Art Market

$57 Million Brancusi Leads Best Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Sale in Seven Years

Anna Louie Sussman
May 16, 2017 1:17PM

Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

Last night’s Christie’s Impressionist and Modern sale finished with a within-estimate total of $289.1 million, thanks in large part to strong showings from two star lots. The result marks the auction house’s best sale in the category since 2010.

The results were a 17% rise from November’s New York evening sale, which totaled $246.3 million, and a 104% rise from the prior May, a sign that the art market’s appetite for the choicest works is undiminished.

“The market is strong,” said Guillaume Cerutti, the house’s new chief executive. “It never stopped [being] strong on the buy side. Last year it was more challenging on the sell side.”

He attributed the house’s better fortunes in obtaining consignments of sought-after works to subsiding political and economic uncertainty, and noted November’s healthy results likely encouraged buyers as well.

But the sale was sluggish at times, repeatedly punctuated by lots that failed to find any interest and others that petered out after just a few bids. Twelve of the 55 lots went unsold, for a sell-through rate of 78% of the lots. The sell-through rate by value was a much better 96%, thanks to the extraordinarily high prices of a handful of works. Cerutti called the unsold lots “sign of a market that’s very selective.”

Monday night’s solid overall results were largely driven by to two blockbuster sales: Constantin Brancusi’s La muse endormie (1913) and Pablo Picasso’s Femme assise, robe bleue (1939). Together they sold for over $102 million, comprising more than 34% of total sales. (All prices include the buyer’s premium, which is not included in estimates.) The sales hammer price total was $258 million, almost exactly in between the sale’s low and high estimates of $207 million and $307 million, respectively.

Jessica Fertig, Christie’s senior vice president and head of Impressionist and Modern evening sale, said 42% of the lots went to Americans, and 23% to Asian buyers; buyers from 35 countries had registered to bid. The house did not offer a geographic breakdown by value. She noted 84% of the works had not been on the market for at least 20 years.

“That is what all of our clients are looking for,” she said.

The Brancusi sale lasted nine minutes and hit a new record for the artist, coming in at $57.3 million and garnering the only sincere-sounding applause of the evening. A number of spectators took off after the hammer fell, and auctioneer Andreas Rumbler found himself offering the last dozen or so lots to a half-empty room.  

La muse endormie (1913), a bronze egg-shaped sculpture of a head whose partially gilded surface has a matte, mottled effect, in contrast to Brancusi’s well-known sleek and polished bronzes, handily beat its estimate of between $25 million and $35 million. The house’s website indicated that this lot was secured with a third-party guarantee, the late addition of which likely raised the estimate from its initial $20 million to $30 million indicated in the printed auction catalogue.

Picasso’s Femme assise, robe bleue (1939; est. $35 million–$50 million), a portrait of his mistress Dora Maar that was once in the collection of the artist’s friend and dealer Paul Rosenberg and was later confiscated by Nazis sold for $45 million to an anonymous bidder from Asia, on the phone with Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia. It was last sold at Christie’s in London in 2011 for $29.1 million.

Fernand Léger’s futuristic still-life Nature morte aux éléments mécaniques (1918) sold on just one bid for $11.4 million with the buyer’s premium; the hammer price just scraping the low end of its $10 million to $15 million estimate.

The snowy scene depicted by Claude Monet in La route de Vétheuil, effet de neige (1879) found a taker at $11.4 million with the buyer’s premium. As with the Léger, the hammer price achieved barely hit the work’s low estimate, which came in at $10 million to $15 million.

Another Picasso, Femme assise dans un fauteuil (1917–20) found a handful of early bidders, hitting a lull at around $22 million before resuming an upwards climb, and ultimately selling for $30.4 million, just above its $20 million–$30 million estimate. The portrait of his wife Olga was started in 1917 but not finished until 1920; begun alongside a more classical depiction of her, it shows the artist probing the same subject in a Cubist style.

Picasso’s portrait of his then-mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, Femme couchée (1929), was intended to be the first lot of the auction with an estimate of $1.2 to $1.8 million, but it was withdrawn before the sale.

Marc Chagall’s painting Les trois cierges (1939) sold for $14.5 million, above a high estimate of $12 million. The work was carried out of France by Chagall’s daughter Ida to New York. It was donated to the Cleveland Clinic by Sydell Miller, who bought it in 1998 for $3.3 million.

Works from the clinic’s collection—from which Picasso’s Femme assise dans un fauteuil was also consigned—totaled $55.7 million on Monday night; three additional works from the collection will be for sale in the Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary sale on Wednesday night.

Overall, 36 lots sold for over $1 million (out of 41 with estimates of $1 million or more), and seven went for $10 million or above.

While much of the sale may have lacked fanfare, it represents a strong shift in momentum for the house, which had its worst Impressionist and Modern sale in a half-decade last May, which fell below-estimate for a total of $144 million. Christie’s reported total art sales in 2016 of $5.4 billion, down for the second straight year from 2014’s high of $8.4 billion. The majority, $4.4 billion, came through public auction sales, and the rest through private sales ($935.5 million) and online sales ($67.1 million).  
Overall sales in the global art market were estimated at slightly under $57 billion in 2016, according to The Art Market | 2017, a report recently published by Art Basel and UBS. But last year saw auction sales fall by a precipitous 26% globally; ultra-high end sales (works priced above $10 million) fell by more than half.

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

The week’s sales continue with Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern sale Tuesday evening, followed by Post-War and Contemporary sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s on Wednesday and Thursday evenings, respectively.

Anna Louie Sussman