Wednesday - 16 April 2014

Tepid New York sales as nearly a third of lots fail

12 November 2012Written by Alex Capon

The latest Impressionist & Modern Art sales in New York saw generally selective demand as bidding failed to take off on a large proportion of the works on offer.

The evening auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's had around a third of their lots unsold and both events generated totals below their pre-sale estimates.

There were a few significant individual prices however as Christie's evening sale on November 7 was led by a $39m (£25.5m) Claude Monet and also set the highest price ever paid for a work by Wassily Kandinsky at $20.5m (£13.4m).

The former, Nymphéas from 1905, was a classic example from the Monet's Water Lilies series which had been estimated at $30m-40m. Although there were rumours that it had previously been offered privately, it drew three telephone bidders and sold to a US private buyer.

The price was the second highest ever seen for Monet, only behind Le Bassin aux Nymphéas from 1919, which set a record £36.5m at Christie's in June 2008. It also followed the failure of another Nymphéas painting from 1906 which had been left unsold at Christie's London in June 2010 with a £30m low estimate.

The Kandinsky in New York was a 1909 study from the Russian artist's Improvisations series based on scenes from medieval folk tales. The brightly coloured 3ft 3in x 2ft 4in (98 x 70cm) oil on cardboard showed a mystical hero wielding a golden sword before the city of Kiev. It had previously been displayed in a number of museums, including the Tate Modern in London.

Although such works by Kandinsky rarely appear on the open market, it was knocked towards the bottom of its $20-30m estimate to European private buyer bidding on the phone. The hammer price was actually below the £20.9m achieved by the artist's more impressive 1914 oil on canvas Fugue sold at Sotheby's New York back in May 1990, although the price paid here was greater since the buyer's premium charged by the auctioneers has risen substantially in the intervening 22 years.

Picasso Boost

The top work by Pablo Picasso at the Christie's sale was Buste de femme of 1937, a portrait of the artist's muse Dora Maar which sold for $11.6m (£7.58m) to an Asian private buyer.

Overall, the 69-lot sale at Christie's saw 48 lots sold (70%) for a $179.82m (£117.5m) hammer total. This was below the $209m-314m pre-sale estimate but above Sotheby's total from their evening sale the following night. Here, 46 of the 67 lots got away (69%) for a $142.5m (£93.2m) hammer total. Again, this figure was short of the $169m-245m pre-sale expectations.

The Sotheby's sale, which was originally due to take place on November 5 and had been rescheduled in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, saw works by Pablo Picasso make five of the top ten prices on the night.

They were led by the sale's top lot - a portrait of his muse Marie-Thérèse Walter with a vase of tulips estimated at $35m-50m. Nature morte aux tulips had last sold at auction for $26m (£17.2m) at Christie's New York in May 2000, but here fetched $37m (£24.2m), selling to an anonymous telephone buyer.

Also selling to an anonymous buyer at Sotheby's was Picasso's Femme à la fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse), which fetched $15.3m (£10m) against a $15m-20m estimate.

In terms of the works by British artists, a selection of five sculptures by Henry Moore at Sotheby's all sold and were led by the two-piece Reclining Figure No. 1. It was consigned from the estate of Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos which provided six lots to the auction. Estimated at $3m-5m, it was knocked down to an anonymous buyer at $4.1m (£2.68m).

Overall, the hammer total for the week, including day sales, was $388.2m (£253.7m) which as an improvement on the equivalent Imps & Mods series last year which made $346.3m (£227.8m).

The buyers premium at both Sotheby's and Christie's was 25/20/12%.

£1 = $1.53

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