I always find the first big London sales of the year particularly exciting. For me, London’s Impressionist and Modern art week marks the start of the art year proper, with only Frieze Los Angeles to mildly distract us beforehand. We always say that these sales set the tone for the year, but I’m never sure that is true, and this year even less so than ever. It feels like we are very much in the mercy of the Brexit chaos, and relying on the trusty Asian bidders to come in and steal the best pieces. But let’s see how the two big auction houses got on.
Sotheby’s, with their newly increased Buyer’s Premium, kicked off with a below-par Impressionist and Modern evening sale. Although within their overall sale estimate, the £73.9 million was the auction house’s most meagre sale of this kind since 2009. the Surrealist sale that followed totalled £13.8 million, while the Impressionist and Modern Day Sale added just 21.4 million. A total across the three sales of £109,074,925.
Over the following days, Christie’s split their lots into five separate auctions. The first was a collection of ‘Hidden Treasures’, from an important private collection, totalling £50.6 million, followed immediately by the main event: Impressionist and Modern Art, reaching £71.3 million. The Surrealist sale did its best to lift everyone’s hopes, making $43.6 million. The following day the Modern and Impressionist Day sale, and Works on Paper sale made £16.7 million and £7.1 million respectively, giving Christie’s a Modern and Impressionist haul of £189,246,378 – their second highest in London in recent history.
While Christie’s definitively won the battle this February, I imagine they will not be over the moon with the results, as a number of the big ticket items remained unsold. While Monet’s ‘Le Palais Ducal’ sold at Sotheby’s for an impressive £27.5 million, Christie’s failed to sell his ‘Saule pleureur et bassin aux nymphéas’, with the bidding ceasing at £32 million, well below its £40 million estimate. Not the artist’s strongest piece, and indeed a bit of an acquired taste, I would like to think it was the high valuation and the lack of guarantee, rather than a deflated market. Although a later Monet did fall short of its £4 million estimate, failing to sell at just £3.2 million, so maybe the Monet buyers were absent for this one.
On a more positive note, Pauld Signac’s ‘Le port au soleil couchant’ – in my view one of the most stunning pointillist artworks that has ever gone on sale – made a record price of £19.5 million, smashing its £12 million estimate. And the beautiful Cezanne, ‘Nature morte de pêches et poires’ also realised an impressive £21.2 million. The Magritte sale, oops, I mean the Surrealist sale, was also a success. The seven Magritte paintings on offer in the final sale of the evening hammered at £27.5 million before premium and taxes, with the stand out £18.4 million for the catalogue cover image, ‘Le lieu commun’, as well as ‘Moments musicaux’, a wonderful small collage, doubling its high estimate to reach £2.4 million.
Sotheby’s also had some big wins on the night, and it was those with centenaries who most impressed. On the 100th anniversary of his death, Egon Schiele’s ‘Triestiner Fischerboot’ raced to £10.7 million, far above its estimate of £6-8 million. And in the year that marks 100 years since the first operation of the Bauhaus, Oskar Schlemmer’s ‘Tischgesellschaft’ (Group at a table) sold for double estimate at £2.6 million, and Kandinsky’s incredible ‘Vertiefte Regung’ (Deepened Impulse) showed the power of this modern master, making £6.1 million. The Surrealist sale was slightly less of the Magritte show that Christie’s was to be, although his ‘L'étoile Du Matin’ reached £5.3 million, the highest of the sale. This was closely followed by Francis Picabia’s ‘Atrata’ doubling its estimate at £3.7 million.
So what can we glean from these sales as we look forward to the Contemporary sales in London next week? Well, the buyers are certainly coming from all over the world (25 different countries according to Christie’s), and the same names – Magritte, Monet, Kandinsky et al. are still as in demand as ever. But I can’t help thinking that those priced more competitively – or maybe those not at the very top of this market – are the ones succeeding. Throughout both sales, many of the lower priced paintings doubled or even tripled their high estimates, where the higher ones limped in – or in some cases missed completely. Overall, I was pleased to see that aesthetics seemed to be winning out. The prime example was Magritte's smaller but absolutely beautiful collage thrashing a number of the larger oil paintings. Similarly, a pass on Monet’s polarising ‘Le Palais Ducal’ compared to the record price for Signac’s luminous seascape suggests that maybe we are getting back to as stage where beauty really does come first in the art world.