New York Sales Preview: Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby's and Christie's

New York Sales Preview: Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby's and Christie's

NEW YORK—The fear factor shaking global stock markets and depressing economic growth seems not to have infected the fine-art world. Judging from the surprisingly strong lineup of Impressionist/modern and contemporary offerings this month, consignors are feeling undiminished faith in the art market, bolstered by recent sell-through rates of 80 percent or more. "The marketplace is circumspect but confident," says Conor Jordan, head of Impressionist and modern art for Christie's New York. "Everyone is aware, obviously, of what's happening around them, but there continues to be a very forward-thinking attitude."

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Sculpture features prominently among the top lots of the November 1 Imp/mod sale at Christie's, which is headlined by a bronze cast of Edgar Degas's "Petite danseuse de quatorze ans." The famous ballerina was originally shown as a wax-and-clay model, decked out with a muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon and poised on a wooden platform, in the sixth Impressionist Exhibition, of 1881. Degas produced no bronzes during his lifetime; his heirs executed them from his models beginning in 1922. This one carries an estimate of $25 million to $35 million. An example from the same Hébrard foundry edition sold at Sotheby's London in February 2009 for a record £13,257,250 ($19 million).

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Another storied bronze on offer is Constantin Brancusi's sublime "Le premier cri," from an edition of three conceived in 1917 (est. $8-10 million). The barely 10-inch-long polished head is in a "lovely, untouched state, with slight imperfections," says Jordan. It also bears a rich provenance, first owned by Henri-Pierre Roché, author of the novel "Jules et Jim," who introduced Leoand Gertrude Stein to Pablo Picasso in 1905.

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Among the paintings, Christie's is hoping for a repeat of the performance of Picasso's "Jeune fille endormie," 1935, which brought £13,481,250 ($21.8 million) at Sotheby's London in June, with the similar, same-year "Femme endormie." The 22-by-18-inch portrait, of Picasso's newly pregnant muse Marie-Thérèse Walterdozing, is estimated at $12 million to $18 million. It is joined by another Picasso, "Tête de femme au chapeau mauve," 1939, of his mistress Dora Maar, bearing the same estimate.

After the strong performance of Surrealist works at the spring sales, expectations are high for a prime Max Ernst, "The Stolen Mirror," 1941 (est. $4-6 million), consigned by the estate of Edith Dallas Ernst, the artist's daughter-in-law, who passed away earlier this year. Another potential star is "Les mains," also 1941 (est. $7-10 million), by Paul Delvaux, for whom a record of $9,042,500 was set at Sotheby's in May. Additional high points are provided by seven fresh-to-market works from the estate of the film mogulLew Wasserman, including a Degas pastel of a red-haired bather, "Femme s'épongeant le dos," circa 1895 (est. $3.5-5.5 million);Chaim Soutine's jaunty 1927 portrait "Le valet de chambre," showing the subject outfitted in a bow tie, white apron, and red vest (est. $4-6 million); and Henri Matisse's lushly patterned Nice interior "Jeune fille à la robe violette," 1942 ($4-6 million).

The Imp/mod auction the following night at Sotheby's contains a rare landscape by Gustav Klimt, "Litzlberg am Attersee," circa 1914-15. The densely speckled painting of Litzlberg village, believed to be based on a picture postcard Klimt sent to a nephew after an idyllic summer sojourn on Lake Attersee, originally belonged to the Jewish Austrian iron magnate Viktor Zurkerkandl, from whose sister it was stolen, along with other artworks, after the Nazis' annexation of Austria in 1938. Long on display in Museum der Moderne in Salzburg, it was restituted in July, after years of research and negotiations, to Georges Jorisch, Zurkerkandl's grandnephew. Based on the £26,921,250 ($43.2 million) earned by another Zurkerkandl Klimt, "Kirche in Cassone (Landschaft mit Zypressen)," 1913, of a church in a village landscape dotted with cypresses, at Sotheby's London in February 2010, the house expects this one to fetch more than $25 million, a portion of which Jorisch intends to donate to the Museum der Moderne.

Another high-value offering is the 1967 Picasso oil "L'Aubade" (est. $18-25 million). Consigned by an American collector who acquired it at Sotheby's London in 1979 for £49,000, the canvas depicts the artist reclining alongside his nude model and charming her, like Pan, with his flute.

Sotheby's has Impressionist gems as well, among them Claude Monet's light-dappled 1888 seascape "Antibes, le fort" (est. $5-7 million), deaccessioned by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and Gustave Caillebotte's circa 1883 "Le Pont d'Argenteuil et la Seine" (est. $9-12 million), which last sold in November 2008 at Christie's New York for $8,482,500. The strong Surrealist section contains no fewer than eight Ernst paintings from a private collection, led by "The Endless Night," 1940 (est. $2.8-4 million), plus René Magritte's 1966 fever-dream landscape "Le droit chemin," featuring a large cracked stone apple (est. $2.5-3.5 million), from the Israel Museum. Altogether the evening offers, according to Imp/mod head Simon Shaw, an "overwhelmingly private and fresh" assembly of works with "a significant amount of museum deaccessions."

Check back next week for part two of this story previewing the upcoming contemporary sales...