Art Market

$173 Million Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Sale Fizzles without $40 Million Star Lot

Anna Louie Sussman
May 17, 2017 1:53PM

Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s headed into its Impressionist and Modern sale Tuesday night unexpectedly without its star lot.

The loss of Egon Schiele’s Danaë (1909), apparently within hours of the sale’s start, put the auction house on the back foot on Tuesday. The painting was estimated to sell for between $30 million and $40 million (roughly one-sixth of the night’s total sale estimate) and is described in the catalogue as “Schiele’s greatest early masterpiece.”

Still, the evening closed with $173.8 million in total sales, falling squarely within a presale estimate of between $147 million and $210.4 million that was revised downward, following the withdrawals of the Schiele and a work by Camille Pissarro.

The results represented a modest 10% uptick from November’s haul of $157.7 million, but fell significantly short of the $289.1 million Christie’s Impressionist and Modern sale the prior evening, suggesting the auction market hasn’t fully landed on solid ground after a 2016 marked by uncertainty and caution on the part of sellers.

“There was the odd slow patch, but for the most part that felt like an auction with a hell of a lot of momentum,” said Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s co-head of Impressionist and Modern art worldwide, following the sale. He pointed to the fact that, on average, four people competed for each lot with more than 10 bidders vying for a least one work.

Specialists at the auction house declined to specify why the auction’s cover lot had been withdrawn at the last-minute. But, presumably, the seller anticipated that Sotheby’s didn’t have the bids needed to secure a favorable result. At Monday night’s Christie’s sale, major paintings such as Pablo Picasso’s Femme assise, robe bleue (1939) were hammered to within-estimate but unspectacular results. Meanwhile, a Constantin Brancusi bronze, La muse endormie (1913), blew past its high estimate, setting off strong demand for sculpture that continued at Sotheby’s on Tuesday night.

Ten of the 11 sculptures in the Sotheby’s sale sold, and brought in a total of $54.1 million, exceeding their combined $41.2 million high estimate.

The withdrawal of the Schiele and Pissarro’s landscape, L’Hermitage en été, Pontoise (1877), brought the total number of lots in Sotheby’s sale down to 50, of which 37 sold, for a sell-through rate of 74% by lot and 86.2% by value. Three works by Picasso were among the lots bought in. A total of 14 lots, estimated to sell for between $54.8 million and $79.2 million, held guarantees and irrevocable bids.

Still, the sale had some early surprises, such as Max Ernst’s large bronze sculpture Le Roi jouant avec la reine (1944, cast 1950), which went for $15.9 million (all prices including buyer’s premium unless otherwise noted) after a drawn-out contest involving more than 10 bidders. Its hammer price was more than twice the high estimate of $6 million and over six times the previous auction record for a sculpture by the artist, set in 2002.

Some of the attraction was attributed to the sculpture’s provenance: It hailed from the collection of the American artist Robert Motherwell and his wife Renate.

Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist Composition with Plane in Projection (1915) was one of 39 canvases exhibited in Malevich’s 1915 St. Petersburg show “0.10: Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings,” an early foray by the Russian artist into abstract or “Suprematist” art. After a lengthy bidding war, it fetched $21.1 million, well above its estimate of $12 million to $18 million. It was the highest price notched all night and the fourth highest price achieved at auction for a Malevich.

Claude Monet’s water lily painting Le Bassin aux Nymphéas (c. 1917–20) sold for $15.9 million, hammering at the low end of its $14 million to $18 million estimate. Hailing from a private collection, it last sold publicly for $3.85 million in 1989.

Picasso’s self-portrait Tête d’Homme (1969) was painted when he was nearly 88, four years before his death. The colorful painting sold for $10.9 million, within its estimated range of $8 million to $12 million.

Alberto Giacometti’s Buste de Diego (1957–58) sold for $10.9 million, missing its low estimate of $10 million without the buyer’s premium. The work was one of five sculptures from the Finn Family Collection on offer last night, and is one of an edition of six sculptures of the artist’s younger brother Diego Giacometti, who sat for him frequently. It had been in the collection since it was acquired in 1964.

The younger Giacometti notched a new record on Tuesday night. The lesser-known artist’s Bibliotheque de l’île Saint-Louis (c. 1966–69), an installation of 10.5 feet by 12 feet, sold for $6.3 million, nearly doubling its pre-sale high estimate of $3 million.

Two other artists achieved new auction records on Tuesday: Jean Arp’s bronze Torse des Pyrénées (1959, cast 1962; est. $1.5 million–$2.5 million) at $4.8 million and Germaine Richier’s Don Quichotte (1950–51; est. $1.5 million–$2.5 million) at $3 million. Four works sold for more than $10 million; only three had low estimates of at least that much. But Christie’s had seven lots of $10 million or more the prior evening.

Following the sale, Shaw noted that Tuesday night’s results, when combined with the house’s performance in London earlier this year, marked a 50% rise in Impressionist and Modern art sales over the previous year’s first two quarters. In total, Sotheby’s reported public auction sales  of $4.1 billion in 2016, slightly below Christie’s $4.4 billion and the second consecutive fall since its record year at the art market’s most recent peak in 2014, when it raked in $6.1 billion. Sotheby’s did about $583 million in private sales last year.

Overall sales in the global art market were estimated at slightly under $57 billion in 2016, according to The Art Market | 2017, published recently by Art Basel and UBS. But last year saw auction sales fall precipitously, especially in the U.S. and U.K., dropping by 26% worldwide as ultra-high end sales (works priced above $10 million) fell even more steeply.

Market observers chalked up the lack of choice consignments to political and economic turbulence, citing a lack of supply, not demand, for the middling results. At least two art market reports described a shift of sales activity to the dealer sector in 2016, where the priciest works could be shopped around more discreetly.

Jeremiah Evarts, Sotheby’s head of evening sales in New York and a senior international specialist in Impressionist and Modern art, said on Tuesday that the political and economic uncertainty of last year had subsided, and the art market “felt like it really opened up” this year. But Tuesday’s news cycle, which kicked off with the New York Times reporting that President Donald Trump had tried to pressure former FBI director James Comey to drop an investigation into then-national security adviser Michael Flynn, and the evening’s sale’s results suggested there’s still at least some uncertainty in the air.

Anna Louie Sussman