At Sotheby's London, Another Record Night for Imp/Mod Sales

Camille Pissarro's "Le Boulevard Montmartre, matinée de printemps," estimated at £7-10 million, sold for £19,682,500 million.
(© Sotheby's)

Anchored by superb works on paper from a storied collector-dealer and an important restituted painting by a French Impressionist, Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionism, Modernism, and Surrealism brought a  stellar £163,461,500 ($266,654,745) on Wednesday night, making it the firm’s highest-earning London auction ever.

Of the 89 lots offered, only ten failed to sell, for a crisp buy-in rate by lot of 11 percent and six percent by value. The tally obliterated pre-sale expectations of £90,310,000-128,410,000 ($147,322,703-209,475,233). Thirty-seven of the offerings sold for over one million pounds and 52 broke the million-dollar mark. Two artist records were set.

The results blew past last February’s £104.4 million ($164.2 million) total and also vanquished the sale's previous high mark in London, from February 2010, when it made £146.8 million. They came close—but still second—to Christie’s massive £176.9 million ($288.1 million) auction on Tuesday night.

The evening got off to a grand start with 36 works on paper and one sculpture from the personal collection of the late dealer Jan Krugier. Collectors chased iconic images such as Vincent van Gogh’s  “View from the Window of Vincent’s Studio,” a pen and ink and pencil on paper from 1883 that made £962,500 ($1,570,126) (est. £150-200,000/$242,000-323,000). Krugier acquired it at Sotheby’s London in 1987 for £57,200.

The bidding heat for Krugier remained high as Georges Seurat’s superb conte crayon on laid paper “Fort de la Halle” from circa 1882, featuring a stocky porter from the famed Paris market in a large-brimmed hat, realized £1,142,500 ($1,863,760) (est. £500-700,000/$810,000- 1.13 million).

Pablo Picasso’s delicate “Tete de jeune homme” from 1923, executed in conte crayon on paper, raced to £2,434,500 ($3,971.400) (est. £1-1.5/$1.62-2.42 million), and Paul Cezanne’s austere watercolor and pencil “Femme assise (Madame Cezanne),” from 1902-04, brought £3,554,500 ($5,798,456) (est. £1-1.5/$1.62-2.42 million). Krugier acquired the Cezanne at Sotheby’s London in June 1978 for £120,000.

Another Picasso, the violent “Composition (Composition au Minotaure)” from 1936 in gouache, pen and ink and pencil on paper, soared to £10,386,500 ($16,943,497) (est. £1.8-2.5/$2.9-4 million).

Krugier acquired it directly from Marina Picasso, the artist’s granddaughter, whom he advised in choosing works to inherit from Picasso’s vast estate after his death in 1973.

The lone sculpture, Alberto Giacometti’s “Homme traversant une place par un matin de soleil,” from a 1951 cast, made £8,482,500 ($13,837,502) (est. £3-5/$4.84-8 million). It was Giacometti who encouraged Krugier, a concentration camp survivor, to take up art dealing, and the two remained good friends until Giacometti’s death in 1966.

The 100-percent-sold Krugier group made a massive £53.3 million ($86.9 million), compared to deliberately modest pre-sale expectations of £18.45-27 million ($30.1- 44.1 million). Remarkably, each lot seemed to draw at least five bidders.

The results contrasted sharply with the anemic reception and steep buy-in rates that greeted Krugier’s single owner sale at Christie’s New York in November, which consisted largely of familiar pieces the dealer had shopped at various international art fairs. 

Momentum continued in the wake of Krugier as van Gogh’s portrait of a slumbering mother and child, “L’homme est en mer,” painted in Saint-Remy in 1889, made £16.9 million ($27.5 million) (est. £6-8/$9.67-12.89 million). The painting, once owned by Errol Flynn, last sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York in October 1989, near the height of the last art boom, for $7,150,000.

Speaking of screen legends and provenance, an expressionist work from the estate of Greta Garbo, Alexej von Jawlensky’s “Mystical Head: Profile” from 1917, sold for £386,500 ($630,497)  (est. £250-350,000/$403,000-565,000).

Henri Matisse’s color-charged portrait “Bolero violet,” from Valentine’s Day 1937, brought £9,145,500 ($14,933,736) (est. £6.5-8.5/$10.48-13.7 million). It last sold in May 1990 at Christie’s New York for $2,530,000.

There was great pre-sale interest in Sotheby’s sublime cover lot, Camille Pissarro’s cinematic “Le boulevard Montmartre matinée de printemps” from 1897, and part of his famed series of Paris street scenes fetched a record £19,682,500 ($32,108,062) (est. £7-10/$11.28-16.1 million). The one-time owner, Breslau collector Max Silberberg, who acquired the picture in 1923, lost it to the Nazis when they confiscated the picture in a forced sale. It was eventually restituted to his wife, Gerta Silberberg, in 2000, and hung for years on loan at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Now her heirs are selling the masterwork.

Another restituted picture, confiscated by the Nazis in 1941 and returned to the heirs of Dr. Gustav and Clara Kirstein last year, was Max Liebermann’s delightful “Sommerabend an der Alster (Summer Evening on the Alster)” from 1910, which brought £902,500 ($1,472,248) (est. £750,000-1.2/$1.21- 1.94 million).

An avant-garde abstraction from the same year as Liebermann’s figurative scene, Wassily Kandinsky’s richly hued “Study for Improvisation 10” in purple, blue, and yellow, barely got away at £4,002,500 ($6,529,278) (est. £4-6/$6.45-9.67 million).

Buying appetite was strong across many categories, as Marc Chagall’s beautiful winter scene of a Russian village, “Le Violoncelliste” from 1939, sold for £7,026,500 ($11,462,329) (est. £3-4/$4.84-6.45 million) to Thomas Seydoux of the private dealership Connery Pissarro Seydoux.

“You saw bidders who simply weren’t willing to let go,” said Seydoux, who bought the Chaim Soutine painting “La femme entrant dans l’eau” at Christie’s on Tuesday evening for £5,122,500 ($8,339,430). “And this season modern taste went crazy and it set the place on fire.”

Seydoux also attributed the success of the sale to reasonable—or, as he put it, “cheap”—estimates. “Nothing significant went unsold,” he said.

One modest estimate, well below the usual six and seven figure price points in an evening sale offering, seemed out of a different universe from the price that the artwork in question eventually fetched. Kay Sage’s evocative and mysterious “Le Passage” from 1956, depicting a bare backed woman gazing out to sea of barren shards, sold after a marathon bidding battle for a record shattering £4,338,500 ($7,077,395) (est. £70-90,000/$113,000-145,000). The Connecticut bred Surrealist, who died in 1963, was married to artist Yves Tanguy, who died young in 1955. The painting hails from the estate of late and great art collector Stanley Seeger who acquired the work from the Catherine Viviano Gallery in New York in 1958.

But it was Rene Magritte who brought in the bigger number with his fresh-to-market cloudy skyscape with hovering curtains of the same sky blue, “Le beau monde” from 1962, which nabbed £7,922,500 ($12,923,974) (est. £4-6/$6.45-9.67 million).

Another Magritte, “Le regard interieur” from 1942, featuring a giant green leaf with exotic birds perched impossibly on its veins, sold for £1,202,500 ($1,961,638) (est. £1-1.5/$1.62-2.42 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York in May 1986 for $220,000.

The evening action in London resumes on Monday at Phillips, starting the week of Post-War and Contemporary sales.