A new Ukrainian buyer spent over £12 million ($21 million) at Sotheby’s sales of Impressionist and Modern art on 20 June. The unidentified bidder, with paddle number LO22, secured three of the top five lots at the sale, classic works by Signac, Gauguin and Vlaminck. He bought a small Sisley and underbid two other works; he may also have been the buyer of the top lot, the Van Dongen Femme au grand chapeau, which sold for over £5 million, setting a new auction record for the artist.
The appearance of this new, deep-pocketed buyer, bidding through an agent in Switzerland and apparently not previously active in the market, caused considerable excitement in the market. “Because there are very few buyers at the top end”, says art advisor Daniella Luxembourg, “even two or three new buyers can totally change the dynamics of a sale”.
The mysterious Ukrainian apparently did not buy at Christie’s on the following night, but both auction houses were heartened by the reappearance of American buyers.
The sales demonstrated the market’s continuing enthusiasm for good, fresh works, but it is a sign of the current strength of the market—and the increasing paucity of supply—that the auction houses managed to sell as much as they did. A number of works which had recently been bought in were successfully reoffered, while others of very mediocre quality also found buyers.
There were barely more than five good paintings in this sale, although they were very good, and compensated for the other material. A vivid Gauguin still life went to the mystery Russian buyer for £3.592 million; Feininger’s lively bicyclists, consigned by the Sultan of Brunei, made £1.912 million and Gris’ Paysages et maisons à Ceret fetched £3.256 million. The sale made £45.8 million ($83.7 million), within expectations, with 75.5% sold by lot and 87.9% by value.
Van Dongen, Femme au grand chapeau, 1906, sold for £5,048,000 ($9.2 million est. £3/4 million)
There was speculation in the room that this painting was also bought by the new Russian buyer, bidding under a different number. At least three bidders wanted it, including the New York art consultant Nancy Whyte, but it finally sold to an unidentified telephone bidder. Several dealers said the work had condition problems, although Sotheby’s specialist Phillip Hook said that the condition was “typical of works of this period, with some shrinkage in the greens”. The painting last appeared at auction in 1997 when it had already set a record of £2.2 million.
There were seven Van Dongens in the evening sales and another 10 in the day sales, a rush that the auction houses explained by the high price the garish Femme fatale sold for last year, almost $6 million. All but one of the Van Dongens in the evening sales sold over estimate. “The benchmark has been raised for Van Dongen prices”, said specialist Jussi Pylkkänen after Christie’s sale the following night.
Signac, Les Andelys, les laveuses, 1886, sold for £3,648,000 ($6.6 million, est. £1.5/2 million)
This is a very beautiful work painted in the pivotal year just after Seurat had exhibited Une dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte, when Signac was painting in his signature pointilist style but before he became rigorously scientific applying the technique. The work had been in a private French collection for over 50 years and at least three bidders competed for it, pushing the price to a new record for Signac; the buyer was bidding through an agent in the room using paddle number LO22.
Vlaminck, Le jardinier, 1904, sold for £4,824,000 ($8.8 million, est. £2.5/3.5 million)
Vlaminck’s Fauve works are the most desired of his oeuvre; this example lacked the brilliance of some of the river scenes and had recently returned from Japan but was bought by paddle LO22, underbid by the London dealer Danny Katz.
Cross, Vendanges (Var), 1892, sold for £2,976,000 ($5.4 million, est. £1.3/1.8 million)
Cross may be a second-rank artist but this is a top-rate work, painted when Neo-Impressionism was at its peak. As a further inducement, the work was deaccessioned from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was hotly pursued by at least five bidders and sold to an unidentified telephone buyer.
“We were terrified that the low dollar would have the same effect it did in February, when European buyers took all the top lots”, said auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen after the evening sale on 21 June. “But we had five American buyers successfully purchasing works in our top 10 lots; there were also Asian buyers.” He noted that these new buyers were “much more selective and better advised than the Japanese were in the late 1980s” and also said that, apparently, a number of them had not even seen the paintings they bought. The sale made £31.6 million ($57.5 million, within pre-sale expectations) and was 73% sold by lot and 83% sold by value; as at Sotheby’s the night before, some of the weaker works unexpectedly found buyers.
Archipenko, Woman, 1918, sold for £1,464,000 ($2.6 million, est. £900,000/1.2 million)
This fantastically rare sculpto-painting was one of five works from the collection of textile magnate Erich Goeritz, which had been on loan to the Tel Aviv Museum. It sold to the Saltzburg art consultant Peter Eltz, apparently relaying bids from a woman on a mobile telephone seated beside him. After the sale Mr Eltz said he was bidding for a private collector. Of the other Goeritz pieces, another sculpto-painting, Woman in room, 1917, which had severe condition problems, was bought in, but three sculptures all exceeded their presale estimates.
Vlaminck, Peniche sur la Seine, 1905, sold for £3,144,000 ($5.7 million, est £2.8/3.5 million
Christie’s had guaranteed this painting which was returning swiftly to the market, having been bought for over £4.7 million in 2001 by a “private American collector”. However, The auction house says it did not lose money on the deal. The work itself remains hugely attractive, and was bought by a private Asian buyer. Another consignor, described as an “American collector” in the catalogue, lost money on Van Gogh’s Une liseuse de romans, 1888, which had been bought just two years ago for over £3.365 million. This time around it made just £2.6 million, and sold to a private American collector.