Fears that New York’s flagship May sales might usher in a market meltdown were allayed last week as Sotheby’s and Christie’s posted solid results for Impressionist and Modern art.
Both auction houses had taken parallel gambles to secure
headline-grabbing entries for this season's evening sales but they
largely paid off.
Claude Monet's 1873 canvas Le Pont du Chemin de Fer à
Argenteuil was Christie's biggest ticket on May 6.
High Impressionism has been overshadowed by 20th century
painting in recent years, but this cerulean blue landscape of a
Parisian suburb bisected by locomotives on an iron bridge was a
seminal work for Monet who produced only three other comparable
paintings of the subject.
During the last Great Art Boom, in 1988, it was sold by Stavros
Niarchos, the Greek shipping magnate, at Christie's King Street for
£6.7m - at the time it was the second-highest price ever paid at
auction for a Monet.
It proved a solid long-term investment for dealers the Nahmad
family who had held it for 20 years - and a risk well taken by
Christie's who guaranteed their vendor a price thought to be around
A buyer bidding by telephone beat out two other contenders to
pay a record $37m (£18.8m). The previous auction record for a Monet
was the £16.5m paid last June at Sotheby's Bond Street for a 1904
painting from the Waterlilies series.
Sotheby's were selling a Cubist painting by Fernand Léger at
their equivalent sale on May 7. Etude pour La Femme en
Bleu, 1912-13, was estimated to fetch $35-45m and believed to
carry a guarantee in the region of $38m.
The canvas - deemed one of the last major Cubist pictures in
private hands - came from the family collection of German silk
manufacturer Hermann Lange, who bought it in the late 1920s in
Berlin. Bidding was thin but two buyers took it to its low estimate
of $35m (£17.8m) or $39.2m with premium, a price at which the
auctioneers could probably break even on the deal. These days not
even a $35m sale is necessarily profitable.
As global economic gloom descends, the gulf between the best and
the rest just grows ever wider as secondary works by major artists
proved much more price sensitive.
In all 14 out of 58 works failed to sell at Christie's and if
the sale hammer total of $246m (£124.9m) was the auctioneer's third
highest in the category then it was also well shy of the $287-405m
global estimate. Four of the unsold works carried guarantees
(undisclosed sums promised to vendors regardless of the outcome of
a sale) including Christie's Kees Van Dongen's Anita en
Almée estimated at $12-16m.
Sculpture, that in relative terms was once undervalued, was the
focus of the most competitive bidding. An exceptional group of
Giacomettis from various periods included Grande Femme Debout
II, a trademark 1960 bronze sold to the Gagosian Gallery at a
record $24.5m (£12.4m), a record price for the artist. Christie's
had thought it would bring $18m, but there were seven serious
Rodin's Eve, conceived in 1881 for the Gates of
Hell and cast in 1887, had been bought by its vendor at
Christie's New York in 1999 for $4.4m. Expected to bring $9m to
$12m, it took $16.9m (£8.6m).
Europeans (including significant Russian buying) accounted for
52 per cent of the buyers at Christie's. Americans made a
relatively modest 32 percent of the purchases - evidence perhaps
that a weak dollar and economic anxiety, that has deepened in
recent months as sub prime credit losses topped $300bn, was taking
its toll. However American buyers were stronger at Sotheby's the
following day acquiring 67 per cent of lots.
In the wake of a difficult November sale of 76 lots that fell
$85m short of its low estimate, this was more edited selection.
Sotheby's 52 lots posted a hammer total of $208.6m, inside its
estimated range of $203.9-280.1m. The results were, however,
largely similar to those at Christie's sale. Eleven lots did not
sell including a large but late Leger, estimated to fetch $12-18m
and again guaranteed.
Five bidders competed for Edvard Munch's Girls on a
Bridge, 1902. This is a picture with a recent saleroom
history: in 1980 the painting was sold at Christie's for $2.8m. In
1996 Alan Hobart of the Pyms Gallery, bought it at Sotheby's New
York for $7m on behalf of Graham Kirkham, the London collector and
founder of the retail chain DFS Furniture. Sotheby's, confident of
Munch's rising stock, approached their vendor in the belief this
canvas from a well-known series, could fetch $24-28m. It sold at
$27.5m (£14m), a record price for the artist at auction.
Giacometti was again strong - Portrait de Caroline, a
1963 painting of the artist's lover and frequent model sold to a
telephone bidder for $13m (a record price for a painting by the
artist) - and there were five bidders hoping to acquire Picasso's
painted bird bronze La Grue fashioned from domestic
objects including the blade of a shovel, two dinner forks and a gas
spigot. Conceived in 1951-52 and cast in 1952-54, it was estimated
at $10-15m and sold at $17.1m (£8.7m).
At this week's Contemporary sales the stakes are higher still
with close to $1bn of post-War on offer including a $70m Francis
By Roland Arkell