Munch’s Girls on the Bridge fetches more than $50m in bellwether New York auction

Solid results for Sotheby’s in first sale after Trump's election victory, but László Moholy-Nagy gets the only artist record


In the aftermath of Donald Trump’s surprise election win last week, commentators have speculated about the effects of a Trump presidency on global and domestic business. Would his win spook the markets, or would the Republican party’s pro-business stance buoy buyer confidence? For the art trade, one hint may lie in the UK’s Brexit referendum in June, which had little effect on summer auctions, the results of which were mostly contingent on the quality of the lots on offer. Judging by the results of last night’s Impressionist and Modern sale at Sotheby's, the New York autumn sales this week might unfold in a similar fashion.

Early abstract works fared well, with František Kupka’s La Forme du Bleu (1924) selling for $1.8m ($2.2m with fees; est $1.5m-$2m), and László Moholy-Nagy’s EM 1 Telephonbild (1922-23) soaring past its upper estimate of $4m and selling for $5.2m ($6.1m with fees), a new record for the artist. The work was on show in New York at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum exhibition Moholy-Nagy: Future Present, which ran until September this year. Some figurative works also found favour, such as Otto Mueller’s striking Nude in Mirror with Self-Portrait (around 1922), which sparked collectors’ interest and sold for $1.2m ($1.5m with fees; est $600,000-$800,000).

Bidding at the top, however, was thin; the only three guaranteed works in the sale—Edvard Munch’s Girls on the Bridge (1902), Van Gogh’s Nature Morte: Vase aux Glaiëuls (1886) and Picasso’s Le Peintre et son Modèle (1963)—may have sold thanks to pre-arranged financial agreements. Nevertheless, Munch’s painting, which fetched $50m ($54.5m with fees) is still the artist’s second highest auction price.

“This was a bellwether auction, the first after the election, but that didn’t really seem to matter: no one is sitting on their hands,” said the British dealer James Roundell, the director of Dickinson gallery. The total of $137.2m fell short of the $142.8m-$182.5m estimate, but the auction house’s buyers’ fees pushed it up to $157.7m. It was a solid result given the dearth of big estates coming to market in this auction category. “It was an expected outcome, given that there were few A-plus pictures for sale,” the auctioneer Simon de Pury said.

Total estimates and results fell by 50% compared with the same sale last year, but the 81% sell-through rate suggests that Sotheby’s priced the works well, and that there is still appetite in the market.

Helena Newman, Sotheby’s chairman of Impressionist and Modern Art, Europe and the co-head worldwide of Impressionist and Modern Art, made history on the night by becoming the first woman to take an evening sale in New York.