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What records might we expect from the sale of the century?

[24 Apr 2018]

Make no mistake… this has to be the sale of the century. Generously relayed by the media and masterfully orchestrated by Christie’s for months (world tour of the sale’s principal masterpieces with 14,000 visitors in in Hong Kong), the David and Peggy Rockefeller collection is expected to generate over $600 million. Promoted in no less than five exhibition catalogs, the 1,600 lots of this prestigious and eclectic collection will be offered over three days of sales (including two evening sessions and an online auction) and include porcelain objects, silverware, furniture, Greek ceramics, African sculptures, 17th century Chinese bronzes and a handwritten letter from President George Washington.

Suspense…

In the sale’s Fine Art category there’s a wide range of works… from Ingres to Botero… from Gilbert Stuart to Willem de Kooning… from Signac to Delacroix. The most prestigious session on 8 May includes one of the finest Paul SIGNAC works ever auctioned and an extraordinary overhead view of a Brittany coast by Paul GAUGUIN (La Vague). It also offers a set of three monumental works by Joan MIRO, an Odalisque couchée aux magnolias typical of Henri MATISSE’s finest Nice paintings, a historic cubist painting by Juan GRIS including collage (1914) which should fetch over $10 million, a rare work by SEURAT (La rade de Grandcamp) and a large Nymphéas en fleur by Claude MONET (160 x 180 cm) that could well cross the $50 million threshold judging by recent results for similar works ($54 million for smaller Nymphéas paintings at Sotheby’s London in June 2014 and then Sotheby’s New York in May 2015). To add to the suspense, Christie’s has avoided disclosing estimates for the works mentioned… Nothing like secrecy to sustain the myth and prestige of such a collection.

Nevertheless, most of the works have estimates and some of these are clearly in ‘new record’ territory like Camille COROT’s Venise, vue du Quai des Esclavons (1845), a highly modern work acquired by David Rockefeller from the Wildenstein gallery in 1957. Its estimate of 5-7 million already values the painting above the artist’s current record ($4.7 million hammered over 10 years ago for Juive d’Alger, l’Italienne at Sotheby’s New York on 7 November 2007). Diego RIVERA’s record will also be refreshed if The Rivals finds a buyer in the same price range ($5-7 million).

The Rockefeller’s jewel…

The most anticipated result of the entire sale concerns the centerpiece of the Rockefeller collection, Pablo PICASSO’s 1905 painting (155 x 66 cm) of a girl holding a basket of flowers, Fillette à la corbeille fleurie. This museum piece, painted when Picasso was 24, represents an intermediate stage between the artist’s blue and pink periods, his rarest creative periods on the market, and is in excellent condition. Initially belonging to writer Gertrude Stein, it was acquired by the Rockefellers in 1968 and has remained in that collection ever since. The estimate has not been disclosed, but the $100 million hurdle should be breached with ease, especially as Fillette à la corbeille fleurie is larger than the famous Garçon à la pipe, a masterpiece from the same year (1905) that fetched $104 million in May 2004 at Sotheby’s New York.

At a broader level, demand for Picasso’s work appears to be inexhaustible and works of this quality are too rare not to reach the highest prices. Last year, the market consumed no less than 2,879 works by Picasso, a density that is difficult to imagine (almost 8 per day…). In short, Picasso’s market has arrived at yet another peak and with prices unlikely to wane, especially considering the first results of 2018. Since the beginning of the year Picasso’s auction turnover has already generated over $210 million…

Last month (8 March 2018), Picasso’s La Dormeuse (1932, 130 cm x 162 cm) more than doubled its high estimate at Phillips in London. The work reached $57.8 million versus an estimate of $16-25 million. In February, Sotheby’s London sold Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérese Walter) (1937, 55 cm x 46 cm) for a massive $68.7 million. However, while these two paintings are clearly museum-quality, they do not have the same aura of rarity and provenance prestige associated with Fillette à la corbeille fleurie. Could the jewel in the Rockefeller collection set a new record for the artist? To do so it will have to beat the $179.3 million hammered for Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) at Christie’s New York on 11 May 2015. A new record is not inconceivable…

Whoever the new owner is in a few days, the work is already in demand as it is scheduled to be loaned to the Musée d’Orsay in Paris for its upcoming exhibition Picasso: Bleu et rose (September 2018 to January 2019).

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