THE latest Impressionist & Modern art auction series in London saw rising returns for the salerooms but buyers reacted unfavourably to heavy estimates on the most expensive works.
The top three works on offer last week witnessed muted bidding as vendors' ambitions and reserve levels were overly raised after a number of much-publicised record-breaking prices achieved earlier this year at the very top level.
Before the series began there was speculation that the art market could be taken to previously unseen highs, with important works by Manet, Picasso and Monet brought to auction. However, these works failed to generate strong bidding and both Imps & Mods evening sales at Sotheby's and Christie's went below their pre-sale estimates.
Nevertheless, both salerooms registered totals well up on the equivalent sales last year, indicating that the significant recovery in the modern art market witnessed in 2010 so far is being sustained.
Sotheby's opened proceedings with their evening sale on June 22, which included a painting billed by the auctioneers as "the greatest Manet portrait in private hands" and "one of the greatest self-portraits in the entire canon of art history". It was consigned by the American hedge-fund manager Steven A. Cohen and was offered with a £20m-30m estimate.
Having last sold at auction for $17m (£10.4m) at Christie's New York in 1997, the estimate was deemed rather punchy for a picture that was arguably more historically important than commercial. Little interest emerged when the bidding opened, and it sold on a single low-estimate bid to New York-based dealer Franck Giraud, who was in the room.
The price beat the previous auction high for the artist - a record which has stood for 21 years - which was the $24m (£15.5m) made by La Rue Mosnier aux Drapeaux at Christie's New York in November 1989.
Greater interest at Sotheby's emerged for a 1905 Fauvist landscape by André Derain (1880-1954), which came from the lost collection of dealer Ambroise Vollard and had been stashed away, largely forgotten, in a Paris bank vault for 40 years. Against a £9m-14m estimate, at least four bidders pursued Arbres à Collioure and it sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £14.5m, another artist's record.
Overall, Sotheby's evening sale raised a hammer total of £98.9m, below the £101m-148m pre-sale estimate. With 35 of the 51 lots (69 per cent) finding buyers, the total was well up on the £29.3m achieved last June from only 27 lots, when the market was deep in recession.
Christie's had even higher expectations at their Impressionist & Modern evening sale on June 23. With a pre-sale estimate of £164m-231m, on the night 46 of the 62 lots got away (75 per cent) for a total of £135m.
This was up from the £32.4m taken for 44 lots in June 2009, and the auctioneers claimed a record for a fine art auction in the UK.
But here again a muted response was seen for major works. Claude Monet's (1840-1926) water-lily painting Nymphéas from 1906 drew no bids beyond its £30m low estimate and failed to sell. Murmurs spread through the saleroom that the vendor, who had bought it at Christie's New York in May 2000 for $6.5m (£4.58m), had entered it too highly for a picture that was not quite of the same quality as Le Bassin aux Nymphéas from 1919, which set the record for Monet at £36.5m at Christie's in June 2008.
After the sale Christie's international head of department Thomas Seydoux said: "There were four bidders waiting on the phone but no one pulled the trigger. If we could have put it in at £25m we would have."
The top lot of the sale was Pablo Picasso's (1881-1973) Blue Period portrait of Angel Fernández de Soto from 1903, which came with the same £30m-40m estimate as the Monet.
Consigned by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, three interested parties emerged on the night and it sold just above low-estimate at £31m to an anonymous telephone buyer, underbid by an Asian collector.
It had been purchased at Sotheby's New York for $26.5m (£16.9m) in May 1995 and has been on loan to the National Gallery at various periods since.
Another later Picasso - Le Baiser (The Kiss) from 1969 - saw more competition at the Christie's sale, taking £10.8m against an £8m-12m estimate from another anonymous bidder on the phone.
This was the only lot in the sale to carry the guarantee symbol in the catalogue, and before the auction it was announced that the guarantee had been fully financed by a third party who would be bidding on the work.
The sale also saw a late Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Frauenbildnis (Portrait of Ria Munk III), sell for £16.75m against a £14m-18m estimate, and a late Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Parc de L'hôpital Saint-Paul, make a low-estimate £8m.
By Alex Capon