Wednesday - 10 February 2016

Modern art in New York adapts to modern times

20 May 2009Written by ATG Reporter

Thin catalogues and thin demand for aggressively-priced works by Modern masters characterised the recent sales of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York.

Sotheby's sale held on May 5, the day after the company's credit status received a 'junk' grading, was much diminished from years past both in number of works and value. A catalogue of 36 lots generated a hammer total of $53m (£37.9m) against a pre-sale estimate of $81.5m-111.8m - a shadow of the equivalent sale last year when a 52-lot selection posted $208.6m.

While 29 of the 36 lots sold, the figures were blighted by the failure of two big-ticket items estimated at $16m-24m each. The first of these was a 1938 Picasso canvas depicting his two-year-old daughter Maya holding a toy boat. It had been consigned by a victim of the Bernard Madoff ponzi scheme.

Meanwhile, a Giacometti bronze of a cat cast in 1959 in an edition of eight also failed to sell. Both had been offered privately prior to the sale and were considered overpriced.

But the evening was not without its positive notes - not least that the sale was free of the guarantees that had begun to compromise the auction house's profits when offering the world's most expensive pictures.

Mondrian's 1934 Composition in Black and White with Double Lines brought the highest price of the evening, selling to an unidentified bidder sitting in the back of the saleroom for a double-estimate $8.2m ($5.9m).

Six bidders competed for the work. Some attributed its popularity to the Yves Saint Laurent effect: the Paris sale had offered three Mondrians, including a 1922 canvas, said to have sold to Abu Dhabi's Louvre museum at €19.2m (£17.4m).

Three well-priced Impressionist images from a celebrated New York collection also performed well.

The late Marian Kingsland Frelinghuysen was an heir of Henry and Louisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer, celebrated collectors who left a portion of their collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929. On loan to the Met had been the early Monet landscape, Voilier sur le petit bras de la Seine, Argenteuil from 1872, which sold to the Nahmad Gallery for $3.4m (£2.4m), more than twice its high $1.8m estimate.

The Madoff scandal had also brought Christie's the front cover lot for their sale the following day: a 1968 Picasso entered for sale by Jerome Fisher, co-founder of the footwear company Nine West and a Palm Beach resident. Purchased at the Rockefeller Centre in 2004 for $6.4m (£4.57m), Mousquetaire à la pipe was estimated to sell for $12m-18m.

Christie's secured a third party to guarantee its sale, but there was genuine competition from five bidders before Brussels dealer Galerie Vedovi acquired it for a European collector at $13m (£9.3m).

Of the 38 works sold in this 48-lot sale (a major work by Max Ernst, with hopes of up to $9m, was withdrawn at the last minute), Christie's said European buyers secured 17 pictures and Americans 16.

The sale of their highest-priced works lifted Christie's hammer total to $89.5m (£63.9m), beating the $87.6m low estimate, but it was their lowest aggregate for Impressionist and Modern art in New York since 2004. Christie's NY sale posted $246m in 2008.

By Roland Arkell

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