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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi

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Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their London sales of Impressionist and modern art last week. On June 19, 2012, Sotheby’s London totaled an impressive £74.9 million ($117.7 million, including premium), selling 35 of 48 lots, or 69 percent, and on June 20, 2012, Christie’s London offered more material and got an even higher total, £92.5 million ($145.5 million), for 56 of 70 lots sold, or 80 percent. The exchange rate is about £1 = $1.56.

Do market trends reflect the cultural zeitgeist or compensate for it? And if so, considering Europe’s fiscal woes, should we expect to see happy paintings or brooding ones lead the way? Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, or darker, more twisted Surrealist fare?

At Sotheby’s London, buyers showered their favors on a Pierre Bonnard standing nude before the bathroom mirror from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd ($7 million) and an Orientalist portrait by Kees van Dongen of an alluring woman who demurely covers her face with a scarf, though most of her lime-green body remains bare ($5.8 million). Bidders left languishing on the auction block, however, an Otto Dix painting of a blonde nude, as disturbing as she is seductive, that was estimated to bring as much as $9 million. Elsewhere in the sale, a sweet Henry Moore sculpture titled Mother and Child with Apple sold for $5.9 million, above the $4.4 million presale high estimate.

The evening’s headline lot, though, was Etoile Bleue (Blue Star), a spare, blue, circus-inspired painting by Joan Miro -- one of the artist’s “dream paintings” of 1927. The $37 million paid for the picture broke the auction record for the artist, which was $26.6 million, paid just last February at Christie’s London for Painting-Poem (1925). The $37 million is only about 15 percent above the $31.4-million presale high estimate, though the price is considerably higher than $16.7 million, which is the sum the painting sold for in December 2007 at Aguttes, a Paris auction house.  

Two paintings by Wassily Kandinsky also brought good prices. An untitled watercolor from 1916 painted in Sweden sold for $1.5 million against a high estimate of $940,000, and Study for “Green Border” done in 1919 -- also a watercolor -- brought $2 million, above its $1.4-million estimate. A relatively small painting titled Theater People by the Surrealist Leonora Carrington, whose work is more often featured in sales of Latin American art, brought a solid $529,000 -- at the high end of its $392,000-$549,000 presale estimate.

The week’s most disturbing image was undoubtedly found at Christie’s London on June 20, when Rene Magritte’s Les Jours Gigantesques sold for $11.3 million, more than quadruple the $2.4-million presale high estimate. The painting shows a nude woman being assaulted by a man in a brown suit, a violation made all the more acute by Magritte’s decision to include the male within the woman’s contours.

A second Magritte, titled Scheherazade and featuring a playful “pearl-woman,” sold for $4.6 million. A third Magritte, this one a view of a sizzling pink sunset through a broken glass window, brought $7.6 million against a high estimate of $4.7 million.

Selling for nearly twice its high estimate was a 1902 work by the Flemish-Belgian painter James Ensor. The painting shows a group of men gambling around a card table, their faces disfigured in what must be a commentary on the consequences of engaging in a degenerate pastime. Les Joueurs, or The Gamblers, was estimated to bring as much as $1.3 million and sold for $2.5 million. A few weeks ago Christie’s Amsterdam sold a simple 1875 Ensor landscape of Onsted, his hometown, for $63,000, well above an unenthusiastic $9,000 high estimate.

Early in the sale, a rare nude by Vincent van Gogh -- a decidedly non-erotic 1882 pencil and ink wash drawing titled Sorrow, sold for $2 million (est. $940,000-$1.4 million).

At Christie’s, works by Pablo Picasso took two of the top five spots. A 1949 portrait of Françoise Gilot pregnant with their daughter Paloma was the highest priced lot at $13.4 million, though this may have not been the case had a featured Renoir nude, estimated to bring as much as $28 million, not been pulled and sold privately before the sale. A Picasso portrait of Jacqueline Roque, with their Afghan hound sold for $11 million, within presale expectations.

Christie’s sale also featured 14 small bronze sculptures by Edgar Degas, all cast posthumously, and all of which carried third party guarantees. This ensured that each lot would sell, though the precautionary measure seemed unnecessary in retrospect, given that 12 of the bronzes brought prices above their high estimates. One cast of a galloping horse, which had a high estimate of $630,000, sold for $4.1 million, and a figure of a woman wiping the left side of her torso fetched $1.3 million (est. $280,000-$390,000).

Next week, the London houses hold sales of contemporary art.

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first £25,000, 20 percent of the next £25,000 to £500,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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