As Christie's Collects $231 Million, Dueling Bidders Set a Matisse Record

Gustave Caillebotte's "La Seine à Argenteuil" sold for $5.1 million, just above its $5 million low estimate.
(Courtesy Christie's Images LTD. 2010)

Christie's 84-lot Impressionist and Modern evening sale netted $231.4 million last night, continuing the forward march of an unmistakable art-market recovery. Paralleling Sotheby's performance on Tuesday evening, Christie's tally fell midway between presale expectations of $198.3–286.6 million, with only 17 of the 84 lots offered failing to sell, for a svelte buy-in rate of 20 percent by lot and 12 percent by value.

Forty-three of the 67 lots that sold made over one million dollars. Of those, 10 exceeded $5 million dollars and two lots made over $20 million. Two artist records were set, and the scorecard easily trumped the evening result of a year ago when only a relatively puny $65.6 million worth of art sold. In terms of the location of buyers, the United States dominated, snatching up 45 percent of lots, followed by Europe at 31 percent, Asia at six percent, and the always-interesting "other" category (the Gulf states, one suspects) accounting for 18 percent.

After bidding concluded on the mind-boggling mix of American and European estate material that was crammed into a 320-page color catalogue, it was apparent that Modern fare had excelled over its Impressionist brethren as art-market taste continues to move beyond the 19th century.

Impressionist material rarely exceeded expectations, as evidenced by the pretty but unremarkable 1892 Camille Pissarro oil "Enfants Attables Dans le Jardin a Eragny" (est. $3–4 million) that sold to London's Richard Green gallery for $3.4 million. It last sold at auction at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York, the forerunner of plain-old Sotheby's, for $200,000 in 1981. Similarly, Gustave Caillebotte's 1882 sunny seascape, "La Seine a Argenteuil" (est. $5-7 million) sold to a telephone bidder for $5.1 million.

The atmosphere momentarily picked up when an impressive yet petite group of five Georges Seurat works came up, including the black Conté crayon on paper "La Promenade" (circa 1882; est. $1.5-2.5 million) that sold to another telephone bidder for $3.3 million. Other works on paper excelled, as Egon Schiele's erotically entwined "Mann und Frau (Umarmung)" (1917; $4-6 million) caused a bidding war, eventually selling to Robert Mnuchin of New York's L&M Arts for $7.4 million. Noted New York contemporary art collector Donald Bryant was the underbidder. It last sold at Sotheby's London in February 2001 for $2.6 million.

Of special interest, on account of its rarity and color-saturated makeup was Juan Gris's 1913 Cubist standout, "Violon et Guitare" (est. $18-25 million), which sold to a telephone bidder for a record $28.6 million. "I came here thinking I'd buy a picture," said New York art advisor Guy Bennett, "but I was the underbidder at $25 million." The painting was, in effect, presold, since an unidentified third party fully financed the guarantee, a kind of insurance policy for nervous sellers. It beat the previous mark set by the 1915 "Livre, Pipe et Verres," which sold at Christie's New York in November 2008 for $20.8 million. Ironically, or so it seems, both pictures were once owned by the late New York collector and attorney Ralph Colin, a founder of the Art Dealers Association of America.

On the buyer's side, there were several familiar faces, including London's Alan Hobart of Pyms Gallery, who nabbed Henry Moore's brilliant bronze "Maquette for King and Queen" (est. $1.5-2 million) for $2.9 million and the abstract cover lot by Joan Miro, "L'Air" (1938; est. $12-18 million), included in the Miro retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 1993-94 for a seemingly cut-rate $10.3 million. The Miro was part of a four-lot parcel of modern works sourced from a "distinguished private collection" that overall made $50 million against a combined pre-sale estimate of $39-48 million.

As characterized by Christie's ace auctioneer, honorary chairman of Christie's America, and seasoned art market grandee Christopher Burge: "For the most part, it was a very strong sale from where I stood."

The sale was chock-full works by the French Modernist Fernand Leger, and three of his paintings made the list of top-10 performers, including "La Tasse de Thé" (1921; est. $8-12 million), which sold to London contemporary art dealer Timothy Taylor for $8.1 million. Buttonholed as he dashed out of the salesroom, Taylor said, "It was a fantastic price, especially next to the Leger that sold at the Yves Saint Laurent sale." Taylor was referring to the same–titled Leger that made €11.5 million ($14.7 million) at the Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé auction at Christie's Paris in February 2009.

The Leger was part of the nine-lot trove of works sourced from the estate of American computer pioneer Max Palevsky. The group made a low-budget $23.5 million against a presale estimate of $23.1-34.5 million. Another Palevsky Leger, the 1927 "Femme sur Fond Roughe, Femme Assise" sold to London and New York dealer Daniella Luxembourg for $6.4 million. Palevsky acquired it at Christie's New York in May 1993 for $937,500. Luxembourg also nabbed Joan Miro's 1927 "Peinture (Le Chien)" (est. $2-3 million) for $2.2 million. Exiting the salesroom, the former auction house executive understatedly noted, "There was interesting Modernist art here."

Luxembourg was especially impressed by the sleeper standout of the evening, Henri Matisse's brawny bronze relief, "Nu de Dos, 4 État (Back IV)," conceived circa 1930 and posthumously cast in 1978, 24 years after the artist's death. Estimated at $25-35 million, the totemic figure, part of a cycle of four life-size reliefs created in plaster versions between 1908-1930 and considered "one of the great landmarks of modern sculpture," quickly prompted a bidding war between three contenders, including beyond-blue-chip New York dealers Robert Mnuchin and Larry Gagosian.

Gagosian entered the fray at $24 million but dropped out for a spell in the $30-million-plus range before returning for the final kill, at a record $48.8 million. The sculpture clipped the standing artist record of $45.9 million, set at the aforementioned Saint Laurent and Bergé sale at Christie's Paris in February 2009, when the 1911 painting "Les Courcous, Tapis Bleu et Rose" made that price. Asked moments after the duel why he stopped bidding, presumably for a client, Mnuchin deadpanned, "How do I know?" Pausing for a second, he added, "It was exciting, though."

"It was a great buy," opined Luxembourg, who said she believes the work will further appreciate in monetary value and art-historical significance. "It's part of our time."

The evening action resumes next Monday with contemporary art at Phillips de Pury & Company's new space on Park Avenue and 57th Street.