In a Shaken Impressionist & Modern Market, Sotheby's London Auction Fails to Stir

Hot on the heels of a resurgent Art Basel, the highly anticipated London auction season kicked off in shaky fashion at Sothebys Impressionist and Modern sale on Tuesday, realizing £112,101,350 ($165,282,230). The tally hurdled the £101 million ($150 million) low end of the pre-sale estimate, but lagged far behind the great expectations of the £148 million ($220 million) high estimate.

Sixteen of the 51 lots offered failed to find buyers, translating into a hefty buy-in rate by lot of 31 percent and 16 percent by value, indicating a blunt lack of interest for a portion of the offerings. By contrast, last June’s tally at the house was a spare, pre-market-recovery £33.5 million ($50 million) with fifteen percent unsold, so one could argue that this night’s action was a good sign, ranking as the third-best evening sale for the category for Sotheby’s in London. But it trailed last February’s sunny result of £146.8 million ($218 million) that came with a 20 percent buy-in rate.

In all, four artist records were set, and 19 lots made over a £1 million ($1.5 million); of those, eight scored over £5 million ($7.4 million). Converted to dollars, 29 lots of the 35 that sold broke the million-dollar mark. But even with those partially impressive statistics, the sale lacked punch, and relatively few bidding battles erupted during the hour-and-a-half-long sale.

The evening got off to a red-hot start with three stunning charcoal on paper portraits that Pablo Picasso rendered of his muse and lover, Dora Maar, in 1937. William Noortman of Noortman Fine Art, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sotheby’s, out-dueled fierce competition for Portrait de Dora Maar Pensive, which sold for £993,250 ($1,464,448) on an estimate of £350-450,000 ($519-668,000). The piece last sold at the Dora Maar estate sale in Paris at Piasa auctioneers in October 1998 for the pre-Euro-era sum of 3 million French francs (about $540,000 then).Noortman said he bought the work for stock.

Another charcoal, Portrait de Dora Maar de Profil (est. £400-600,000), sold to Marie-Anne Poniatowski, the widow of the great late art dealer Jan Krugier, for £769,250 ($1,134,182). It made 3.2 million French francs (about $578,000) in the 1998 Paris sale.

There was also rampant bidding for Edvard Munchs Vampire, (est. £500-700,000), a circa 1895 pastel and crayon on paper depiction of the artist's famed image of a violent bite, which sold to a telephone bidder for £937,250 ($1,381,881). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2004 for £397,600 ($590,000).

But the highly touted (if foppish) cover lot, Edouard Manets incredibly rare Portrait de Manet par lui-meme, en buste (Manet al la palette) from circa 1878-79 (est. £20-30 million) elicited a single bid from Franck Giraud of the New York-based private advisers Giraud Pissarro Segalot in the salesroom and sold for a record £22,441,250 ($33,087,379).

Giraud declined to comment about the purchase of the famed painting that sold at the storied Jakob Goldschmidt sale at Sotheby’s London in October 1958 for a then-staggering £65,000 ($105,000), at what was considered the beginning of the modern, über-marketed evening auction event. It sold again in New York at Christie’s in May 1997 for $18.7 million to casino magnate Steve Wynn, who subsequently sold it privately to hedge-funder Steve Cohen for an undisclosed sum.

Though the painting comes with a massive exhibition history, it pales in quality and interest to the long-held Manet record, set back at Christie’s in November 1989 when the patriotically themed 1878 painting La Rue Mosnier Aux Drapeaux achieved a phenomenal $26.4 million.

“Perhaps the estimate was on the optimistic side,” conceded Sotheby’s specialist Philip Hook in the post-sale press conference, indicating the house and the billionaire consignor were expecting much more. His colleague, Mark Poltimore, put the evening's up-and-down performance more precisely: “there were some very strong prices and there were some disappointments.”

Of that latter category, Claude Monets 1881 Fleurs a Vetheuil (est. £4-6 million, or $6-9 million) bought in at an imaginary bid of £3.5 million ($5.2 million) and Picasso’s late and large-scaled 1964 Femme au chat assise dans un fauteuil — which carried the same estimate — died at £3.7 million ($5.5 million).

Obviously, reserves in some cases were pegged perilously close to the low estimate, and the market blinked and let them go by. “It’s a very selective market, and a very sane sale,” said New York private art advisor Mary Hoeveler “It seemed appropriately strong in the right places and appropriately indifferent in the right places." By comparison, the May sales in New York were "a little giddy and irrational,” she said.

On the strong side, another record-breaker was the magnificent, long-lost Fauve stunner from the collection of Ambroise Vollard, Andre Derain's Arbres a Collioure from 1905 (est. £9-14 million), which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £16,281,250 ($24,005,075). It vanquished the previous mark set at Sotheby’s New York in November 2009 when Barques au port de Collioure (1905) made $14,082,500.

The painting had languished unseen for decades in a Parisian bank vault, and came back to the market after years of litigation between parties, including the Vollard heirs, competing for the bounty. The rest of the vault's contents will be dispatched in Paris at Sotheby’s next week.

Another top-class performer tonight was Chaim Soutines arresting circa 1927-28 portrait of an anonymous hotel worker, Le valet de chambre, which sold to Cologne dealer Alex Lachmann for £7,881,250 ($11,620,115) against an estimate of £7-9 million ($10-13 million).

Lachmann, who has a number of Russian clients, declined to comment about the destination of the 43-by-25-inch work, but said, “It’s a very famous painting and has the best provenance and is an iconic image." He added that he paid "a high price" but that "no one will know what it will be worth tomorrow.”

This discerning market picks and chooses with considerable deliberation, as evidenced by the roaring reception for the fresh-to-market Pierre Bonnard, Le Petit Dejeuner, radiateur, circa 1930, which sold to yet another telephone bidder for a record £6,201,250 ($9,143,123) on a £2.5-3.5 million ($3.7-5.2 million) estimate. The lush and light-filled interior had resided in the artist’s estate and passed on to his heirs since his death in 1947.

Another decorative winner was Henri Matisses smallish but interior-packed 1928 Odalisques jouant aux dames (est. £10-15 million, or $15-22 million) that sold to a telephone bidder for £11,801,250 ($17,399,763). A trade source identified that winning bidder as Greek collector Dimitri Mavromatis.

If there’s a false claim that the market has fully recovered from the mini-crash in fall 2008, consider tonight’s ultra-decorative Kees van Dongens undated society portrait painting, L’Amie de Mrs. Edwards (est. £2-3 million, or $33-4.5 million). It died at £1.7 million ($2.5 million), not enough to satisfy the seller’s investment in the picture when he paid £1,380,000 ($2,047,020) at Christie’s London in February 2007.

The evening action resumes at Christie’s on Wednesday, with high hopes for more-sustained fireworks.