Art Market

$59-Million Cézanne Leads Resurgent Impressionist and Modern Sale at Christie’s

Nate Freeman
May 14, 2019 4:13AM

Courtesy of Christie’s.

New York’s bellwether spring auctions kicked off with a blockbuster-filled $399 million sale of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s on Monday night, where works by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Balthus, Amedeo Modigliani, and Pierre Bonnard all sold for brawny eight-figure prices. The evening’s total, which includes fees, smashed the sale’s low estimate of $287.6 million and just missed the high estimate of $399.8 million. Without many major flops, and strong bidding throughout, the auction had a solid sell-through rate of 86% by lot.

In a buoyant salesroom where those in the seats seemed willing to jump into the mix and bid on works both astronomical and merely expensive, two new auction records were established, for works by Balthus and Bonnard.

Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits, 1888–90. Courtesy of Christie’s.


The evening’s total represents a downtick for the category year-to-year, as the equivalent sale last May grossed $415 million—and that was in addition to the $646 million of Imp/mod works sold at the special Rockefeller sale the same month. But Monday night’s result was an improvement on the $279.2 million sale last November, when a Van Gogh estimated to sell for $40 million could not get a single bid. On Monday night, each lot with a high estimate in the eight figures found a buyer, indicating that there are still people willing to spend big on Imp/mod paintings.

And all this despite the fact that Wall Street had its worst day in four months on Monday, in response to the threat of U.S. tariffs on China—a bit of bad macroeconomic news to which Guillaume Cerutti, Christie’s global CEO, made passing reference after the sale.

“It’s not a given, given the economic context of today, but we’re pretty pleased with the result,” Cerutti said in a press conference. “It’s a great sign for the market. When the provenance is there, and the prices are right, the market responds.”

Top lots

Vincent van Gogh, Arbes dans le jardin de l’asile, ca. 1889. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Amedeo Modigliani, Tête, ca. 1911–12. Courtesy of Christie’s.

  • Paul Cézanne, Bouilloire et fruits (1888–90), from the storied collection of former Condé Nast chairman S.I. Newhouse, hammered at $52 million, well above its on-request estimate in the region of $40 million, and with fees the total came to $59.3 million. Despite starting at the stratospheric opening bid of $30 million, auctioneer Adrien Meyer, who is chair of global private sales, chandeliered up to $34 million and soon got a bid from Max Carter, Imp/mod senior vice president, at $36 million. Carter soon got whipped past by Christie’s global chairman Jussi Pylkkänen, who bid $42 million, knocking Carter out. Pylkkänen was then outgunned by Christie’s Asia president Rebecca Wei, who muscled through with a bid of $52 million, enough to capture the work. The figure with fees was not enough to overtake Cézanne’s auction record, set in May 1999, when one still-anonymous bidder shocked the world by paying $60.5 million for a still life from the collection of John Hay Whitney and his wife, Betsey Cushing Roosevelt Whitney, at Sotheby’s in New York—though it’s worth noting that, with inflation, that price would be nearly $93 million now.
  • Vincent van Gogh’s Arbres dans le jardin de l’asile (1889) was another work from the Newhouse collection that inspired enough bidding to quickly zip past its high estimate. The on-request estimate was $25 million, but a head-to-head matchup between Christie’s Asia deputy chairman Xin Li and Capera Ryan, a deputy chairman who is based in New York and Dallas and often deals with Texas collectors, pushed the bidding to $35 million, where it hammered for the client on the phone with Ryan. With fees, the total came to $40 million. It became the most expensive Van Gogh to sell since Christie’s offered one from the collection of Nancy Lee and Perry R. Bass in November 2017, and it sold for $81 million with fees.
  • Amedeo Modigliani’s Tête (1911–12) hammered right at its $30 million low estimate to the only bidder on the lot, a client on the phone with Imp/mod deputy chairman Conor Jordan—and, given that the lot was guaranteed by a third party, we can assume that it was captured by the guarantor. The result fell short of Christie’s ambitious $40-million high estimate, though with fees, the price came to $34.3 million. Sold by a private European collection, it was touted as one of the last Modigliani head sculptures left in private hands.

