Art Market

A $30-million Claude Monet painting led Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art sale in London.

Benjamin Sutton
Jun 19, 2019 9:50PM, via Artsy

Auctioneer Helena Newman at Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art in London. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s is on the brink of big changes following news of its $3.7-billion acquisition by French telecom tycoon and collector Patrick Drahi. But it was business as usual at the auction house’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art in London, which more than doubled Christie’s lackluster sale the night before.

The 25-lot sale at Sotheby’s saw just two works go unsold, for a sell-through rate of 92% by lot. Hammer prices for the 23 lots sold totaled £84.8 million ($106.3 million), just missing the sale’s low estimate of £87.5 million ($111.3 million). With fees, the auction’s grand total came to £98.9 million ($124.2 million), putting it 13% ahead of both the house’s February Impressionist and modern art sale, which grossed £87.7 million ($115.3 million), and the equivalent sale one year ago of £87.5 million ($115.7 million). And while last year’s auction was dominated by Pablo Picasso, this time around the money-makers were all artists with “M” names.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas, 1908. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Top lots:

  • Claude Monet’s Nymphéas (1908), part of the artist’s iconic series devoted to the water lilies in his Giverny garden, was the sale’s star lot. With a pre-sale estimate of £25 million to £35 million ($31.3 million–43.8 million), Sotheby’s may have been angling to repeat its success from last month, when a Monet haystack painting eclipsed its pre-sale estimate to sell for $110.7 million. But the turnout for Nymphéas was tentative, despite auctioneer Helena Newman’s best efforts. The lot limped along, finally selling for a hammer price of £21 million ($26.3 million), well short of its low estimate. (Estimates do not take fees into account, making the hammer price a truer indicator of a lot’s performance.) With fees, the price came to £23.7 million ($29.7 million).
  • Amedeo Modigliani’s Jeune homme assis, les mains croisées sur les genoux (1918) crept up to its £16-million ($20 million) low estimate and stayed there. With fees, the price came to £18.4 million ($23 million).
  • Joan Miró’s Peinture (L’Air) (1938) last appeared at auction nearly a decade ago, selling well under its low estimate for $10.3 million at a Christie’s sale in New York in November 2010. On Wednesday evening in London it faired better, slightly surpassing its £10-million ($12.5 million) low estimate to hammer down at £10.4 million ($13 million), or £12 million ($15 million) with fees.
  • And while Picasso wasn’t the sale’s driving force, he did notch the night’s fourth-highest sale, when his 1968 painting Homme à la Pipe sold squarely between its low and high estimates, for a hammer price of £6.5 million ($8.1 million), or £7.6 million ($9.5 million) with fees.

Joan Miró, Peinture (L’Air), 1938. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Though none of the night’s biggest lots sparked much fervor in the auction room, the sale did see feverish bidding for a work by the Bohemian Symbolist artist Alfred Kubin. His grim ink-on-paper work Epidemie (Epidemic) (ca. 1900–01) cruised past its high estimate of £200,000 ($250,700), with bidders in the room, on the phones, and online competing. The work finally sold to an online bidder for a hammer price of £790,000 ($990,000), or £963,000 ($1.2 million) with fees, setting a new auction record for Kubin.

Alfred Kubin, Epidemie (Epidemic), ca. 1900–01. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Another lot on the lower end that caught the room’s attention and set a new record was a Mondrian-esque painting by Fritz Glarner. The work was recently deaccessioned by The Museum of Modern Art and was being sold to benefit the institution’s acquisitions fund. Competing phone bidders pushed the price for Relational Painting No. 60 (1952) toward its high estimate of £650,000 ($815,000), and it eventually sold for a hammer price of £620,000 ($777,000), or £759,000 ($951,000) with fees— barely besting Glarner’s previous auction record, set in 2013.

Fritz Glarner, Relational Painting No. 60, 1952. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Sotheby’s sale was neither a runaway success nor a clear underperformance like Tuesday’s dour Christie’s sale. The London auctions continue on Thursday, with a sale of works from a single estate at Christie’s and the Impressionist and modern art day sale at Sotheby’s.

Benjamin Sutton