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Art Market Watch


May 3, 2012 

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Sotheby’s New York evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on May 2, 2012, totaled $330,568,500 (with premium), with 61 of 76 lots selling, or just over 80 percent. The total is the highest ever for an Impressionist and modern evening sale, besting the $286.2 million record set way back in 1990, though it falls short of the contemporary art auction high of $384.6 million, set in May 2007.

The highlight of the sale was, of course, lot 20, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895), a pastel on board in its original simple gold-painted frame (inscribed by the artist with a poem), that sold after a 12-minute-long bidding duel between two phone bidders for $107 million at the hammer, or $119,922,500 with premium. The price is a new world record for a work of art at auction.

Animated applause greeted the result, which had seen the bids climb in $1 million increments -- no cut bids here -- from clients on the phones with Sotheby’s specialists Charles Moffett and Stefanne Cosman Connery. “It’s worth every penny,” said auctioneer Tobias Meyer after the sale. “It’s one of the great, great icons worldwide.”

“If ever there was a work of art of true shock and awe,” said Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s specialist in charge of the sale, “it is Munch’s The Scream. . . . It’s the visual key to modern consciousness.”

Indeed, the picture ignited a media circus but also prompted widespread interest among art lovers in general. Sadly, only clients and press were allowed in to view the painting before the sale, presumably thanks to the disruptions caused in the past by Occupy Wall Street protesters.

Sotheby’s locked-out art handlers, now eight months on the picket line, were set up on the sidewalk in front of the firm’s York Avenue headquarters, though the protesters were strangely quiet, without the noise and music of last fall that could be heard even within the salesroom. And plenty of criticism of the high price as an emblem of economic inequality was heard both before and after the auction.

The painting was being sold by Petter Olsen, who had inherited it from his father, a Norwegian art collector and Munch patron who saved much of the artist’s work from the Nazis. Olsen read a brief statement at the post-sale press conference, saying the picture conveys “the horrifying moment when man realizes his impact on nature and the irreversible changes he has initiated” -- a reference to “global warming” -- and adding that “The Scream is about anxiety approaching and anticipating death” (an interesting echo of the esthetic articulated by Damien Hirst).

Olsen said he was earmarking the funds for a museum near Munch’s former home and studio that would focus on Munch and local Norwegian artists, a project that is scheduled to open next year, the 150th anniversary of Munch’s birth

The identity of the buyer of the Munch is anybody’s guess, though general sentiment has the work “catering to a Russian esthetic,” in the words of one observer. “Never count out trophy hunters from Hong Kong,” he added.

The remarkable price of $119.9 million was the first time at auction that an artwork commanded a hammer bid in excess of $100 million. The price also surpassed the entire $117 million total from Christie’s New York Impressionist and modern sale the night before.

Otherwise, nothing much else happened, as if the only thing easier than making millions is spending millions. Most of the action took place on the telephones, so the drama of climbing seven-figure prices proceeded generally without fireworks. The auction, at 75 lots, was a little too long, as eight of the last 11 lots passed after being offered to an almost empty salesroom.

The auction had its share of undeniable museum-quality works. Two of the sale’s top lots sold for double their presale estimates. Salvador Dali’s exquisite Printemps necrophilique (1926) went for $16,322,500 (est. $8 million-$12 million) -- it had been owned by Elsa Schiaparelli, who designed a dress like the one shown in the painting -- and Constantin Brancusi’s minimalist gilded bronze Promethee (1911, from an edition of four) sold for $12,682,500 (est. $6 million-$8 million).

Other top lots included a Pablo Picasso Femme assise from 1941 ($29,202,500), a 1931 Joan Miro ($14,866,500), and Chaim Soutine’s inimitable portrait of a red-suited bellboy, Le chasseur de Chez Maxim’s ($9,378,500).

For those keeping score, the Brancusi was sold at Christie’s New York in May 1999 for $1,212,500, for a ten-fold increase in price over a lucky 13 years. The Soutine had been purchased at Sotheby’s in 2004 for $6.7 million, an increase in value of about one-third in eight years.

Art dealers spotted bidding in the room included Libby Howie, Jose Mugrabi, Nancy Whyte and especially David Nahmad. Sitting in the front row, the Monaco-based dealer would jump in to push the bidding on particular lots a little bit higher, only to be outbid by someone on one of the phones.

Players like Nahmad, with his family’s legendary art inventory, illustrate the inflationary structure of the auction business. They are happy to buy a picture at a high price, and happy if someone else buys it for an even higher sum.

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

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

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