Picasso portrait at Sotheby's
Leading Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale, ‘Femme au béret et à la robe quadrille’ by Pablo Picasso was knocked down at £44m.

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While Christie’s evening sale on February 27 was led by a £12m picture, Sotheby’s had the top lot overall - Picasso’s Femme au béret et à la robe quadrille, a portrait of his lover and muse Marie-Thérèse Walter from 1937. It dated from six months after he completed his seminal work, Guernica.

Offered at tonight’s evening sale (February 28) with an undisclosed estimate, believed to be in excess of £35m, the auctioneers had secured an irrevocable bid for picture meaning it was always bound to sell on the night.

It eventually came down to a battle between two telephone bidders, one operating through Mark Poltimore, Sotheby’s deputy chairman for Europe who is also chairman of Sotheby’s Russia, and another interested party bidding through by Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia. It was knocked down to the former at £44m.

It was later announced after the sale that the buyer was art advisory firm Gurr Johns who had also secured at least seven Picassos at Christie’s the night before. Gurr Johns, who were presumed to be acting for a client, were also active in the competition for other Picasso pictures at Sotheby’s, securing up to four further works.

Across the two auction houses, Gurr Johns are understood to have won the bidding for works with a combined value of over £100m including premium.

Sotheby’s claimed the price for Femme au béret et à la robe quadrille was the second highest auction price for a work of art sold in Europe, although this was only the case when taking the buyer’s premium into account.

The highest auction price in Europe remains the £58m bid for Alberto Giacometti L'homme qui marche I in 2010, while Peter Paul Rubens’ The Massacre of the Innocents sold at £45m back in 2002.

Before the sale, Sotheby’s global co-head of Impressionist & Modern Art Helena Newman, had said the 21.5 x 18in (55 x 46cm) oil on canvas was a “defining portrait from a pivotal year... that has never been seen on the market before”.

Le Matador by Pablo Picasso

‘Le Matador’ by Pablo Picasso – £14.5m at Sotheby’s.

Also making a significant contribution to the bottom line was Picasso’s larger and later oil on canvas, Le Matador. Estimated at £14m-18m, it was one of the artist’s numerous works on the bullfighting theme and was appearing at auction for the first time.

The bidding was less intense on this lot, however, and it got away at £14.5m also to Gurr Johns.

Umberto Boccioni painting

‘Testa + Luce + Ambiente’ by Umberto Boccioni – £7.9m at Sotheby’s.

Another lot commanding attention at Sotheby’s was a rarely available Futurist painting by Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) which overshot a £5.5m-7.5m estimate and was knocked down at £7.9m, a price that quadrupled the auction record for the artist.

Testa + Luce + Ambiente was a square 23.5in (60cm) oil on canvas from 1912 which was billed as a “once in a generation opportunity” to acquire such a work, given how few of his paintings are in private hands.

The fact that he died aged 33 in a cavalry training exercise during the First World War is one reason why his works are so scarce. This one sold to a US private buyer on the telephone.

Overall, the combined evening sales of Impressionist & Modern and Surrealist art at Sotheby’s generated a premium-inclusive total £136m, which compared to a pre-sale estimate of £101.7-126.4m (based on hammer prices).