Art Market

$22-Million Nicolas de Staël Painting Breaks Auction Record at Christie’s in Paris

Benjamin Sutton
Oct 17, 2019 10:47PM

Nicolas de Staël, Parc des Princes (Les grands footballeurs) , 1952. Sold for €20 million ($22 million). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Christie’s handily broke the auction record for a work by the French modernist Nicolas de Staël before a standing-room-only crowd at its Avenue Matignon salesroom on Thursday night. While bidding on the evening’s star lot was relatively subdued, several lots with estimates below €1 million inspired the night’s fiercest bidding wars.

In all, the sale brought in a hammer total of €39.1 million ($43.3 million), landing near the lower end of its pre-sale estimate of €36 million to €52 million ($39.7 million–$57.4 million). With fees, the total came to €46.3 million ($51.2 million), leaps and bounds ahead of the equivalent sale last year, which brought in €29.6 million ($34.2 million) across 41 lots. It eclipsed Wednesday night’s equivalent sale at Sotheby’s, which brought in €22.6 million ($24.9 million), including fees, across 57 lots. With one of its 45 lots withdrawn and four lots failing to sell, Thursday evening’s sale at Christie’s achieved a sell-through rate of 91% by lot.

Top lots

Pablo Picasso, Mousquetaire. Buste, 1967. Sold for €3.4 million ($3.8 million). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

  • Nicolas de Staël’s Parc des Princes (Les grands footballeurs) (1952), an enormous and impastoed abstract painting of soccer players at Paris’s most famous stadium, was far and away the night’s biggest lot, with a pre-sale estimate of €18 million to €25 million ($19.8 million–$27.6 million). Bidding was sluggish, with a brief exchange between a bidder in the room and one on the phone with Pierre Martin-Vivier, Christie’s Director of 20th Century Art in Paris. The client on the phone quickly prevailed, with a winning bid of €17.5 million ($19.3 million), or a square €20 million ($22 million) with fees. The result, which accounted for almost half of the entire sale’s total haul, bested the previous record for a De Staël, set at a Christie’s sale in New York in May of 2018, by nearly $10 million.
  • Pablo Picasso’s Mousquetaire. Buste (1967) sparked a short-lived contest between a phone bidder and another competing online. Ultimately, the client on the phone with Edmond Francey, Christie’s International Director, Post-War & Contemporary Art, Europe, won out with a bid of €2.9 million ($3.2 million), or €3.4 million ($3.8 million) with fees.
  • Zao Wou-Ki’s 6.2.89 (1989), a contemplative painting awash in blues, came up after the record-setting De Staël, and set off a bidding war between buyers in the room and on the phones. It eventually went to the bidder on the line with Laetitia Delaloye, Christie’s Head of Antiquities in London, for a hammer price of €2.3 million ($2.5 million), or €2.7 million ($3 million) with fees.

Mid-range works

Zao Wou-Ki, 6.2.89, 1989. Sold for €2.7 million ($3 million). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

The sale’s fiercest bidding was on a group of works with six-digit estimates, well below the night’s eight-figure star lot. Four mid-range works in particular sparked protracted bidding wars and ultimately sold well ahead of their high estimates, injecting some drama into what was otherwise a mellow sale.

  • The night’s longest contest unfolded between two phone bidders over Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. (1958), his cheekily modified Mona Lisa. The work, from the estate of the late Spanish artist Antoni Tàpies, hammered down at €760,000 ($840,000), or €922,000 ($1 million) with fees, well ahead of its pre-sale high estimate of €600,000 ($663,000).
  • Two other hotly contested lots came back to back. Salvador Dalí’s Ciel hyperxiologique (ca. 1960) more than doubled its high estimate of €180,000 ($198,000) to sell for a hammer price of €380,000 ($420,000), or €466,000 ($514,000) with fees, to a bidder on the phone.
  • Robert Delaunay’s colorful, prismatic painting of the Eiffel Tower, Étude pour “Air, fer et eau” (ca. 1936–37), surpassed its high estimate of €350,000 ($386,000) on the strength of intense phone bidding, ultimately selling for a hammer price of €620,000 ($685,000), or €754,000 ($833,000) with fees.
  • The evening’s most surprising bidding war was over a Baoulé mask from the Ivory Coast, included because similar masks were an inspiration to Paris’s avant-garde artists in the first half of the 20th century. For decades, it belonged to the taste-making Polish-American collector Helena Rubinstein. Bidders vied for the elegantly stylized mask, ultimately selling for a hammer price of €780,000 ($861,000), or €946,000 ($1 million) with fees, far surpassing its pre-sale high estimate of €500,000 ($552,000).


The Paris Avant-Garde sale in Christie’s Paris salesroom on October 17, 2019. Photo courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

Despite the sale’s modest results, the huge turnout augurs well for Christie’s. It suggested that the auctions organized to coincide with Paris’s mega-fair, FIAC, are successfully drawing potential collectors away from the bevvy of fairs and gallery openings for a couple of hours.

“Paris is the center of the art world this week and the international collectors were very responsive to our high-quality works presented tonight,” Paul Nyzam and Antoine Lebouteiller, the co-heads of the sale, said in a statement. “The concept of this sale, which presents the best of the 20th century, proved for the fourth time that Christie’s FIAC week sales is now anchored in the global art calendar.”

The FIAC week sales at Christie’s continue with the Art Moderne day sale on Friday.

Benjamin Sutton