Impressionist & Modern sales in London: the right balance?



The results of the Impressionist & Modern February sales in London were respectable compared with the results of the same sales a year earlier, although somewhat less spectacular.
The first major sales of 2011 generated £134.3m on 8 and 9 February, including Christie’s Surrealist sale. The £41.3m shortfall vs. 2010 is essentially due the absence of a Giacometti effect – last year Alberto GIACOMETTI beat the all-time auction record for a work of art when his Homme qui marche I fetched £58m (3 February 2010, Sotheby’s). The total is nevertheless £50.6m above the 2009 total.

The centrepiece of the 2011 sales – which generated 36 million-plus results, was La lecture by Pablo PICASSO which fetched £22.5m vs. an estimated range of £12m – £18m (Sotheby’s). The work was much the star of the two days of sales because this small oil painting (65.5 x 51 cm) tenderly represents one of Picasso’s favourite subjects, his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. On the same day (8 February) at Sotheby’s, four major works were bought in: Pierre-Auguste RENOIRLa lecture, deux femmes aux corsages rouge et rose, a 1918 work estimated at £2m – £3m, two works by Alberto Giacometti, the bronze statue Grand buste de Diego avec bras (est. £3.5m – £5m ) and the painting Diego (est. £3m – £5m) and a painting by Marc CHAGALL, Les maries et le bouquet de fleurs rouges £1.3m – £1.8m, that fetched the equivalent of £581,000 in 1997 at Christie’s ($950,000, 14/05/1997).

Eluard, Dali’s most expensive work
The following day, Christie’s started the day with The Art of The Surreal, generating £20.2m, including six million-plus results and a new record for Salvador Dali Etude pour ‘Le miel est plus doux que le sang’, fetched £3.6m. This small canvas, painted between 1926 and 1927 (37.7 x 46.1 cm) is a “transitional” work employing some of the key themes in Dali’s later paranoia-critique vocabulary.
The piece toppled a record dating back to May 2010 when his Spectre du soir sur la plage, painted in 1935, fetched a hammer price of $5m at Sotheby’s (which got its own back the following day). In effect – as one record very often leads to another – Sotheby’s managed to raise the bidding for Portrait de Paul Eluard (1929, 33 x 25 cm) to £12m versus an estimate of £3.5 – £5m! The work came from a prestigious Geneva collection, that of George Kostalitz, who died in 2010 (sale Looking Closely: A Private Collection).

Another success at the Surrealist sale, Christie’s auctionned René MAGRITTE’s L’aimant which sold within its pre-sale estimate at £4.2m. L’aimant is emblematic of Magritte’s experiments in 1941, the year in which he included the same female shape in several of his works, and particularly one of his most famous, La magie noire (half the size of L’aimant, 73.3 x 54.3 cm, sold £720,000 at Christie’s on 24 June 2003).

The ‘star’ sale of the evening at Christie’s produced another record: Pierre BONNARD’s Terrasse à Vernon which fetched £6.4m, doubling its estimated price range Bonnard himself considered it one of his best works from that period. He selected it for the 1923 Salon d’automne. As with Dali, Pierre Bonnard beat a previous record set in 2010 for a domestic scene that fetched £5.5m at Le petit déjeuner, radiateur, 22/06/2010). Another success at the Christie’s evening was André DERAIN’s Bateaux à Collioure fauvist painting(1905), shown on the cover of the sale catalogue, which fetched £5.2m, a handsome lift compared to 1995 when the work changed hands for the equivalent of £733,000 (Kohn, Paris, 03/04/1995). After Derain, the best results were for Edgar DEGAS (Danseuses jupes jaunes, £4.8m), Pablo Picasso (Sur l’impériale traversant la Seine, £4.3m) and Georges BRAQUE (Nature morte à la guitare, £3.5m).
Eleven pieces remained unsold (and six at the Surrealist sale) including one much talked about painting by Paul GAUGUIN, Nature morte à L’Espérance (1901) announced at £7m – £10m and bought in against a pre-sale estimate of $7m – $10m in 1996.

The sale Looking Closely: A Private Collection on 10 February was even more profitable for Sotheby’s than the Impressionist & Modern Art evening sale.
Miro, Giacometti, Chagall, Arp, Modigliani, Gonzales, Fautrier and Lucian Freud were among the trophies in this superb collection. The most impressive work was a triptych painting of Lucian FREUD by his friend Francis BACONThree Studies for Portrait of Lucian Freud (1964) – which fetched the best result of the sale at £20.5m. The art dealer Alex Lachmann pushed the work to its final hammer price against a pre-sale estimate of £7m – £9m.
The triptych is fourth on Bacon’s podium and his current record is still $77m (£39.4m) for a triptych that sold at Sotheby’s in May 2008 to a private European collector. Indeed, that was the record price ever paid for a work of Contemporary Art at auction.

Buyers are expecting reasonable estimates and speculative bidding is nowadays as rare as the works are exceptional. It is very much a sellers’ market at the moment, and although the demand is extremely selective, the supply is cleverly whetting the appetites of dealers and private collectors.
Opinions expressed by art market players on current auction price estimates are very contrasting: half the respondents to our AMCI (Art Market Confidence Index) believe that prices can still climb higher in the next three months. In London they rose 12% over 2010.