Mixed results at London’s first major sales of the year

[09 Feb 2016]


Christie’s and Sotheby’s kicked off their 2016 London programmes with sales of Surrealist, Impressionist and Modern art on 2 and 3 February 2016. In total Sotheby’s generated over $166 million from its prestige and day sales, while its rival Christie’s tallied $138 million. Not particularly impressive figures… but not worrying either, with Christie’s posting an encouraging sold rate of 75%.

The highlight of Christie’s Surrealist Art sale on 2 February (that grossed $35.4 million) was Max ERNST’s powerful work the Stolen Mirror (65x 81 cm). However, the painting only reached its low estimate, going under the hammer at $10.9 million. That was not a good result, particularly as the same work set the artist’s auction record of $16.3 million at a Christie’s sale in 2011… So the year has started with a certain number of hiccups and corrections, particularly regarding flip sales (rapid turnarounds): René MAGRITTE’s Mesdemoiselles de l’Isle Adam (1942) which fetched over $4.9 million in 2014, sold to a very happy buyer for just $2.8 million… that is minus $2 million in just two years!
But the news was not all bad: a magnificent self-portrait (1909) by Egon SCHIELE fetched $10.3 million at the Modern Art session. There were also good results for Oscar DOMINGUEZ (La Main passe II, 1942, $798,000), Joan MIRO (Femme et oiseaux dans la nuit, 1968, $8.3 million) and particularly for Wifredo LAM whose large painting (Chant de la forêt, (1946, 154.6 x 107.3 cm) sold for $2 million, the artist’s fifth best result. Chant de la forêt had remained in the same private collection since 1989 when it was purchased at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris for the equivalent of $515,000 (implying +295% over 27 years). Currently in the spotlight with a superb touring retrospective exhibition (lasting two years) that opened in Paris in September 2015 (Centre Pompidou, 30 September 2015 – 15 February 2016), Wifredo Lam’s market is looking more dynamic than usual, with stronger demand.

The following day, Sotheby’s Surrealist Art sale generated $21.5 million, half of which came from a new auction record for Paul DELVAUX. Le Miroir, a superb canvas from 1936 (depicted on the cover of the sales catalogue), was hotly pursued until $10.5 million, twice its last auction result in 1999 ($5.1 million at Christie’s in London 8 December 1999). Some other less-impressive records were also hammered including one for a work on paper by Francis PICABIA (Le Ventilateur, $3.4 million) and another for a MAN RAY sculpture: La Vénus restaurée, that added nearly 10% to its 2009 price (fetching $560,000).

An important Matta in Paris…

Collectors of Surrealist art will now be focusing on the Paris sale of Pierre Hebey’s collection at Artcurial (22 and 23 February). The sale includes an important work by Roberto MATTA, Morphologie psychologique de l’angoisse (73 x 92 cm) painted in 1938. This Matierist work doesn’t have the fluidity or the constructional dynamics that appeared in the 1940s, but it is clearly a precursive work. France’s auction rooms haven’t seen a 1938 canvas by Matta since 2012 as this type of work is usually consigned to Christie’s or Sotheby’s in New York. Acquired for just $110,000 in 1986 (Sotheby’s, New York, 20 May 1986), the work is carrying an estimate of between €700,000 and €900,000. That is indeed a substantial increase, but the work hasn’t been to auction for 30 years… which leads conveniently to our conclusion: as the recent disappointments at Christie’s and Sotheby’s appear to confirm, major artworks should not be submitted too frequently for sale, especially as they are invariably attributed very optimistic price estimates…