Art Market

$110.7-Million Haystack Painting Smashes Monet Record at Sotheby’s

Benjamin Sutton
May 15, 2019 4:33AM

Claude Monet, Meules, 1890. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

New York City’s week of big-ticket spring sales continued Tuesday night at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art auction, where the evening’s headline lot hammered for nearly twice its estimate and notched a new record for a work by Claude Monet.

The sale brought in a total of $349.8 million (including buyers’ premiums) against a pre-sale high estimate of $333.2 million (pre-sale estimates do not include fees). The night’s sell-through rate by lot was 90.9%.

The sale was not an outright triumph. Five of the evening’s 55 lots failed to sell—including, notably, the epic William-Adolphe Bouguereau painting La jeunesse de Bacchus (1884), which had the evening’s second-highest high estimate, at $35 million. And more than 20 lots hammered down below their low estimates.

The result was an improvement over the same sale last year, which brought in $318.3 million, led by a $157.2 million Amedeo Modigliani. In fact, it was the highest total for a Sotheby’s Imp/mod sale since 2015. But it was almost exactly $50 million short of arch rival Christie’s Imp/mod sale the night before, which totalled $399 million.

Top lots

William Bouguereau, La Jeunesse De Bacchus, 1884. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

  • Claude Monet’s Meules (1890–91) set a new auction record for a work by Monet. Auctioneer Harry Dalmeney opened the bidding on the evening’s star lot at $32 million, well below its on-request pre-sale estimate of $55 million. But it quickly vaulted that estimate, with bids coming in from multiple specialists working the phones as well as two fervent bidders in the salesroom. The bidding intensified until the price passed Monet’s existing record of $84.6 million, set by Nymphéas en fleur (ca. 1914–17) when it sold at Christie’s in May 2018. As the work approached nine figures, bidders dropped out, leading to a duel between a woman at the back of the salesroom and a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s specialist Brooke Lampley. The bidder in the room finally prevailed, with Meules hammering down at $97 million ($110.7 million with fees) after eight minutes of bidding, eliciting applause from the room.
  • Pablo Picasso’s Femme au chien (1962) sparked a fervent bidding war between several phone bidders and a bidder in the front row of the salesroom. The work quickly eclipsed its high estimate and hammered at $48 million ($54.9 million with fees), secured by the bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s chairman of the Americas Lisa Dennison. After the sale, Sotheby’s identified the buyer of the Picasso as Wynn Fine Art LLC, though the auction house could not confirm if that entity is related to disgraced casino mogul (and known Picasso collector) Steve Wynn. Sotheby’s also noted that the result was a new record for a Picasso made after 1960.
  • Gustave Caillebotte’s La rue Halévy, vue du sixième étage (1878) passed its high estimate of $8 million as a phone bidder on the line with Sotheby’s specialist Samuel Valette competed with the same back-of-the-room bidder who captured the blockbuster Monet earlier. That in-room paddle-holder emerged as the winner when the piece finally hammered down at $12 million ($13.9 million with fees.)

Pablo Picasso, Femme au chien, 1962. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

In addition to the marquee Monet, Sotheby’s set another record on Tuesday night, for a work by the Spanish-Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres-García. His tall painting Construcción en blanco (1931) failed to reach its low estimate of $3.5 million, but its hammer price of $2.8 million ($3.4 million with fees) was still enough to surpass his previous record of $2.1 million, set at a Christie’s sale of Latin American art in November 2015.

And while the $110-million Monet was rightly the star of the evening, the buoyant mood it generated was hushed by the Bouguereau flop. After opening the bidding at $15 million, Dalmeny chandelier-bid the work up to $18 million, where the action stalled. Though two specialists seemed to be speaking intently to clients on the phone, no specialists could convince a client to make an offer, and the lot went unsold, provoking what amounted to a collective grimace from the crowd. The energy drained out of the salesroom after that, with four more lots failing to sell and just two passing their high estimates among the sale’s last 17 lots.


Gustave Caillebotte, La Rue Halévy, Vue Du Sixième Étage, 1878. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

While the sale’s two biggest lots majorly outstripped their high estimates, the Bouguereau flop was a major disappointment. For Sotheby’s specialists speaking after the sale, the problem was not that the artist is not a household name or that the work is of a more classical style than many of the Impressionist, Cubist, and other modern works that are hallmarks of these sales. Instead they chalked it up to the work’s sheer size—it is 20 feet wide. Perhaps few collectors have places to install such a work.

“We were extremely bullish on it, but it’s just not a domestic-sized painting,” August Uribe, vice chairman of Sotheby’s Imp/mod department in New York, said after the sale. “We only received good feedback on it from collectors. This was a wonderful odyssey.”

But the sale confirmed that, when it comes to the Imp/mod evening sales, known quantities are surer bets. The Monet haystack painting was the first Impressionist work Sotheby’s has ever sold for over $100 million, and 13 of the sale’s lots—accounting for a total of about $160 million—were “classical Impressionist works,” according to Uribe.

Sotheby’s will continue to tap the Imp/mod market in its day sales on Wednesday, before the market’s attention turns to more contemporary works at Christie’s in the evening.

Benjamin Sutton
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