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Disappointing Sotheby's sale shows correction at top end of the market

Last night's Impressionist and Modern auction in New York had a 66% sell-through rate

Despite getting off to a good start, the Impressionist and Modern evening sale at Sotheby's New York last night (9 May) fetched a disappointing result—a $123.4m hammer total ($144.5m with premium) against an estimate of $164.8m-$235.8m. There was a 66% sell-through rate, and 22 out of 62 lots fetched hammer prices that were below the lower estimate. Of these, many sold to single bids.

However, only one lot in the sale was guaranteed and many works were fresh to auction—a far cry from the Impressionist and Modern February sale in London where several star lots had been sold relatively recently. The results tonight were “a true reflection of the market we’re in right now,” said Helena Newman the house’s worldwide co-head of Impressionist and Modern art. In other words, if buyers are unwilling to buy, there is little an auction house can do. There were also few Asian phone bidders.

A new record was set for Auguste Rodin’s marble sculpture L’Eternel Printemps (1901-02), which fetched a hammer price of $18m ($20.4m with premium), well above its upper estimate of $12m. It is one of Rodin’s finest versions of this subject.

The evening’s cover lot, Paul Signac’s Maisons du port, Saint-Tropez (1892), consigned by the former US ambassador John Langeloth Loeb Jr. (est $8m-$12m) sold for $9.3m ($10.7m with premium) after lengthy bidding.

Another highlight was Maurice de Vlaminck’s Sous-Bois (1905) from the Blaffer collection. Billed as a Fauvist masterpiece, the work sold for $14.4m ($16.4m with premium, estimate $12m-$18m). But another lot from the same collection, Andre Derain’s Les Voiles Rouges (1906), with an estimate of $15m-$20m, failed to attract any bids. Its rarity made it “very hard to price,” Newman said.

Claude Monet’s sea landscapes were popular, with Marée basse aux Petit-Dalles (1884) selling for $8.6m ($9.9m with fees, est $3m-$5m) and Près Monte-Carlo (1883) selling for $6m ($7m with premium, est $5m-$7m).

It was a dismal night for Picasso, however. Of the eight lots on offer, four found no buyers and the remaining four sold for hammer prices below the lower estimate. Other works failed to find buyers despite bids almost reaching the lower estimate, indicating that some consignors were perhaps too optimistic with their reserves. “There were too many second-rate paintings,” said the dealer James Roundell after the sale.