Art Market
$81 Million Van Gogh Leads Christie’s Best Impressionist and Modern Sale in a Decade
By Isaac Kaplan
Nov 14, 2017 9:49 am
Courtesy of Christie’s.

Courtesy of Christie’s.

New York’s fall auction week kicked off Monday evening with a strong $479 million sale of Impressionist and Modern art at Christie’s, the house’s highest total for the category in a decade. Driven by a record-breaking Fernand Léger and fervent bidding for a Vincent van Gogh, the auction brought in $416.3 million before buyer’s fees, on pre-sale estimates of between $360 million and $476 million.

The results suggested buyers are happy to open their wallets for the right pieces. The top 10 works by value all sold for above $10 million. But there was interest across price points: The sell-through rate Monday was 88% on 68 lots, and 96% by value, and bidding came from a wide range of countries.

“A sale to be remembered—that's the catchword for tonight,” said a delighted Guillaume Cerutti, Christie’s CEO, after the sale.

All together, the result is greater than both Christie’s and Sotheby’s May Impressionist and Modern evening sales combined, and a gleaming start for the New York auction week’s gilded march towards a billion-dollar-plus sale total.

“It’s a cracking good start to the week,” said Guy Jennings, managing director of the London-based advisory firm The Fine Art Group.

The evening’s top lot was van Gogh’s dazzling landscape Laboureur dans un champ, painted in early September 1889 after his doctor permitted him to return to painting following a series of mental breakdowns. The painting depicts van Gogh’s view from his asylum in Southern France, and came from the collection of Texas oil billionaires Nancy Lee Bass and Perry Richardson Bass.

Though the air at the top of the market can be thin, a few people were taking deep breaths Monday. The van Gogh, sold without a guarantee, drew determined interest, with bidding taking an early leap from $44 million to $55 million, courtesy of a client on the phone with Christie’s chairman for the Americas Marc Porter. The $10 million hop took the work $5 million above the high estimate, earning murmurs from the crowd and leading auctioneer Adrien Meyer—presiding over his first New York evening sale—to quip about everyone having “dinner plans” to get to.

But if Porter’s bidder had restaurant reservations, they had to be delayed a few minutes longer. The painting eventually got hammered down at $72 million, coming to $81 million with fees, one million shy of the artist’s record, thanks to a spirited back and forth between Christie’s Asia president Rebecca Wei and Porter, eventually landing with Wei’s phone bidder. The applause was followed by flops for the next two lots, with Kees van Dongen’s Portrait de Madame Maipel (1908) and an 1899 Camille Pissarro landscape both failing to find buyers.

Léger’s Contraste de formes (1913), a colorful centerpiece of Monday’s auction, was presented with pride—but without a guarantee—in the auction house’s Rockefeller Plaza atrium in the leadup to the auction. Christie’s had suffered an embarrassment in its early October London sale when a star lot, a 1971 Francis Bacon painting, failed to reach its reserve and went unsold in the absence of a guarantee, despite overall solid results.

Léger’s canvas, painted at a pivotal moment in the artist’s career, not only sold for $62 million Monday ($70 million with fees), but smashed the record for the artist, previously set at $39.2 million (including fees) by La femme en bleu (study) (1912–13) at a 2008 sale at Sotheby’s in New York. The other Léger piece in tonight’s sale, his 1954 Les quatre acrobates, went for a $3.2 million bid, or $3.8 million with fees, below its $4 million low estimate.  

Works from the the estate of Egyptologist William Kelly Simpson, who married into the Rockefeller fortune, also hit the block Monday evening, led by Post-Impressionist Édouard Vuillard’s Misia et Vallotton à Villeneuve (1899). Estimated at between $7 million and $10 million, the image of Vuillard’s muse and unrequited love Misia Natanson ultimately skipped above the high estimate of $10 million, selling for $15.5 million, or $17.75 million with fees. The sum near doubles Vuillard’s auction record of $8 million, set at Christie’s in 2008.

Slated to be the most expensive sculpture of the night at between $7 million and $10 million, Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure (1982) did not disappoint. The piece fetched $9.5 million, $11 million with fees, while another slightly earlier work by the artist, Working Model for Reclining Woman: Elbow (1981), sold for $2.75 million, $3.3 million with fees,  on an estimate of between $2 and $3 million.

A mysterious Magritte painting, L’empire des lumières (1949), broke the artist’s record, hammered down at its high estimate of $18 million, or $20.5 million with fees. It shows a sunny blue sky above a row of darkened houses illuminated only by a single street light.

Works by Pablo Picasso had a strong night. Of the six pieces by the Cubist artist in the sale, three featured low estimates of $10 million or above. Estimated to be the artist’s most expensive lot of the evening (and the third most expensive overall) at between $20 million and $30 million, Picasso’s Femme accroupie (Jacqueline) (1954), one of over 400 portraits he painted of his eventual second wife, fetched $32.5 million, or $36.8 million with fees, with bidding from Japan, Taiwan, and Dubai.

Buste de femme au chapeau (1943), an oil on canvas by Picasso of his lover and muse Dora Maar, guaranteed by Christie’s, sold for $5 million ($5.9 million with fees) on a $4 million to $6 million estimate. Backed by an irrevocable bid, Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne) (1937), sold for $15 million ($16 million with fees), around its low estimate.

Joan Miró’s dark and fluid Peinture, one of a series of large works painted by the artist in 1933, realized $20.5 million, or $23.3 million with fees, on an estimate of between $20 million and $30 million. A few lots earlier, a far more luminous Impressionist landscape by Claude Monet, Matinée sur la Seine (1897), came with a low estimate $15 million and a high of $25 million but fetched the exact same price as the Miró, along with some free applause when the gavel fell after drawn-out bidding.

Among the works breaking records was for Radiation de deux seuls éloignés (1916-20) by Suzanne Duchamp (one of three women artists hitting the block Monday), which sold for $1.5 million—the piece’s high estimate, or $1.8 million with fees. Emil Nolde’s Indische Tänzerin (1917) slid above the high estimate of $3.5 million, ultimately fetching $4.4 million ($5.2 million with fees) before being gaveled down—good enough to break the artist’s record. All in all, six artists saw their auction records crumble Monday night.

The grandiose total from Monday’s sale, the first Impressionist and Modern evening sale since Christie’s hiked its buyer’s fees, reflected these increases, which took effect in mid-September. The house’s new buyer’s premiums are: 25% of the hammer price of each lot up to and including $250,000; plus 20% of the hammer price from $250,001 up to and including $4 million, and 12.5% above $4,000,001.

Even further riches lie ahead. All eyes remain on Wednesday’s sale of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi as part of the house’s post-war and contemporary sale. How could they not? Before starting Monday evening’s sale, Meyer announced from the rostrum that there would be special paddles for those wishing to bid on the piece (they will have a red stripe—perhaps a way for the auction house to get a sure count of who they can expect to partake in Wednesday’s festivities).

In the meantime, Christie’s celebrated the results of its formidable lineup for Monday’s Impressionist and Modern outing. Together, the pieces tested the narrative that buyers are out there but are working with an increasingly discerning taste. “There’s plenty of money around and they’ll chase the good things,” Jennings, of The Fine Art Group, said. “It was a sensible market.”

Isaac Kaplan is an Associate Editor at Artsy.