rodin’s Iris, Messagère des adieux (1902-05), which sold for £10.2m (£11.6m with premium), well above its upper estimate of £8m and more than twice what it last sold for, at Sotheby’s in 2007. The buyer was the Oslo dealer Ben Frija, according to the industry newsletter, the Baer Faxt.

The three other top Impressionist and Modern lots sold more soberly, even though they each fetched more than £10m each. Picasso’s brash, colourful Tête de Femme (1935) went for £16.7m (£18.9m with premium), just above its lower estimate of £16m, a good result, had the seller not bought it at Sotheby’s New York, in 2013, for $39.9m (with premium), then the equivalent of £25.4m. A late Monet with a low reserve, Le Palais Ducal vu de Saint-Georges Majeur (1908), sold for £10.2m (£11.6m with premium), below its lower estimate of £12m, while Matisse’s La Leçon de Piano (1923), in the collection of the Scottish publisher Royan Middleton since 1927, sold for £9.5m (£10.8m with premium) again, below the lower estimate of £12m, this time to the Nahmads, according to the Baer Faxt.

Leading the charge in the Surrealist sale was Paul Delvaux’s Le Miroir (1936): this set the artist's auction record of £6.4m (£7.3m with premium), surpassing the £3.2m record it had previously set at Christie’s in 1999.

“This is an evolution in the market and certainly not a bloodshed: it's the correction we've all been anticipating,” said Nazy Vassegh, the chief executive of London’s Masterpiece art fair. “What will be interesting will be to see what happens in the contemporary auctions next week, which will give us a clearer diagnosis.” The sales continue Thursday with Bonhams Impressionist and Modern auction, and next week Post-War and contemporary London sales begin at Phillips on 9 February.

Christie’s evening total, 2 February: £82.5m (£95.9m with premium)

Estimates: £87.3m - £129.1m

Impressionist and Modern: £57.3m (£66.4m with premium)

Estimates £60.5m - £88.9m

Surreal: £25.3m (£29.5m with premium)

Estimates £26.9m - £40.3m

Sotheby's evening total, 3 February: £81m (£93.7m with premium)

Estimate: £97.6m-£138.4m

Impressionist and Modern: £68.4m (£78.9m with premium)

Estimates £85.9m-£121.9m

Surreal: £12.7m (£14.9m with premium)

Estimates £11.8m-£16.5m

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