The year’s first results from London

[10 Feb 2015]


Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their first major sales of the year in London on February 3 and 4, each hosting sessions dedicated to Impressionist / Modern Art and Surrealism. These early-in-the-calendar prestige sales are traditionally seen as bellwethers for subsequent sales through the year and particularly for the Contemporary Art sessions that follow closely behind. Compared with its record sales total for the same sessions in February 2014 ($292m), Christie’s total on 4 February, 2015 was down $70m ($222m incl. fees), but the firm was apparently delighted with the result, announcing that the sale had attracted bidders from 34 countries, and generated over 45 results above the million-dollar line (including fees). This year, Sotheby’s did better than its rival with a total of $285.6 million, its highest-ever London sales total. Together, the two leaders of the Modern Art auction market generated $507 million (including fees) in two evenings… a very impressive start to the year.

Among the works signed by Picasso, Chagall, Derain, Klee, Morandi, Magritte, Ernst, Dominguez, Signac, Pissarro, Joan Miro and Matisse, a significant number had not appeared on the market for several generations, including many superb quality works (subject, date, etc.). The strongest bidding was focused on French avant-garde artists – the ‘leading lights’ of Modernism – some fetching several tens of millions of dollars. In particular, Christie’s offered two views of l’Estaque, a historically important subject: the small port just north of Marseille was home to the birth of Modernism through Braque, Cézanne and Picasso, among others. Both works fetched excellent results: Georges BRAQUE’ colorful pre-cubist landscape went for $5.1 million (Paysage a l’Estaque, 1907, $5.8m incl. fees) and Paul CÉZANNE’s Vue sur L’Estaque et le Château d’If from the Samuel Courtauld collection reached $18 million ($20.3m incl. fees) generating one of Cezanne’s top 10 auction results.
While Christie’s relied on Cezanne, Sotheby’s focused on Monet, offering five works by the Impressionist master that all found buyers at prices ranging from $2.8m to $31.6m. Sotheby’s therefore posted the best result of the two days of sales with Claude MONET’s 1908 masterpiece Le Grand Canal which fetched $31.6m, posting a value accretion of no less than 20 million dollars in just 10 years! Sotheby’s had previously sold the painting in 2005 for $11.5m.

Nowadays, no prestige sale can do without works by Alberto GIACOMETTI (to whom the market owes the best art auction result of 2014) and Sotheby’s and Christie’s both move heaven and earth to obtain them. On the February 4 and 5, the two firms offered nine Giacometti works ranging from drawings (which fetched between $22,000 and $50,000) to large sculptures, including Femme de Venise V (4/6, 110cm, at Christie’s) from a series of standing women Giacometti sculpted specifically for the French Pavilion of the 1956 Venice Biennial. Femme de Venise V fetched $9 million ($10.2m including costs). In addition, two important bronzes representing the artist’s brother crossed the $3m threshold: Tête de Diego sur socle sur socle (2/6, 37cm) fetched $3.9m ($4.49m incl. fees) and Diego au chandail (4/6) sold for $3.2m ($3.7m incl. fees).

The Surrealist sessions contained works by Max Ernst, Dali, Redon, Picabia, an exceptional number of works by René Magritte and a superb Joan MIRO that generated Christie’s best result: Painting (Women, Moon, Birds), which had remained in the same private European collection since 1963, fetched twice its high estimate with a final bid of $20.7m ($23.5m incl. fees). However, the most stimulating aspect of these sessions was the sheer quantity and quality of works by René MAGRITTE: no less than nine masterpieces at Christie’s, including Les compagnons de la peur (1942) which fetched $5.4m ($6.1m incl. fees) and Quand l’heure sonnera (1964) which sold for $5.7m ($6.5m incl. fees). Over at Sotheby’s, three good quality works by Magritte were also on offer, including L’Explication, acquired for $4.8m ($5.6m incl. fees).
Interestingly, Magritte’s works on paper, especially those depicting well known images such as his masked apples (c.f. his famous oil-on-canvas Le Prêtre marié), largely overshot their price estimates. Measuring 35.9 x 27 cm, Souvenir de voyage – a small gouache depicting a single masked apple – more than tripled its high estimate at Christie’s Art of the Surreal Evening Sale when it fetched $3.48m ($3.9m incl. fees), not far below the artist’s auction record for a work on paper (set on February 8, 2011 by Le Maître d’école, $3.5m [$4m incl. fees] at Sotheby’s in London). Christie’s managed to sell the other drawings by the Surrealist artist well above their high estimates: La Clairvoyance added $500,000 (hammer: $1.2m), La Recherche de l’absolu added $700,000 ($1.6m) and Le thérapeute added $1.2m ($2.5m). For Magritte’s market, these results represent something of a breakthrough: five new million-plus auction results for works on paper in just two days of sales, versus three during the whole year 2014…