The New York sales at new highs

[28 Oct 2007]


On 6 and 7 November the two key sales of the auction season will take place in New York. Sotheby’s and Christie’s have assembled for the occasion a selection of important works by Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, Cézanne and even Franz Marc. To date, pre-sale estimates from the two auction houses have never been so high.

The million-ticket sales marathon will start at Christie’s on 6 November with an auction of 94 impressionist and modern art lots. While the auction ball will open with a modest work by Pablo PICASSO, a small Pomme produced in 1918 and estimated at USD 200,000–300,000, the sale room temperature is likely to rise quickly with lot number 5, another work by Pablo Picasso: a 1968 Homme A la Pipe, estimated at USD 12-16 million. Six lots later this will be followed by series of 4 paintings by Camille PISSARRO, illustrating the 4 seasons, offered at USD 12-18 million. This is not the first time this historic series of paintings has been offered at auction! Back in 1891, it was acquired for FFR 1,115 at Drouot (cf: Hippolyte Mireur Dictionary of Art Auctions – Volume VI – page 2). The last time was in November 2004 at Christie’s when the hammer came down at USD 8 million.

We would also highlight the USD 15-20 million expected for L’Odalisque, harmonie bleue by Henri MATISSE, realised in 1937, or even the USD 10-15 million for a study for Les constructeurs, fond bleu by Fernand LÉGER. Two important canvases by Amedeo MODIGLIANI are also up for sale: a Portrait du sculpteur Oscar Miestchaninoff from 1916, acquired for USD 8.5 million in 1995, which is expected to fetch USD 18–25 million and une Jeune fille assise en chemise (1918) offered at USD 9–12 million. The latter was auctioned for USD 4.4 million in May 1998 at Christie’s. If we go by the updated price module realised by Artprice (Artprice Indicator), these two estimates, while well above the acquisition prices, remain completely consistent with the increase in Modigliani’s price level over the past 12 years, which saw particularly strong growth of +65% in 2004.
Two rare paintings by Paul CÉZANNE are featured: a view of Jas de Bouffan, produced in 1890-1894 at the artist’s home (est. USD 12–16 million), and a still life, a favourite subject of the artist, entitled Compotier et Assiette de Biscuits (USD 10–15 million). However, one of the most talked-about pieces in the sale is by German expressionist painter August MACKE: Paar im Wald (1912), estimated at USD 15–25 million, could well become the artist’s most expensive work.

On 7 November, Sotheby’s is focusing its sale on 76 lots, but gets bidding off to a fast start with an exceptional series of 6 Egon SCHIELE drawings including Selbstbildnis mit kariertem Hemd, a gouache estimated at USD 4.5–6.5 million. Amongst the headline lots, we would mention The Fields, a large landscape by Vincent VAN GOGH, executed in 1890, to be offered for USD 28–35 million. In lot 18, Sotheby’s will auction an exceptional 1892 painting by Paul GAUGUIN, entitled Te Poipoi (Le Matin), with a pre-sale estimate of USD 40-60 million. The latter had already been auctioned at the 1895 studio sale during which it made just FFR 320, or nearly 4 times less than the Pissaro series.

An important bronze by Pablo Picasso, 80cm high and portraying Dora Maar, cast in 4 editions, will be offered at USD 20-30 million. Never before has a piece of sculpture been auctioned in such a high price range! The sale will feature other Picasso works, including La Lampe, a 1931 canvas with a pre-sale estimate of USD 25-35 million, owned until now by the artist’s family, but also a version of Homme à La Pipe, painted in 1969, larger but very similar to the one to be sold on the previous evening at Christie’s! Furthermore, as its rival auction house, Sotheby’s will also be offering a magnificent canvas by Henri MATISSE: entitled Espagnole (Buste), the 1922 canvas is estimated at USD 12-16 million. The painting The Waterfall: Women beneath a Waterfall by Franz Marc, another big name in German expressionism, will also be one of the highlights of the sale. Estimated at USD 20-30 million, the 1912 canvas was acquired for a modest GBP 4.6 million (USD 7.6 million) in 1999, or between a quarter and a third of its current pre-sale estimate! In 1974 the work was auctioned in London under the title La Cascade for GBP 45,000 (FFR 490,000 – Mayer Auction Records 1975 – p. 761).
Lot 15 perhaps best sums up the current frenzy but also the potential market strain. Femmes dans un jardin, an Pierre-Auguste RENOIR canvas painted in 1873 and offered at USD 8–12 million, was acquired just 18 months ago at Sotheby’s for GDP 4.4 million (USD 8.2 million). It goes without saying that if the bidding does not approach the top end of the estimated range, either the piece will be bought in or its owner will have to resign himself to watching his capital depreciate. However, whatever happens, in the current environment, the game consisting of seeking a quick capital gain in the market can never be played risk free.