Pablo Picasso, Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter), 1937. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.
“The 2018 auction season begins in earnest tonight,” said Jussi Pylkkänen, global president at Christie’s, on Tuesday evening in London as he stood at the lectern of the house’s King Street sales room, ready to auction off what wound up being over $200 million worth of art on that night alone, including the buyer’s premiums.
The season appeared to begin with a bang as the Impressionist and Modern evening sales at Christie’s came squarely within its estimate and Sotheby’s surpassed its high estimate, thanks to sales of work by that longtime industry stalwart, Pablo Picasso. A portrait of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter sold for £49.8 million ($69.2 million) at Sotheby’s on Wednesday, making it the most expensive painting and the second-most expensive artwork ever sold in Europe, bested only by Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture Walking Man I (1960), which had sold for $104.3 million at Sotheby’s New Bond Street sales room in 2010.
The 1937 painting Femme au béret et à la robe quadrillée (Marie-Thérèse Walter) was purchased by a client on the phone with Lord Mark Poltimore, deputy chairman of Europe for Sotheby’s. According to industry newsletter the Baer Faxt and Bloomberg, the client on the phone was the London advisory outfit Gurr Johns, whose executive chairman Harry Smith had already calmly snapped up nine Picassos at Christie’s on Tuesday and finished Wednesday with three more on top of the portrait of Marie-Thérèse, a total of 13 works in two days for a combined £112.7 million ($155.2 million). It is unclear why the advisor was snapping up so many canvases by Picasso—Gurr Johns did not respond to emails and calls—but Smith was bidding on every single one.
The blockbuster Picasso came up nine lots into Sotheby’s Wednesday night sale. Gavel-wielder Helena Newman, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and co-head of Impressionist and Modern Art Worldwide, opened bidding on the Picasso, which was guaranteed by a third party, at £32 million. Right out the gate was Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, bidding on behalf of an Asian client. Sotheby’s had taken the richly colored, if smallish, picture of Marie-Thérèse Walter on a viewing tour of Taipei and Hong Kong, hoping to seize upon China’s growing desire to spend gobs of cash on Impressionist and Modern works, as signaled by that sector’s outperformance of Chinese art for the first time this year.
Wong succeeded in fending off Smith initially. Then gasps arose in the salesroom when Lord Poltimore cut into the dance with a £41.2 million lob from the other side of the rostrum. They swatted bids back and forth until the Lord raised his offer to £44 million, and that’s where it hammered, going for £49.8 million with the buyer’s premium to what was later reported to be Smith’s firm, continuing its bidding via telephone.
Courtesy of Christie’s.
The effort to bring the painting to Asia clearly had an effect on bidding, said James Mackie, head of the Impressionist and Modern Art department in London.
“It was very much a battle between Patti Wong and Mark’s bidder,” he said in an interview after the sale.
When the dust had cleared, Christie’s had scored a total, with premiums of £149.6 million ($206.1 million) somewhat short of the £166.9 million ($229.9 million) high estimate. Sotheby’s pulled £136 million ($187.4 million) over a high estimate of £126.4 million ($174.1 million). Christie’s suffered from a glut of work on offer, with 76 of the 97 lots finding buyers for a 78 percent sell-through rate by lot. At Sotheby’s, despite having a tighter sale, a few big untaken lots resulted in a 77 percent sell-through rate, with 36 out of 47 lots sold.
The sale at Christie’s began with a pair of Picassos that both went to Smith, who oversaw Gurr Johns’s purchase, last year, of the Dreweatts & Bloomsbury auction house. After matter-of-factly outbidding the livelier-than-usual mass of paddle-bearers in the seats, Smith sat tight until, six lots later, came two more Picassos. He won those, too, for £5.5 million ($7.6 million) and £6.7 million ($9.2 million). Pylkkänen had to get used to saying the paddle number 137 again and again, and after Smith bought a fifth—Mousquetaire et nu assis (1967) for £13.7 million ($18.9 million)—Pylkkänen seemed to be more amused than surprised at the final buyer.
Keith Gill, head of Christie’s evening sale, said in the post-sale press conference that the sale of so many Picassos bodes well for the sale of the Rockefeller collection this May in New York. That treasure trove is set to be led by a Rose Period Picasso, estimated to go for $70 million.
At Sotheby’s, even if there were a few notable passes, more than half of the sold lots went for more than the high estimate, suggesting buyers will cough up for the right piece. A record was achieved for Umberto Boccioni, the Italian Futurist who had a painting sell for £9.1 million ($12.5 million) after cross-room jousting between Fine Art Division chairman Amy Cappellazzo and Brooke Lampley, who was poached from Christie’s in 2017 to become vice chairman of the Fine Art Division at Sotheby’s and just recently wrapped her garden leave.
The Impressionist and Modern sales are not the bellwethers of market strength that the contemporary sales can be, so market prognosticators can reserve judgement until the contemporary sales in London next week. But this showing was strong enough to contribute to what could still be an impressive string of London sales over ten days.
“I think it’s been a really great start for 2018, as there’s been a fantastic start to the season,” Mackie said. “The Marie-Thérèse is the most expensive painting ever sold in Europe—that really speaks volumes; that tells you all you need to know about how strong the market is in London.”