Pablo Picasso, La Lettre (Le Réponse), 1923. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Amedeo Modigliani, Lunia Czechowska (à la robe noir), 1919. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Perhaps the provenance of the night’s biggest lots helped. In addition to the two out-and-out masterpieces once owned by S.I. Newhouse, both of which blasted through their high estimates, work from the estate of H.S.H. Princess “Titi” von Fürstenberg—the Texas collector who was an heir to the oil fortunes of what are now known as Exxon and Texaco—closed out the sale with an 11-lot run, and saved the best for last: Picasso’s Le Lettre (La Réponse) (1923), which landed between its low and high estimates to go for $22 million hammer, seized by Christie’s Los Angeles Imp/mod specialist Morgan Schoonhoven. With fees, the price was $25.2 million.

The estate of Drue Heinz—who married into the Heinz family of condiment billionaires and became a collector as well as a champion of boundary-pushing literature—also sold well throughout the sale, led by a richly stunning Modigliani portrait that hammered at $22 million ($25.2 million with fees) to Cyanne Chutkow, deputy chairman of Christie’s Imp/mod department in New York, well ahead of its high estimate of $18 million. The Heinz collection had also consigned the Bonnard that would go on to break the record: La Terrasse ou Une terrasse à Grasse (1912), which more than doubled its high estimate of $8 million to hammer down at $17 million (or $19.5 million with fees).

And a run of work from the collection of Dorothy and Richard Sherwood, who for decades were influential Los Angeles museum patrons, was led by Balthus’s Thérèse sur une banquette (1939), a racy portrait of the young Thérèse Blanchard, whom he painted 10 times—often creating masterpieces out of the muse. The Sherwoods bought it from Balthus’s dealer in 1962, and it remained in their collection until Monday night, when its new owner, on the phone with Christie’s Imp/mod deputy chairman Conor Jordan, nabbed it for a $16.5 million hammer price, or $19 million with fees—enough to smash the French artist’s previous auction record, set when Lady Abdy (1935) sold for $9.9 million at the Artist’s Muse sale at Christie’s in November 2015.


Balthus, Thérèse sur une banquette, 1939. Courtesy of Christie’s.

A single sale of Imp/mod works, no matter how stuffed with masterpieces, was never going to top the hysteria that surrounded the Rockefeller sale a year ago. But what it did do was erase the painful memories of last November’s sale, when a Marsden Hartley expected to sell for $30 million and a Van Gogh expected to sell for $40 million both failed to muster up a single bid and did not sell. Christie’s rebounded by focusing on groups of works from six different collections, both American and European, each with a keen distinct eye.

“These were the product of years and decades of relationships at Christie’s,” Max Carter said of the consigned collections, during the post-sale press conference. He noted that the Newhouse collection had already grossed $100 million, well ahead of the $65 million estimated for the estate’s Imp/mod holdings this week, and with the day sales still to come on Tuesday.

Cerutti took a moment during the press conference to breathe a sigh of relief, noting that while Asian participation had been down during the November sales, it was clear in the salesroom on Monday night that collectors in Asia were pinging the phone bank on the big-tickets lots even as the bidding went well into the sale’s uppermost regions. In addition to Wei snagging the top lot of the night and Li underbidding on the evening’s second-biggest lot, a collector on the phone with senior client advisor Sumiko Roberts got a Monet, Coin du bassin aux nymphéas (ca. 1918–19), from an anonymous European collection for a $19 million hammer, or $21.8 million with fees; the collector on the line with Beijing-based Christie’s director Tan Bo got an Henri Matisse from the Heinz collection, Nu à la fenêtre (1929), for a $5.5 million hammer, or $6.5 million with fees; and another Monet, Le Palais Dario (1908), went to a collector on the phone with Katsura Yamaguchi, managing director of Christie’s Japan, for a $5.8 million hammer price, or nearly $6.9 million with fees.

Strong Asian bidding alone is often enough to lift an entire sale. We’ll see if that buoyancy continues Tuesday at the Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale.

Nate Freeman