The spring auction season opened with a strong and rather unexciting bang at Christie’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale, which fetched $285,879,000 for the 47 artworks that sold.
Only six of the 53 lots offered failed to sell for a crisp buy-in rate of 11 percent by lot and even better four percent by value. The tally landed midway between pre-sale expectations of $243.7-359.1 million. That result easily vaulted past last May’s $158,505,000 total, with 44 lots sold. Of the 47 works sold, 43 sold for over $1 million and of those, nine exceeded $10 million and 18 went over $5 million.
No artist records were set.
Only five of the offerings carried financial guarantees, four financed entirely by Christie’s and one from an anonymous third party sources.
The big story of tonight’s success, so it seems, revolved around three groups of choice estate property, including a tranche of eight Modernist paintings from Viktor and Marianne Langen that brought the biggest haul at $79.8 million (est. $73.5-105 million); seven paintings, sculpture, and silver from storied magnate and philanthropist Edgar M. Bronfman that made $21 million (est. $22.2-34 million); and four paintings from the Clark Family collection, left from the estate of heiress and recluse Huegette Clark, that realized $40.9 million (est. $41.5-60.5 million).
The evening got off to a spirited start with one of the Langen consigned works as Pablo Picasso’s (lot 1) seaside idyll at Cannes, “Composition: Nu sur la plage,” a watercolor, brush, and pen and India ink on paper composition from 1933 sold for $2,517,000 (est. $1-1.5 million).
A strong supply of decidedly Modern works helped drive the evening as another Langen entry, Wassily Kandinsky’s (lot 4) well-ordered and microscope like view abstraction from his late Paris period, “Pointes noires,” from 1937, brought $5,765,000 (est. $4-6 million).
Another Langen Kandinsky (lot 17), the early and color-charged composition “Strandszene,” from 1909 — the period just prior to his leap to abstraction — made $17,189,000 (est. $16-22 million). Like the lion’s share of bidding, it went to an anonymous telephone bidder.
While Christie’s wouldn’t identify buyers by their country of origin, the house said actual bidders or those registered to bid represented 36 countries.
As department head Brooke Lampley described that melting pot of bidders in post-sale remarks, “It was clearly a testament to the incredible breadth of the market place.”
The modern art carousel continued to score well as George Braque’s (lot 6) late and darkly moving “Atelier I,” from 1949, sold to benefit the American Hospital of Paris, made $4,645,000, selling to an otherwise unidentified woman seated in the front row of the salesroom (est. $4-6 million). The painting, part of a series of eight late works, was recently featured in a Braque survey that closed in January at the Grand Palais in Paris.
Another Braque (lot 14), and unusual for two to appear during a single evening auction, “Le Modele,” from 1939, presented a more richly colored and animated artist studio scene, realized $9,125,000 (est. $8-12 million). It is difficult to imagine the meditative painting was created just a year before the Nazi occupation of Paris and thick in the midst of World War II.
A striking Amedeo Modigliani portrait (lot 5), “Jeune homme roux assis,” from 1919 and featuring an anonymous and elegantly attired young man with arms and leg crossed, was one of the few exceeding pre-sale expectations, selling to a telephone bidder for $17,637,000. New York dealer Maxwell Davidson IV was part of the under-bidders. Fresh to market, it first sold at auction at the antique sounding price of £21,000 in 1961 and last appeared at Sotheby’s New York in November 2002, when it made $8,479,500, effectively doubling its value. Speculation as to the contemplative sitter’s identity has always been elusive, taking away some of its potential market appeal.
Impressionist works were also well represented as Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s (lot 7) charming composition, “Les deux soeurs,” from circa 1890-95, redolent with sunshine and the girls’ focused attention, sold for $8,005,000 (est. $4-6 million).
An earlier and more ambitious composition (lot 10), “Jeunes filles jourant au Volant,” from circa 1887 and featuring a summer scene of four well-costumed beauties posed during a badminton game alongside a lush landscape, sold for $11,365,000 (est. $10-15 million). That Renoir was one highlight from the Clark Family collection, aggressively marketed rather pompously by Christie’s as “An American Dynasty: The Clark Family Treasures.”
