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Art Market Watch

by Andrew Decker
May 4, 2011 

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The art market’s quirky rules added another axiom at the Sotheby’s New York Impressionist and modern paintings sale on May 3, 2011. Great demand does not command supply.

To be sure, Sotheby’s did well in selling $170.5 million worth of paintings, drawings, and sculptures against an overall estimate of $158 million-$229 million, and a number of solid works did very, very well, indeed. Throughout the evening, Americans and Europeans -- with dealers in the salesrooms, and private collectors from Russia and elsewhere bidding through Sotheby’s representatives on the phone -- pursued at times eagerly works of substance that were on offer.

But the story was written in the months preceding the sale, when Sotheby’s, like its counterpart Christie’s and any number of dealers, couldn’t convert works in private collections into consignments. According to three sources, Collectors apparently know the market is hot and that they could do well selling. But collectors have little incentive to cash in, even during a strong market. As David C. Norman, co-chairman of Sotheby’s worldwide Impressionist and modern art department, said, “Interest rates are low, inflation fears are in the back of people’s minds. We heard often [from potential sellers who decided to hold on to their art], ‘What am I going to do with the money?’”

Buyers, by contrast, are cash rich and art poor. Yet they’re hardly indiscriminate. Fifteen of the 44 lots in the Sotheby’s auction, or a slightly steep 25.4 percent, did not sell. Given the hefty reserves demanded for the unsold art, there were no surprises: there wasn’t a peach among them.

The evening’s top lot was Pablo Picasso’s 1934 Femmes lisant (Deux Personnages), which featured the artist’s amour fou, Marie-ThérŤse Walter, poring over a book with one of her sisters. Although from the same period as other Picassos featuring Walter that have sold for $45 million and up, the Sotheby’s painting was not in their league. Femmes lisant was pursued by only one bidder -- an unidentified Asian man in the salesroom -- and hammered down at $19 million, a hefty 25 percent below the low estimate of $25 million. With Sotheby’s fees, it sold for $21.4 million. But it sold.

During the evening ten Picassos were on offer and eight sold for a combined $58.6 million, more than a third of the sale’s overall total. The sum was helped greatly by Femme, a 1930 Surrealist portrait of a carnivorous female (his wife Olga, no doubt) that fetched $7.9 million, more than double its $3 million low estimate. Couple ŗ la Guitare, a late work from 1970 of heavy black outlines, sold seemingly at the reserve for $9.6 million. As was the case with a number of works unsold during the evening, his Vue d’une FenÍtre, from 1929, was a weak effort with a tough estimate, of $5 million to $7 million. †

The works that generated the most interest, as Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby’s New York’s Impressionist and modern department noted, “have great visual presence, great color.” Certainly that was true of Alexej Jawlensky’s Woman with Green Fan (Frau mit Gruenem Faecher), an exceptionally richly colored work by a gifted colorist. The painting went for $11.2 million, within the $8 million to $12 million pre-sale estimate, which was the second highest auction price ever paid for a work by the artist.

Paul Delvaux’s Les Cariatides, 1946, a large, 48 by 72 inch oil, placed two women, one naked and the other topless, in a dream-like classical Greek temple. Five bidders went after the painting, including a Sotheby’s representative speaking Russian into the phone, before it sold for $9 million to Gagosian Gallery director Victoria Gelfand. The price trounced both the $3 million-$5 million estimate and the previous $5.2 million Delvaux auction record.

Other bright works that did well included Picasso’s floral still life of 1901, Pivoine, which set the flower against a vibrant blue green and yellow background. It sold against a high estimate of $3 million for $3.2 million, with Mikhail Kamensky, managing director of Sotheby’s Russia, taking bids on behalf of a client over the phone. And André Lhote’s colorful quasi-Cubist painting, Les Joueurs de Rugby (1920), fetched $2.5 million, just shy of a record for the artist.

One standout of the evening was a rare Paul Gauguin sculpture. Carved in the round in 1893 in Tahiti from native tamanu wood and painted, the 10-inch-tall bust, Jeune Tahitienne, was hammered down at its low estimate, which seemed to be its reserve, and sold for $11.3 million, far surpassing the auction record for a Gauguin sculpture of $1.5 million.

Other sculpture did well, notably works by Alberto Giacometti. The elongated 20-inch-tall bronze, Femme Debout, from 1957, sold to a phone bidder for $7.4 million (Larry Gagosian was the underbidder). His more traditionally proportioned Diego, TÍte sur Socle Cubique went to Robert Mnuchin of L&M Arts for $1.2 million, with Nicholas Maclean of Eykyn Maclean underbidding.

Among less modernist sculpture, a lifetime cast of Auguste Rodin’s Le Penseur sold above its $2 million high estimate at $4 million, going to New York private dealer Guy Bennett.

Beyond the Delvaux, Surrealist works fared well generally. Salvador Dali’s Princess Arthchild Gourielli-Helena Rubinstein, with the subject’s monumental disembodied head set amid cliffs, sold for $2.7 million with London dealer Ezra Nahmad underbidding. René Magritte’s Quand l’Heire Sonnera, of a torso of a sculpture in a barren landscape with a hot air balloon overhead, sold to an unidentified bidder in the room for a mid-estimate $6 million. A highly fractured Dali, Madone Microphysique, of 1954, brought $962,500, nearly double its low estimate. And Joan Mirů’s late (1964) and vibrantly colored Peinture (per a Emili FernŠndez Mirů) selling to Gagosian for $5.1 million.

Impressionist works sold, if at times barely. Among the exceptions was Édouard Manet’s 1880 oil on paper, Portrait de Monsieur Brun, an elegant work of a top-hatted gentleman on a park path. The painting sold for $5.4 million to a dealer lately in the news, Guy Wildenstein. More commonly, the Impressionist works -- none were in the sale’s top 10 -- went at the reserve, as did Camille Pissarro’s pretty if al fresco 1877 oil on canvas landscape, l’Herimage en Été. The buyer was the unidentified Asian bidder who picked up Picasso’s 1934 Femmes lisant (Deux Personnages) for $21.4 million. In both cases, he bid with a cell phone held tightly to his ear.

Following the sale, dealers expressed frustration -- not with the auction, which they felt was solid given the material, but with what’s out there. Apparently, buyers are in the wings, with little to pursue. Alberto Mugrabi noted, flatly, “There’s nothing on the market.” David Nash of Mitchell-Innes and Nash said he felt that collectors were “suitably selective” given the nature of the material, but eager for meatier fare.

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 on the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Arts Auction Report.

ANDREW DECKER is a communications consultant for cultural organizations and businesses.