New York’s Impressionist & Modern sales produce very mixed results

[09 Nov 2009]


The two days of Impressionist & Modern auctions in New York saw the art market in full roller-coaster mode: after a very uninspiring evening at Christie’s that generated just $56.8m on 3 November 2009 (vs. $116.9m on 6 November 2008), Sotheby’s posted $102m more than its rival ($158.6m vs. $196.8m on 3 November 2008) the following day and several new records.

Christie’s, which opened the autumn sales of Impressionist and Modern Art at the Rockefeller Plaza, has not generated such a weak total from this type of New York event since 2004. However, the $56.8m total cannot be described as catastrophic because it is well within the auctioneer’s forecast range ($41.7m – $58.8m). And, considering the mediocre catalogue, no new records could have been expected. Christie’s had decided to propose fewer lots than its rival (40 vs. 68 at Sotheby’s); however that prudence did not offset the damage generated by a long list of unsold works (30%). First and foremost on this list, Pablo PICASSO’s portrait of Dora Maar (1943) entitled Tête de femme whose quality failed to attract buyers into the $7-10m estimate zone. Among the other works bought-in at Christie’s were two paintings by Camille PISSARRO, Emile Othon FRIESZ’s Paysage, La Ciotat, a mixed technique work by Henri MATISSE (Rosace), Alfred SISLEY’s Paysage à Andrésy, Amedeo MODIGLIANI’s Portrait de photographe Dilewski, Piet MONDRIAAN’s Composition II, with Red, Max ERNST’s Profanation of Spring , Alberto GIACOMETTI’s Femme debout and Joan MIRO’s Personnage et oiseau.

However the bidding was enthusiastic for a superb light-coloured pastel by Edgar DEGAS (Danseuses, $9.5m), a pointillist painting by Paul SIGNAC (Vieux port de Cannes, $3.3m), a Portrait du Marquis Sommi by Tamara DE LEMPICKA ($3.8m) and a work by Salvador DALI entitled Nu dans la plaine de Rosas ($3.5m). The surrealist master’s artwork ranks now on 3rd position among Dali’s records. Since the last auction at Christie’s, London, in June 2002 its value has increased by 2,8M$.

In stark contrast, the next day Sotheby’s set a new record for a Dali paper work when his highly accomplished mixed technique Girafe en feu (1937) substantially overshot its low estimate fetching $1.6m, and the records continued to flow when Kees VAN DONGEN’s Matisse-tinted Jeune arabe sold for $12.25m and André DERAIN’s Barques au port de Collioure fetched $12.5m. The latter work gained $10.1m since it was last auctioned at Christie’s in 1993.
Among the other master-pieces to sell that evening were Picasso’s Buste d’homme ($9.2m), painted in 1969 and demonstrating his exceptional octogenarian energy and two other Picasso works: Femme au chapeau vert (1947, $7.2m) and Claude à deux ans (1949, $5.5m). However the best result from the two days of sales was $17.2m for Alberto Giacometti’s poignant sculpture on the fragility of the human condition – L’Homme qui chavire – (a man apparently off-balance, cast in highly uneven bronze), $5.2m above its high estimate.

The message from these sales to collectors who might be waiting for better days before selling their best pieces is that there is minimal risk on high quality works. It is essentially only mediocre or over-estimated works that are currently suffering from market wariness.