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London Impressionist and Modern art sales report: Modigliani and Matisse overtake soft-focus Impressionists

Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Degas are yesterday’s stars

The summer auctions of Impressionist and Modern art dramatically underlined just how far taste has moved in the last few years. At Sotheby’s on 21 June, and at Christie’s the following evening, the top prices, and the biggest increases over estimate, fell on classic Modern masters, Modigliani, Matisse, Van Gogh, Picasso and Kandinsky. Trailing behind them were yesterday’s stars: Renoir, Sisley, Pissarro and Degas.

The highest price of the week, £6.6 million ($12 million) was paid for Matisse’s boldly patterned, sensuous “Odalisque au fauteuil noir”, while the most expensive failure was Renoir’s equally decorative “Portrait de Rapha Maître” which went unsold at £5.9 million (est. £6/8 million). This painting was further handicapped by having been offered in the trade before being sent to auction, and indeed several of the works on offer were not fresh to market. A number of lots sold for lower prices than they had commanded when previously sold, notably those bought during the boom in the late 1980s.

Also important for the results of the London sales was the continuing weakness of the dollar, which at 1.85 to the pound discouraged American buying. The London and New York dealer James Roundell pointed out, “This is a dollar market and you always have to think in dollar terms when evaluating the sales.” While an American vendor would gain by selling in London, as did the New Yorker Michael Steinhardt, who consigned 15 Schieles to Sotheby’s, equally, an American buyer, faced with a painting that cost 23% more in 2004 than it did in 1999, might well abstain. At Christie’s, just 26% of buyers were American, with British and European buyers totalling 68%, while at Sotheby’s 31% of buyers were from the US.

Surrealism and German expressionism did well. Classic Impressionism, soft-focus scenes by Sisley or intimiste interiors by Vuillard or Bonnard, were less successful. “The sales were fairly strong, and continued the pattern set in New York,” said Mr Roundell.

Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s total of £61.4 million ($112.9 million; presale estimate £50/69 million) was the highest for a London sale since 1989. This year’s bumper, 60-lot sale included a group of 15 works on paper by Egon Schiele consigned by the New York financier Michael Steinhardt. These surpassed their high presale estimate of £8.2 million, fetching £9.9 million with just one work unsold. The saleroom was curiously rowdy and auctioneer Henry Wyndham had to call for quiet more than once: enthusiastic applause greeted the sale of Van Gogh’s vivid still life of two angry-looking crabs lying on an emerald green background, which made £5.1 million ($9.4 million, estimate £1.2/1.5 million).

Modigliani, Garçon a la Veste Bleue, 1918. Sold for £6,165,600 ($11.3 million, est. £3.5/4.5 million)

This fine portrait had been deaccessioned by the Guggenheim Museum in 1990, when it sold for $11.5 million; another painting of the same sitter is in the Indianapolis Museum of Art. Five bidders wanted it, and it sold to Sotheby’s specialist David Norman on the telephone at a price well over the pre-sale estimate. It was one of three paintings which were thought to have been consigned by Prince Jefri, brother of the Sultan of Brunei. Once the world’s richest playboy and a formidable collector of erotica, Prince Jefri is said to have squandered over $2.7 billion, has been sued by his brother for corruption and has already sold many of his assets, which included 2,000 cars, 117 planes and a $500 million yacht. The other Jefri consignments in this sale were Renoir’s “Jeune femme se baignant”, 1888, which sold for £4 million, and the Renoir portrait which was bought in (see left).

Schiele, Lovers, 1913. Sold for £1,909,600 ($3.5 million, est. £1.2/1.8 million)

Of the 15 works consigned to Sotheby’s by the New York financier Michael Steinhardt, this made the highest price. The New York Times revealed the story behind their rapid appearance at auction: Mr Steinhardt had bought 14 Schieles just last year from Ronald Lauder for about $12.75 million. In turn, Mr Lauder had bought them, plus another 36 watercolours, from the estate of the great Schiele collector and dealer Serge Sabarsky. Claiming they did not look right in his apartment, Mr Steinhardt flipped the 14, plus another he owned, into auction in London, choosing Sotheby’s over Christie’s despite the fact he sits on Christie’s board. All but one of the works sold to a variety of buyers including Richard Nagy of the Dover Street Gallery, so Mr Steinhardt was rewarded with £9.9 million ($18.2 million), an improvement on the $15 million he is believed to have been asking for the group before turning to the London salerooms. “Lovers” was the best example, and in excellent condition, unlike some of the others which had faded slightly.

Pissarro, Le repos des Moissonneurs, 1875. Sold for £654,850 ($1.2 million, est. £350/450,000)

A surprise success was this attractive but hardly modern scene of harvesters resting, which went to a telephone bidder. It was one of a group of eight paintings from a “Private Family Trust” most likely bought as an investment as all the works had been bought recently, between 1996 and 2001. The group consisted of works by Boudin, Sisley, Pissarro, Vuillard, and Magritte, and had cost a total of £3.3 million when bought; they sold for £2.29 million.

Matisse, Odalisque au Fauteuil Noir, 1942. Sold for £6,613,250 ($12 million; est. “on request” of £5.5 million)

The highest price of the week was made by this sinuous, intensely patterned Matisse, showing his petite princesse, the model Nézy, who he discovered in Nice in 1940. Two telephone bidders wanted it, with Christie’s specialist Nick MacLean securing the work for an unidentified bidder believed to be the Manhattan dealer Nancy Whyte.

Kandinsky, “Dunaberg”, 1909. Sold for £3,029,250 ($5.5 million, est. £1.4/1.5 million)

This landscape, one of a group painted in Murnau between 1908 and 1909, as Kandinsky moved towards abstraction, last sold in London in 1997, when it fetched £1.6 million. This time around it attracted just two bidders, but determined ones, with the New York dealer Nancy Whyte finally winning at double estimate.

Bonhams

Modigliani, “Cristina”, about 1916, sold for £1,546,650 ($2.86 million, est. £700,000/1 million)

The market for Modigliani is such a minefield that until recently auction houses did not accept works that are not in Ceroni’s catalogue raisonné, even though he did not include some authentic works that he had not physically seen, thus excluding those in North America where he never went. The situation is further complicated by the presence of a competing specialist, Christian Parisot. . However, in Paris the specialist Marc Restellini has been working on a new catalogue raisonné, sponsored by the Wildenstein Institute, and will include this work from a Canadian collection. The painting was offered to Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg four years ago, when Bonhams’ specialist Howard Rutkowsky was still there. With PdP&L’s withdrawal from this market, Mr Rutkowsky’s move to Bonhams, and the time it took to “cover all our bases” as he says, which meant checking authenticity with both experts, the painting finally ended up in London. The successful sale proved that such works can be sold, albeit at a lower price. “Not being in the Ceroni does rule out a certain number of potential buyers, and if it had been in Ceroni, I would have thought that £2 million would be a reasonable estimate,” said Mr Rutkowsky. Two bidders wanted it, one an American dealer on the phone and another a private collector in the room; it sold to the phone bidder at a price well over estimate. The purchase may prove to be a wise investment if the Restellini catalogue gains universal acceptance. This was Mr Rutkowsky’s first major sale at Bonhams; he also achieved £94,000 for an Antony Gormley piece, while Malevich’s “Suprematist figure” made £721,650. The sale produced mixed results, with just 51% sold by lot, but 80% sold by value; it totalled £2.9 million.