Depicting the wife of the artist’s dealer and supporter Léopold Zborowski, it drew a contest between three phone bidders and sold at £7.3m, outscoring a £5m-7m estimate.
The sale was tough going throughout and was not helped by the withdrawal of three lots at the last minute – two Picassos and a Magritte with a combined low estimate of £5.4m. Vendors were conscious of the looming EU referendum tomorrow and overseas sellers in particular were concerned that a drop in sterling over the next 48 hours could instantly devalue their returns.
The withdrawals meant only 33 lots were on offer of which 21 sold for a premium-inclusive £25.6m. A further eight lots failed to make over their low estimate.
Although a number of works were held back for next week’s ‘Defining British Art’ sale, it was still a far cry from last year’s equivalent sale that made £71.5m from 50 lots (42 of which sold). It was also well behind Sotheby’s sale last night which totalled £103.3m and had two lots making more than Christie’s entire total.
Christie’s Global President Jussi Pylkkänen said: “The volumes were down due to uncertainty in the key consignment period around January and February.” He pointed to the low oil price and difficulties in financial markets back then as key factors rather than a potential Brexit.
The Modigliani was the top lot by some margin. The 1917 oil on canvas came to auction from the descendants of Birmingham tools manufacturer James Archdale who acquired it from London dealers Arthur Tooth & Sons in 1937. Only a handful of the 340 known works by the artist were bought by British collectors during this period. The consignors were in the room to see it sell.
The sitter was one of the Italian painter’s favourite and most frequent subjects - she appears in 11 works by the artist of which four are now in museum collections. The picture had been on long term loan to the Birmingham City Art Gallery since 1978 and was appearing at auction for the first time at Christie’s.
The three main bidders, each of whom were prepared to bid over £6.5m, are believed to be from Europe, the US and Asia. It was eventually knocked down to a buyer represented in the room by Olivier Camu, the auctioneers’ International Director and Co-Head of the Impressionist and Modern Art Department.
While it exceeded its relatively attractive estimate, the price failed to reach the heights of last night’s Modigliani at Sotheby’s that made £34.25m. That portrait of his lover and muse Jeanne Hebuterne was a rarer and fuller picture that was almost twice the size.
Elsewhere in the Christie’s sale, Claude Monet’s (1840-1926) L’Ancienne rue de la Chaussée, Argenteuil was unsold against a £4.5m-6.5m pitch.
It came from a private vendor in Switzerland who had acquired it from Galerie Nathan, Zurich in the late 1970s.
Also from a Swiss vendor was a collection of seven works by Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944) and Paul Klee (1879-1940) that failed to take off. Three of them failed to get away including Kandinsky’s Mit und Gegen (For and Against) from 1929 which drew no bids against a £2m-3m estimate.
The picture was the first work by Kandinsky acquired by the New York collector of modern art Solomon Guggenheim.
Demand did arrive though on a striking pastel by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). Blaue Artisten from 1914 depicted four female trapeze artists dressed in blue and was a study for a major oil painting of the same subject.
Reminiscent of Kirchner’s canvases of figures on a Berlin street – his most sought after works – the spontaneity of the current work gave it added appeal.
Estimated at £700,000-1,000,000, it was knocked down at £900,000.