Against a £8m-12m estimate, A la rencontre du plaisir was pursued by five parties before it was knocked down at £16.5m to a buyer on the telephone who was bidding through Christie’s global president Jussi Pylkkänen. It was the second highest price for the artist at auction.
The moonlit landscape combined the artist’s most recognisable motifs with the trademark figure of a shadowy anonymous man wearing a bowler hat featuring prominently in the foreground. Also adding to its commercial appeal was its high degree of market freshness – it was consigned by a private collector from Brussels who acquired it directly from the artist in July 1962, the year it was painted.
A further six works by Magritte (1898-1967) were all sold at the sale, adding a further £11.3m to the premium-inclusive total of £106.8m from the back-to-back auctions of ‘Impressionist & Modern Art’ and ‘The Art of the Surreal’ on February 5. Overall, 49 lots were on offer of which 41 sold (84%).
Cabaret star’s portrait
The Impressionist & Modern art sale was led by Tamara de Lempicka’s (1898-1980) Portrait de Marjorie Ferry. Depicting the British-born cabaret star, it had been commissioned by her financier husband in 1932.
It had previously sold at Sotheby’s New York for $4.8m (£3.25m) in May 2009 but appeared here with a £8m-12m estimate along with a third-party guarantee meaning it was always bound to sell on the night.
After bidding exceeded the estimate, it came down to a battle between two parties on the phone before it was knocked down at £14.25m, an auction record for the Polish-born artist. It was the second time in under six months that the saleroom high for de Lempicka had been broken.
Before the sale, Christie’s head of Impressionist and Modern art Keith Gill described the picture as an “exquisitely painted composition that not only captures the vibrancy of its sitter but reflects the Art Deco style that had defined the previous decade.
“Lempicka’s work has seen renewed interest in recent years with great prices being achieved.”
Berlin street scene
Another record price came for George Grosz’s (1893-1959) Gefährliche Straße, an oil on canvas from July 1918 that was a highly political critique of Berlin society at the end of the First World War.
After returning from the front and following a period in a military mental asylum, Grosz painted a series of around 20 urban scenes of which only three remain in private hands, the others being either lost, destroyed or now in museums.
The pictures depicted the cities at night-time and captured what the artist regarded as a descent into moral and physical chaos. Following Germany’s defeat, Grosz said he “was disappointed not because the war had been lost, but because the people had suffered for so long without heeding the few voices raised against the mass slaughter”.
Olivier Camu, Christie’s deputy chairman of Impressionist and Modern art said Gefährliche Straße was “arguably the best and most complex” of the series with the artist also adding an angry self-portrait in the lower right corner of the composition.
“Grosz with all his corrosive wit and a mastery of colour here combines futurist dynamism and expressionist fervour to convey his hatred of Germany and contempt for its establishment,” said Camu.
Offered at auction for the first time, it came from a private Swiss collection where it had been since 1970. The vendor had bought it from US dealer Richard L. Feigen who had acquired it from Grosz directly.
At the Christie’s sale it was pitched at £4.5m-6.5m but, on the night, it was carried over this level before it was knocked down at £8.4m to a phone bidder.