Top 10 unsold

[16 Jan 2015]


Friday is Top day! Every other Friday, Artprice publishes a theme-based auction ranking. This week, the leaders in art market information take a look at 10 lots with such over-ambitious estimates that they failed to find a buyer at auction. Generally, the auction houses prefer not to provide direct estimates for masterpieces, and our ranking does not include the most fabulous works. But it does give us an insight into unsold works, which represent one third of all lots offered for sale at public auction. This clearly demonstrates that it is not only works of lesser quality that remain unsold.

Top 10 unsold
Rank Artist Low estimate High estimate Artwork Sale
1 Pablo PICASSO $59,569,840 $89,354,760 Portrait de Angel Fernandez de Soto (1903) 2006-11-08 Christie’s NEW YORK NY
2 Pablo PICASSO $31,863,757.5 $38,236,509 Instruments de musique sur un guéridon (1914/15) 2009-02-23 Christie’s Paris & Pierre Bergé PARIS
3 Claude MONET $30,000,000 $40,000,000 Nymphéas (1906) 2010-06-23 Christie’s LONDON
4 Vincent VAN GOGH $30,000,000 $40,000,000 Le jardin d’automne, le jardin public (1888) 2001-05-07 Phillips, De Pury & Luxembourg NEW YORK NY
5 Pablo PICASSO $30,000,000 Olga Picasso (1923) 2001-05-09 Christie’s NEW YORK NY
6 Francis BACON $30,000,000 $40,000,000 Study For Portrait Of P.L. (1962) 2013-05-14 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
7 Vincent VAN GOGH $28,000,000 $35,000,000 The Fields (c.1890) 2007-11-07 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
8 George Wesley BELLOWS $25,000,000 $35,000,000 Men of the Docks (1912) 2007-11-29 Christie’s NEW YORK NY
9 Pablo PICASSO $25,000,000 $35,000,000 La lampe (1931) 2007-11-07 Sotheby’s NEW YORK NY
10 Edvard MUNCH $25,000,000 $35,000,000 Fertility (1899/1900) 2010-05-04 Christie’s NEW YORK NY
copyright © 2015


Too much Picasso

Our top ten unsold works include four by Pablo Picasso: one from 1903, one from 1914/15, a third from 1923 and finally one from 1931. Four works from four different periods, ranging from the abstract to the neo-realist.
Of course Picasso was one of the world’s most prolific artists. He is almost omnipresent in the sale rooms, with 3,913 lots in 2014 (2,853 of which were sold), 62 of them for more than $1 million. It just goes to show how much the market loves this artist. Indeed, he created so many masterpieces that they almost constitute a market of their own. A market with its own unsold works… Perhaps one of the most remarkable is the Portrait d’Angel Fernandez de Soto (1903). Christie’s set the estimate for this painting at $40-60 million when offering it for sale on 8 November 2006 at 20 Rockefeller Plaza. This session was a huge success, producing an all-time record in terms of proceeds. Today, it is still the fifth-highest result ever achieved at a single session. Among the 72 lots sold that evening were nine paintings by the Spanish master, including two which fell short of the reserve price set by the holders of the works.



The top ten unsold works also feature two paintings by van Gogh, one by Francis Bacon and one by Edvard Munch. Since 1990, these three artists, along with Pablo Picasso, have set all the records at public auctions. Is it a coincidence that their names appear in both of the rankings? Or does it merely demonstrate that the market has reached its limit?
The triptych entitled Three studies of Lucien Freud was sold for the staggering price of $127 million on 12 November 2013 at Christie’s New York, but on 14 May of the same year, Study For Portrait Of P.L. (1962) failed to reach the low estimate of $30 million set by Sotheby’s New York. It seems therefore that although frenzy in the art market tends to focus on a handful of artists, it still sets itself certain limits.


The unexpected

These top four names may have inured us to exorbitant prices, but this is far less true of the last name on the list. George Wesley Bellows (1882-1925) is not totally unknown in the major auction houses (13 of his works have already attracted bids in excess of $1 million at auction), but none of them have come close to his record sale of $25 million posted on 1 December 1999 at Sotheby’s New York. His second-highest result lags well behind at $6.9 million. And perhaps prestigious auctioneers Christie’s were being a little over-ambitious when they valued Men of the Docks (1912) at between $25 and $35 million, with a low estimate at the same level as the all-time record that he set 8 years previously.

Not all of these unsold works are recent phenomena. But they show that even the greatest artists, those who attract the most speculation, do not always come up to the expected levels of demand.