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Colourful Gris tops London Impressionist & Modern series

10 February 2014Written by Alex Capon

Leading the latest series of Impressionist & Modern auctions in London, a textbook Cubist still life by Juan Gris (1887-1927) sold for £31m at Christie’s.

Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux  (Still life on checked tablecloth) was one of a number of top lots that were taken to record levels and ensured that, even with the withdrawal of 85 works by Joan Miró (1893-1983) consigned on behalf of the Portuguese government at Christie's, the overall totals were the highest ever seen in London in this category.

The painting by Gris was one of 22 works consigned from a private Swiss collection, six of which appeared at Christie's evening sale on February 4, with the others spread across the day sales.

The collection had been formed by a couple who were both published authors and who became friends with many of the artists whose works they acquired.

Nature morte à la nappe à carreaux, measuring 3ft 10in x 2ft 11in (1.17m x 89cm), dates from 1915, a period when the artist moved away from his relatively static still lifes and more towards colourful explosions of energy and movement. Commercially, these pictures are what the market favours and the previous record for Gris at auction had been Violin et guitar  from 1913 which took $25.5m (£16.7m) at Christie's New York in November 2010.

Flying past an estimate of £12m-18m, the London price almost doubled the saleroom high for Gris and takes the artist into a new league commercially. It was knocked down to a private buyer bidding through a London dealership.

This was the top lot of the series by some distance and made a major contribution to the overall hammer total on the night at Christie's. The combined amount raised from the 76 lots in their Impressionist & Modern evening sale and the Art of the Surreal sale (which immediately followed it) was £154.7m.

The figure was the highest sum ever generated at one of these back-to-back events in the capital and was towards the upper end of the £113.3m-162.9m estimate.

Miró Withdrawal

The total may have been significantly higher had it not been for the last-minute withdrawal of the Miró lots for which Christie's had produced a separate catalogue. Although most of the pictures were works on paper, there were a number of oil paintings, including Femmes et oiseaux, a 1968 oil on canvas estimated at £4m-7m. The collection overall was expected to raise around £30m.

The consignment had come about following the nationalisation of Portugal's BPN bank in 2008, which included the assets of their corporate art collection. However, the intervention of opposition politicians who made an attempt to block the sale in the Portuguese courts appears to have precipitated the withdrawal.

A statement from Christie's referred to "the legal uncertainties created by this ongoing dispute", and confirmed that they "stand ready to support a future sale once these differences are resolved".

Their handling of the export licences however drew comment from the Portuguese Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho, although he also told reporters last week that he expected the sale would go ahead "in the near future".

Pissarro's Paris

Sotheby's meanwhile raised a hammer total of £141.81m from their 89-lot Impressionist, Modern and Surrealist art evening sale on February 5.

The top lot here was Camille Pissarro's (1831-1903) Le Boulevard Montmartre, matinée de printemps from 1897, which had been restituted in 2000 to the family of Jewish industrialist Max Silberberg, whose collection was subject to a forced sale by the Nazis in 1935.

The Parisian street scene was billed as 'one of the most important Impressionist masterworks to come to auction in the last decade' and five bidders pursued it against a £7m-10m estimate, including the dealer Lionel Pissarro, the artist's great-grandson who is part of the firm Connery, Pissarro, Seydoux. It was eventually knocked down to a phone bidder at £17.5m, a record for the artist at auction.

Another major lot was Vincent Van Gogh's (1853-90) L'Homme est en mer from 1889, which sparked a phone battle against a £6m-8m pitch and sold at £15m. The 2ft 2in x 20in (66 x 51cm) oil depicting a young mother pining for her husband away at sea was painted while the artist was in Saint-Paul's asylum in Saint-Rémy following his famous act of self-mutilation.

It's previous owners included Dr Paul Gachet (1828-1909), who treated Van Gogh towards the end of his life, and the American actor Errol Flynn. The vendor had acquired it in 1993.

Sotheby's also offered 37 lots from the collection of gallery owner Jan Krugier, all of which got away on the night. They were led by the gouache Composition au Minotaure  by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), which took £9.2m, a new record for a work on paper by the artist.

A further 82 works from the collection offered at their day sale helped lift the total for that event to £43.1m - the highest for any Sotheby's day sale.

The overall total for the week at Sotheby's and Christie's was £356m, well above the £265.9m seen at the equivalent series last year and, in fact, the highest for any sales series in London. All eyes will now be on this week's Contemporary art sales to see if bidding reaches similar levels.

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