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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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Ace Christie’s auctioneer Christopher Burge used to say that you could sell art from a rowboat in the middle of the Atlantic if the property was good enough, a sentiment that typically applied to the b-level February sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art in London. But no more. The global art boom has made these winter half-season auctions events in their own right.

Christie’s London and Sotheby’s London went head to head this week in the Imp and mod market, and it was quite a contest. Christie’s evening sale on Feb. 7, 2012, totaled £134,999,400 ($213,299,052), with 76 of 88 lots selling, or 86 percent. The following day, Feb. 8, 2012, Sotheby’s total was £78,893,650 ($125,504,018), with 41 of 53 lots selling, or almost 77 percent. (Prices are given in the text in dollars, with a conversion rate of about £1 = $1.58.)

Though the results look like a big win for Christie’s, as it turns out, the average price of a sold lot is about the same for both houses (Sotheby’s is in fact a bit higher). Still, if an auctioneer ever needs a reason to include more lots in a sale rather than fewer, this would be it.

Christie’s did continue to benefit from winning the Elizabeth Taylor estate, the last few lots of which were included in the evening and day sales this week. Christie’s announced on Wednesday that every single one of the 1,817 Taylor lots had sold, most of which were offered last December. Still, this week’s auction featured Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 Saint-Rémy landscape, which sold for just over $16 million, above the presale $11 million high estimate, and the fourth most expensive lot in the auction.

According to The Baer Faxt, underbidders included Nancy Whyte and Gagosian Gallery. The painting was originally purchased on Taylor’s behalf by her father, an art dealer, at Sotheby’s London in 1963 for £92,000.

Two other works from the Taylor estate were an Edgar Degas self-portrait that was much exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art ($1.13 million) and Pommiers à Eragny, a rather beautiful 1894 landscape by Camille Pissarro ($4.7 million). Both topped their presale estimates. The three Taylor lots contributed $21.8 million to the sale’s total.

Christie’s sale was also buoyed by paintings from the collection of Hubertus Wald, the Hamburg philanthropist and businessman who died in 2005 at age 92, sold to benefit his charitable foundation. A serenely Orphist bird’s eye view of the Eiffel Tower from 1926 by Robert Delaunay that stands over six feet tall fetched $5.9 million, well above the $4 million presale high estimate. While the Guggenheim Museum has in the past showed off its earlier Cubist versions the French landmark, this version is similar to one in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum.

Other Wald lots include a petit Henry Moore family group from 1945, done in an edition of nine, which sold for $573,959, two Cubist works by Henri Laurens that started off the sale -- La Bouteille (1916), which sold for $103, 250, and Tête de Femme (1918-19), which sold for $164,045. In total, 17 lots from the Wald collection fetched $18.6 million.

As has been its practice, Christie’s divided its evening sale between a regular Imp & mod auction, and a special “Art of the Surreal” sale immediately following. Christie’s has been doing this for about ten years, and it seems to be paying off -- the $59 million total for this week’s sale was the highest total the auction house has seen for a Surrealist auction.

The sale included paintings by Giorgio de Chirico, Paul Delvaux, Rene Magritte and several notable works by Max Ernst as well as a handful of paintings by Francis Picabia, apparently now a Surrealist. Ernst’s eminently strange Fleur coquille et tête d'animal sur fond rouge et noir from 1928, which was owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston before being acquired by Wald -- no doubt a curious story -- sold for over $2 million.  

The top Surrealist lot was a 1925 Joan Miró Painting-Poem that leapt past a $14 million presale high estimate and sold for $26.8 million, a new auction record for the artist. The “poem” of the title is worth the record alone, as it translates (loosely) from the French as "The body of my dark-haired woman because I love her like my pussycat dressed in salad green like hail, it's all the same."

Another record was set for Dorothea Tanning, the Surrealist painter who died at 101 earlier this month and who was married to Max Ernst for 30 years. Her spooky sunflower, titled Le Miroir, sold for an impressive $345,170 (est. $79,000-$127,000).

But the big surprise of the evening was the price paid for Reclining Figure: Festival by Henry Moore, a monumental bronze from 1951 -- and from an edition of five -- that is suggestive of Pablo Picasso’s bone figures of two decades earlier. These days, players in the art-market stratosphere don’t waste their time for anything that’s not in the eight-figures, and it looks like Moore’s time has come.

The sculpture was expected to fetch maybe $9 million tops, but it sold for $30.3 million to Cologne-based dealer Alex Lachmann, who they say represents Russian oligarchs. The sum seemed to stump art-world insiders, who noted that it had gone unsold at the Masterpiece Art Fair in London just last summer with an asking price of $9 million.

Unsold lots included an accidentally comic Emil Nolde oil from 1915 of three glum Russians, estimated to sell for as much as $2.3 million.

The top lot in Sotheby’s Imp & mod sale on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2012, was Miró’s chaming Peinture from 1933, which had a presale high estimate of $15.8 million. Sadly, it was bought in.

The auction cover lot, a serene 1901 lakeside with birches by Gustav Klimt, est. $9.4 million-$12.7 million, also fell flat. These typically square pictures are, of course, among the most desirable commodities on the art market. Whatever happened here remains a mystery, but Sotheby’s announced that the painting had sold “post-sale” for $8.9 million. The sum is not included in the house’s final $125.5 million tally.

The sale’s top lot was a winter landscape by Claude Monet, which reached just past its high $10.3 million estimate and sell for just under $13 million, a new record for a “snowscape” by the artist.

Other top lots included a 1907 Fauve landscape by Georges Braque ($8 million), an unusual Edouard Vuillard painting -- in clear, flat colors -- of two seamstresses from 1890 ($5.4 million), and a comic Otto Dix collage painting from 1919 titled The Electric Tram ($4.67 million).

Among the Surrealist works at Sotheby’s was Giorgio de Chirico’s Ettore e Andromaca (1925-30), which sold for just under $4.5 million. The price was just above the presale low estimate -- but dramatically higher than the $2.8 million that the same painting brought at Sotheby’s New York in 2009. Another lot with sophisticated appeal was Paul Cézanne’s 1871 painting La Promenade, an elegant Impressionist subject done in Cézanne’s dark “early” style.  

The sale of an Impressionist/Modern work that made the biggest headlines this month, though, was Qatar’s private purchase of Cézanne’s painting of card players for $250 million from the estate of George Embiricos. In other words, the Qatari royal family could have purchased all sold lots at Christie’s or Sotheby’s for what they paid for one Cézanne, with change to spare.

Next week, the focus is on contemporary art.

Prices given here include the auction-house buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the amount between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12 percent of the rest.

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

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.