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Art Market Watch


Nov. 3, 2011 

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Sotheby’s New York evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 2, 2011, totaled $199.8 million, with 57 of the 70 lots selling, or more than 81 percent.

“The art market is alive and kicking,” said Sotheby’s expert Simon Shaw with visible relief. The giddy mood -- it was a long sale -- extended to stentorian auctioneer Tobias Meyer, who said he could “feel the market rallying.”

The reference was to the near-disastrous sale the night before at Christie’s, which saw more than 30 lots pass, for a total of $140.7 million. Sotheby’s $198.8 million was in the middle of the presale estimate, and is up from the firm’s $170.5 million total in the May sales.

Outside, a noisy picket line of locked-out art handlers and supporters from Occupy Wall Street blew whistles and stadium horns. Inside, the crowd found printed apologies on their chairs, with an earnest wish that the strike would soon be settled.  

Despite its triumphs, the auction was tedious to sit through -- failure is more amusing -- and many left long before it ended. Those who departed early missed the sale’s silliest lot, Marc Chagall’s comical painting of a large red rooster, Souvenir of Summer (1965), which sold for $2,098,500.

But back to the top lots. Gustav Klimt’s serene lakeside landscape, Litzlberg am Attersee (1915), was the auction’s first highlight, selling after a painfully slow bidding duel for $40,402,500, well above its presale low estimate of $25 million. The buyer was Zurich dealer David Lachenmann, who would not disclose his client.

The picture was stolen by the Gestapo in World War II and recently restituted by the Salzburg Museum of Modern art to grandson of the original owner. As part of the restitution deal, half the sale proceeds go to the museum for a new wing.

Gustave Caillebotte’s Le Pont d’Argenteuil et la Seine (ca. 1883), a marvelous picture of a railroad bridge that strikingly captures the late-19th-century sense of “modernity,” was the target of the second long bidding duel -- it can take 10 or even 20 seconds for these phone bidders to make up their minds, an eternity in the salesroom. After creeping ever upwards in $250,000 increments, the picture eventually sold to a phone bidder for $18,002,500, about double the presale low estimate and a new auction record for the artist.

Pablo Picasso’s L’Aubade (Serenade, 1967), a raucous late work of a nude suffering the attentions of a hyperactive piper that the anonymous consigner had bought at auction in 1979 for something like $800,000, sold for $23,043,500. New York dealer Helly Nahmad, sitting in the front row, raised the penultimate bid by $200,000, a cut bid, prompting Meyer to quip, “ok, because it’s you, sir,” but the lot went to the phone bidder.

The auction’s largest sale actually came the day before, as the New York Times reported, when lot 29, a 1959 bronze cast of Henri Matisse’s famous Nu de Dos, was withdrawn from the auction and sold privately along with casts of its three other states for $120 million. The works are sold by the Burnett Foundation in Fort Worth, a social welfare organization that despaired of having so much capital tied up in artworks.

The sophisticated collector taste for Tamara de Lempicka was demonstrated when a portrait of a topless flapper, Le reve (Rafaela sur fond vert) (1937), sold for $8,482,500, a record for the artist at auction.

No less than three museums consigned works to the sale. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts sold seven Impressionist works to finance its $17 million acquisition of Caillebotte’s 1884 Man at His Bath -- the sale of familiar works to buy an unfamiliar one, as the Boston Globe put it. 

The top lot of the group, Claude Monet’s Antibes, le fort (1888), went for an impressive $9,266,500, above the $7 million presale high estimate. All together, at the hammer, the MFA seven sold for almost $15 million, a bit shy of the goal.

The Israel Museum, also in the process of refining its collection, sold seven paintings too, with the top lot of the bunch being Rene Magritte’s Le Droit Chemin (The True Path, 1966), a painting of a monumental stone apple sitting in front of a dolmen, which brought $3,554,500, just at its presale high estimate. The museum’s total at the hammer was $9.3 million (barring late-night mathematical errors).

The final museum consignor was the Menil Collection, which sent to the block a Max Ernst bronze, Jeune Homme au Coeur Battant (Young Man with Beating Heart, 1944/54), which sold for $1,426,500, more than double the presale estimate.

Few bidders in the room were immediately identifiable. Larry Gagosian, in his usual position on the aisle near the front, took home a small Ernst painting of a mystical red egg -- at least, the 1957 painting is titled Graceful and Subtle (Hatching) -- for $158,500.

Jose Mugrabi, perhaps operating on the theory that late works by great artists are undervalued as a rule, won Salvador Dali’s 1965 Le Voyage Fantastique, a rather startling foray into pop graphics for the old Surrealist, for $1,930,500. “You’re going on a fantastic voyage, sir,” joked Meyer from the podium.

After the sale, Sotheby’s specialist David Norman admitted that the firm had contacted all the consignors and urged them to lower their reserves, a common strategy in such situations, and one that no doubt had a salutary effect on the results.

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 Art Auctions Report.

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