The group’s star, however, was Claude Monet (lot 8), “Nympheas,” from 1907, a beautifully executed, vertical format depiction of the artist’s treasured water lily garden at Giverny. It fetched a somewhat tepid though top lot $27,045,000 (est. $25-35 million), going to a telephone bidder. It now ranks as the eight most expensive Monet to sell at auction. An unspecified portion of the Nympheas proceeds will benefit the Clark family’s favorite museum, the recently reconstituted Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
The painting has been in the family collection since 1930, when Huegette’s father, the copper magnate and politician W.A. Clark, acquired it from the Durand-Ruel Galleries, New York.
Another widely exhibited work, framed by a great provenance, Paul Cezanne’s (lot 12) “Marronniers et ferme du Jas de Bouffan,” from circa 1876 and presenting a grand view of his father’s cloistered estate in Aix, brought $4,645,000 and selling to yet another telephone bidder (est. $4-6 million). It last sold at auction from the Florence Gould estate in April 1985 at Sotheby’s New York for $907,500.
It was one of four fully guaranteed lots offered by Christie’s and not part of a third party deal that has become the stock and trade of the high end part of the auction business.
Returning to the Picasso front, of which 13 works were on offer and all but one sold, the high-spirited “Mangeuse de pasteque et homme ecrivant” (lot 21), from May 1965 and a trophy entry from the Edgar Bronfman estate, fetched $8,005,000 (est. $7-10 million). The dozen works by Picasso that sold contributed $88,941,000 to the overall evening total.
The large-scale, 51 1/8- by 63 5/8-inch canvas depicts the nubile nude likeness of his wife and muse Jacqueline Roque, devouring a slice of watermelon while a serious young man writes in a notebook next to her, seemingly oblivious of his visitor. Bronfman acquired the painting from the then cutting edge Samuel Kootz Gallery in New York in 1965. The painting sold to Berlin dealer Aeneas Bastian of Galerie Bastian.
“I can’t tell you who we bought it for,” said the dealer as he exited the low energy salesroom, “but it’s going to a private collection and I think it’s a good price, and makes sense.”
Another Bronfman highlight, Edgar Degas’s bronze Le Tub (lot 22), a rather fantastic, 8 ½-inch high depiction of a Venus-like, cross-legged female bather sunk in her bath, was one of a handful of evening casualties, failing to sell at $2.8 million (est. $4-6 million).
Picasso firepower continued throughout the evening, weaving through different periods and styles, such as the almost minimal (lot 27) “Nature morte au filet de peche,” from 1925, that sold for $9,013,000 (est. $6-8 million) and the more ambitious and darkly haunting “Portrait de femme (Dora Maar)” (lot 29), from 1942, that made $22,565,000 (est. $25-35 million), selling to Chicago dealer Paul Gray of the Richard Gray Gallery.
Both of the Picasso works hailed from the Langen collection and one always wonders how so many Picasso works can be absorbed by the market in a single evening.
The least expensive of that baker’s dozen, the sprightly (lot 28) “Verre et carte a jouer,” from 1914, executed in gouache black crayon and paper collage on board and once owned by Douglas Cooper, sold to New York dealer David Nash for $665,000 (est. $600-800,000).
“I had it marked in my catalogue,” said Nash as he left the salesroom, “but wasn’t expecting to bid, but when I saw it was going so cheaply, I went for it.” Nash characterized the sale as “over promoted and over estimated. It’s dull, isn’t it.”
Back on the sculpture track, a stunning (lot 33) Alberto Giacometti lifetime bronze cast, “Femme de Venise IV,” named after the series of nine plaster works he created for the French Pavilion of the Venice Biennale in 1956, and subsequently cast in bronze, sold to Paul Gray for $12,709,000 (est. $10-18 million). It was chased and underbid by New York dealers Dominique Levy and Robert Mnuchin. It last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2000 for £1,873,500/$2,820,686).
Another offering from the same private collection (lot 34), identified and promoted by Christie’s as “The Quest for Excellence: One Private Collector’s Passions,” was Joan Miro’s large-scaled and brilliantly composed abstraction “Le serpent a coquelicots trainant sur un champ de violettes people par des lezards en deuil,” from 1947 and despite the exhaustingly long poetic title, realized $12,485,000 (est. $12-18 million.).
Though only two works qualified as Surrealist era material, the corker was (lot 37) Salvador Dali’s fantastically imagined landscape “Moment de transition,” from 1934, that brought $9,125,000 (est. $10-15 million). The painting debuted at Dali’s solo exhibition at the Julie Levy Gallery in New York in 1936.
The Impressionist and Modern evening action resumes Wednesday at arch-rival Sotheby’s.