Enjoy unlimited access: just £1 for 12 weeks

Subscribe now

The talk before the series was just how tightly the auctioneers had been being squeezed on fees but Sotheby’s biggest gamble paid off handsomely. They had guaranteed the $18-25m sale of Gustav Klimt’s c.1914 superbly preserved landscape Landhaus am Attersee consigned by luxury goods group LVMH (former owners of Phillips, de Pury Luxembourg who this year bowed out of the most important week on the international annual calendar). Three serious bidders helped it to a record $26m (£15.48m) and the top price of the series.

Sotheby’s evening sale of November 5 also included Alex von Jawlensky’s market-fresh Fauve female portrait Schokko c.1910 that tipped its top estimate to bring a record $7.4m (£4.4m) plus Van Gogh’s 1888 panoramic watercolour and brown ink of the countryside around Arles, La Moisson en Provence, that had sold in London in 1997 for £8m and returned in New York to bring $9.2m (£5.48m).

From the lucrative Bill Blass collection, Nu Couché, Picasso’s charcoal on canvas of a sleeping Marie-Thérèse Walter from his celebrated 1932 series sold at $8.7m (£5.19m) to Manhattan dealer Nancy Whyte acting as agent for a private collector.

In total 40 (70 per cent by lot, 88 per cent by value) of Sotheby’s 57 Part I lots sold for a knockdown total of $111.8 (£66.5m), comfortably within the pre-sale estimate and a substantial improvement upon the $81.5m (£52.3m) posted last year.

At the Rockefeller Center on November 4, Christie’s sold 35 of 43 lots (81 per cent by lot, 94 per cent by value) of their Part I lots for a hammer total of $104.2m (£62m) although again the real money came via a handful of stellar early Moderns.

Modigliani’s full length nude Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) consigned by casino mogul Steve Wynn brought $24m (£14.3m) while Fernand Léger’s 1914 Cubist masterpiece La femme en rouge et vert, recently restituted to the heirs of Léonce Rosenberg, merited its pre-match billing with $20m (£11.9m).

The $5.5m (£3.3m) bid for Henry Moore’s Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped, conceived in 1975 and cast in the artist’s lifetime, was also a record for the artist and one of several strong-performing sculpture lots that included Giacometti’s monumental lifetime cast of Grande Femme Debout IV that, offered for sale by AXA Insurance at Sotheby’s, sold at $8.6m (£5.1m).
With fewer issues of demand and supply, Contemporary art may soon usurp more traditional collecting areas as the biggest earner in the international auction market. But with close to $250m (£149m) of art sold over four days – daytime sales added a further $18.4m (£11m) at Christies (77 per cent sold) and $17.5m (£10.4m) at Sotheby’s (72 per cent sold) – for this series at least the status quo looks set to remain.

Exchange rate £1 = $1.68