The picture was consigned as part of an “eclectic and carefully curated collection” which provided six works to the evening sale on February 27 as well as a further 381 lots already sold by Christie’s in December that raised £8.63m.
The works reportedly came from the collection of the late Canadian cable TV magnate David Graham who died in 2017 and owned a house in Saint Tropez himself. Proceeds from the sale of the works are being donated to a charitable foundation.
All bar one of the works were guaranteed ahead of the sale – meaning they were always bound to sell on the night – although the auctioneers had arranged a third-party to underwrite the minimum price for the Signac.
Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint-Tropez) was offered with an estimate in excess of £12m. It drew keen interest from three bidders at the auction and was eventually knocked down at £17m to a buyer in the room who saw off a phone bidder.
The previous record for Signac was set back in November 2007 when Cassis Cap Canaille made $14m (then £6.73m) including premium at Christie's New York.
The 2ft 2in x 2ft 8in (65 x 81cm) oil on canvas dated from 1892 and was painted not long after the artist had left Paris for the south of France to escape what he referred to as the “so-called intellectual crap” of the Parisian art scene.
The painting was said to demonstrate his love of sailing – Signac purchased his first boat while still in his teens – and it was described by the auction house as the most important painting by the artist to come to auction in the last 20 years.
Speaking ahead of the sale, Christie’s Global President Jussi Pylkkänen said: “Every object and every painting in the collection has been chosen with considerable care and with a grand design in mind. The Signac is among the finest of the artist’s great Opus paintings, and certainly among the greatest of Signac’s works in private hands.”
Caillebotte’s garden scene
Another picture in the collection making an artist’s record was Gustave Caillebotte’s (1848-1894) Chemin montant, a work painted in Trouville in 1881. Exhibited at the 7th Exposition des Artistes Indépendants in Paris the year after it was painted, it remained unseen for over a century until it was included in the landmark Caillebotte retrospective held in Paris and Chicago in 1994.
It previously sold at Christie’s New York in November 2003 for $6m (£3.57m) hammer and was offered here with an ‘estimate on request’. It drew a battle between three bidders before it was knocked down at £14.5m to another room bidder.
Cézanne and Monet
A separate collection of 23 works at the sale featured a number of top-end Impressionist pictures including a still life by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) which had an ‘estimate on request’ believed to be in the region of £20m.
The vendors had acquired it in 1985 from The Lefevre Gallery in London and here the 15 x 18in (38 x 46cm) oil on canvas from 1885-1887 sold at £18.5m. It was the top lot of the night.
A Claude Monet waterlilies painting from the same source which also had an ‘estimate on request’ (reportedly £40m) was unsold. Saule pleureur et bassin aux nymphéas was a late work painted by the artist in Giverny in 1916-1919 but the estimate was deemed a bit punchy for a work which was compositionally removed from the classic waterlilies series.
The surrealist section of the sale featured a large example of a trademark bowler-hatted man by René Magritte (1898-1967).
Offered at auction for the first time but coming to Christie’s from an Asian source that had acquired it in 2013, Le lieu commun was painted in 1964 and was one eight hyper-realistic style pictures on this subject of which four are in museums. It drew a vigorous competition between two phone bidders and was knocked down at £16m.
With some lively action throughout the Surrealist section of the sale the overall total of the night was £165.7m (including premium) with 67 of the 82 lots sold (82%).
The Christie’s sale followed Sotheby’s sale the previous night that was led by a Claude Monet view of the Doge’s Palace in Venice that sold for £24m.