Christie’s sale of Impressionist and modern art in London on Tuesday evening got off to a rollicking start—then it nosedived.
The first lot of the night, a work on paper by Egon Schiele, elicited spirited bidding, quickly passing its high estimate of £300,000 ($377,000). After a five-minute bidding war, it sold for a hammer price of £1.05 million ($1.32 million), or £1.27 million ($1.6 million) with fees. Shortly after the Schiele’s success, bidding on what was projected to be the sale’s third-biggest lot, Henri Matisse’s Le Collier D’ambre (1937), stalled at £4.2 million ($5.3 million)—short of its £5-million ($6.3 million) low estimate—and the painting failed to sell.
The evening’s star lot, Fernand Léger’s prismatic 1913 painting Femme dans un fauteuil, faired similarly. Bidding stalled at £19.5 million ($24.5 million), far from its on-request estimate of £25 million ($31.4 million), and it failed to sell, dealing a fatal blow to the auction’s bottom line.
Of the auction’s 34 lots, three were withdrawn before the sale and seven failed to sell, for a sell-through rate of 77%. Among the 24 lots that did sell, 11 went for hammer prices below or equal to their low pre-sale estimates. (Auction house estimates do not take fees into account, making hammer prices truer indicators of lots’ performances.) The grand total of the evening’s hammer prices was an anemic £30.6 million (about $38.5 million), or £36.4 million ($45.6 million) with fees. It stands as almost £100 million less than the same sale last year, which brought in £128.1 million ($168.3 million).
There were not many bright spots in Tuesday’s sale at Christie’s, but in addition to the Schiele, another was the only work by a woman to go under the hammer. Hannah Höch’s surreal watercolor Er und sein Milieu (1919) sparked impassioned bidding, quickly pushing it past its high estimate of £350,000 ($440,000) to hammer down at £520,000 ($654,000), or £635,250 ($799,000) with fees. That result was more than double the price the work fetched when it last appeared at auction, in 2012 at Christie’s, and sold for $386,500.
The Christie’s sale marked a shaky start to the spring auctions in London. All eyes now shift to Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Wednesday. It will be interesting to see whether or not the blockbuster sale of the auction house for $3.7 billion to French telecom tycoon Patrick Drahi affects bidding in Sotheby’s salesroom.