Records Fall At This Season's New York Impressionist and Modern Art Auctions


It’s that time of year when we get terribly excited about the big New York autumn (fall) art auctions. Arguably the final big Modern & Contemporary sales of the year in the West (with the possible exception of the Modern British London auctions next week) estimated art sales are at least $2.3 billion ($2.65 billion including buyers’ premium) over the one week period, and auction houses see the biggest collectors vying for some of the world’s most high profile paintings. Last year saw Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi smash all previous records and become the world’s most expensive painting at $450 million. This year, all eyes are on Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale yet again, as rumours fly that David Hockney’s Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) could become the most expensive painting by a living artist. Estimated at around $80 million, a price tag of anything over $58m would see Hockney snatch the title from Jeff Koons, after his ‘Bubble Dog (Orange)’ sold in 2013. We’ll know by 1am on Friday whether or not he takes the crown, so watch this space!

Egon Schiele’s Dammernde Stadt (Die Kleine Stadt II) from 1913 smashed its $12-18m estimate to make just over $24.5 million in the Sotheby’s Evening Sale

In the build-up to the big contemporary sales beginning on Thursday, this blog will look at the first few auctions of the week: the ‘Impressionist and Modern’ Sales from Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I will examine the winners: the artworks that topped the sale; the one that got away, i.e. those key pieces that didn’t sell; and my personal favourites of the sale, or those with the best story to tell.


Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Sales

Christie’s kicked off the week on Sunday 11th November with its ‘Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale’. Tipped to exceed $300 million, it wasn’t the most positive start, falling short at just $279,253,500 (including buyer’s premium). However, 85% of pieces found a new home, including some high profile pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet. The subsequent day sale followed suit, totalling $29,191,875, with both Giacometti and Picasso exceeding the two million dollar mark: positive figures for the lesser day sale.


The Overall Winner

Claude Monet, 'Le bassin aux nymphéas', 1917–19, oil on canvas, 100.7 x 200.8 cm

Estimated at $30-50 million, but just limping in at $28million ($31.8 million including buyer’s premium), it seems nonsensical to describe this Monet painting as the overall winner in the Christie’s sales. However, a stunning rendering of his pond at Giverny, this is a late and yet beautifully delicate example of his water lilies. Painted during the First World War, the juxtaposition of the calming water with a country in turmoil makes this all the more special. So, too, does the fact that it last sold in 2000 for the below-estimate price of just $6.8 million.


The One That Got Away

Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), 'Coin de jardin avec papillons', 1887, Oil on canvas, 50.4 x 61.4 cm

Billed as one of the auction’s premier lots, and sitting as the front cover image for the evening auction, Van Gogh’s Coin de jardin avec papillons was the surprise no-sale of the night. Estimated at around $40 million, the stunning landscape only reached $30 million before being bought in by the auction house. As one of Van Gogh’s first plein air paintings, it concentrates on spontaneous gesture and loose brushstrokes, and symbolises the artist’s move into contemporary art. This, combined with the fact it had never before appeared at auction, made the fact that it did not hit its reserve all the more surprising.


My Pick

Tamara de Lempicka, 'La Musicienne', 1929, oil on canvas, 115.8 x 73 cm

With a hammer price of just under $8 million ($9.1 million with premium), La Musicienne set a new world record for Tamara de Lempicka, cementing her firmly within the top ten most expensive female artists of all time. This striking piece is typical of her modern and yet idealised style, with its simple colour palette, sharp angles, pure lines and sensuous subject matter. The centrepiece of her 1930 solo exhibition at the Galerie Colette Weil, there is no doubt this is one of the strongest and most important of de Lempicka’s pieces.


Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Sales

The Sotheby’s evening sale on 12th November just pipped its Christie’s counterpart with total sales of $314,404,100, and 77% of works selling. The day then sale far exceeded Christie’s’, and fell within its own auction estimate, totalling $50,040,625 including buyer’s premium. It included a stunning Magritte painting, L’Incendie, that smashed its $1-1.5 million estimate, reaching almost $4.5 million.


The Winner

Rene Magritte, 'Le Principe du Plaisir', 1937, oil on canvas, 73 x 54.5 cm

Rene Magritte’s The Pleasure Principle set the record for the night, as well as becoming the artist’s most expensive work to date. A surrealist portrait of Edward James – one of the most important patrons of surrealist art – it was painted from a photograph by fellow surrealist, Man Ray. Magritte creates tension between the visible and hidden by hiding James’ head behind a glowing ball of light. One of the themes regularly used in his oeuvre, Magritte believed that “Everything we see hides another thing; we always want to see what is hidden by what we see”. I feel this painting demonstrates exactly that. Estimated at $15 - $20 million, the painting sold at $23.5 million, increasing to $26.8 million with premium.


The One That Got Away

Marsden Hartley, 'Pre-war Pageant', 1913, oil on canvas in painted artist's frame, 105.7 by 86.5 cm

One of the marquee works from Sotheby’s’ evening sale was Marsden Hartley’s Pre-war pageant. The bold, bright, abstract work was described by the auction-house as the “most important work of American modern art ever to appear at auction”. But with an estimate of around $30 million, the painting fell well-short, struggling to just $24 million. With Hartley’s previous auction record at just $6.3 million, maybe the reserve was too high, but with an in-house guarantee, this is something the auction house, rather than the seller, will have to worry about now.


My Pick

Wassily Kandinsky, 'Improvisation Auf Mahagoni', 1910, oil on mahogany panel, 63.5 x 100.2 cm

Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation Auf Mahagoni, shattered its $10-15 million estimate$24.4 million (21.1 hammer price), becoming the third most valuable of the sale. It is vital piece in Kandinsky’s journey towards abstraction, and is a joyous balance of colour and form; of sweeping and clipped brushstrokes. It was, however, just one of three by the artist to sell for over $20 million on the night, with On the Theme of the Last Judgment completing at $22.9, and Le Rond Rouge hitting $20.6 million. The Kandinsky market is clearly still booming.


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