Modigliani the star as Christie’s auction disappoints on eve of EU referendum

Political uncertainty and last-minute withdrawals may have contributed to below-estimate results

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Christie’s may have felt the ramifications of the impending Brexit vote as its Impressionist and Modern art sale on the eve of Britain’s EU referendum failed to reach its lower estimate. The sale total of £21.8m hammer (£25.6m with fees) came in well below the expected £32.8m-£48.7m, with a sell-through rate of 64%. Twelve of the 33 lots failed to sell, and only four fetched hammer prices above their higher estimates.

It was an uphill battle from the start, as three big lots were withdrawn at the last minute. Two were works by Picasso: Nature Morte and Nature Morte aux volets verts (both 1946), estimated at £2m-£3m each. The third was René Magritte’s Le temps jadis (1966), priced at £1.4m-£1.8m.

Further disappointment came when the evening’s cover lot, Monet’s L’Ancienne rue de la Chaussée, Argenteuil (1872), failed to attract any bids. Estimated at £4.5m-£6.5m, it was the only lot with a house guarantee.

“It’s a thin market,” said the adviser Thomas Seydoux as he walked out of the room. “It’s hard to establish price points for many of the works tonight.”

Modigliani’s market, however, appears to be in rude health. Aided perhaps by the high price a Modigliani portrait fetched at Sotheby’s the night before, the artist’s portrait of Madame Hanka Zborowska (1917) saw multiple bidders from Asia, the US and Italy. The work sold for £7.3m (£8.3m with fees), past its upper estimate of £7m.

Two records were set on the night. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s striking pastel on paper work, Blaue Artisten (1914), sold within estimate for £900,000 (£1.1m with fees), the highest auction price for the artist’s works on paper. And Bernard Buffet’s Les clowns musiciens, le saxophoniste (1991) saw multiple bidders from Asia, most likely Japan, where the artist is particularly popular. But the work finally sold within estimate to a non-Asian buyer for £850,000 (£1m with fees), narrowly beating the previous record.

At the press conference after the sale, the president of Christie’s Europe, Jussi Pylkkanen, spoke of the lack of stellar consignments. “The gathering period of January and February was tough. There was uncertainty in other markets and, as you saw, volumes are generally down across the board.”

Christie’s will now be turning its attention to its 250th anniversary celebrations. A curated sale to mark the occasion, Defining British Art, will take place on 30 June. “There is more confidence now than before, and there are still auctions to come,” Pylkkanen said.

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