Impressionist and Modern Art Takes a Tumble at Christie's

Impressionist and Modern Art Takes a Tumble at Christie's

The market for Impressionist and Modern art took a nasty hit this evening at Christie’s, thanks to a bloated, overly shopped, and over-estimated group of 82 paintings and sculptures. Registering the steepest buy-in rate for an evening sale in recent memory, 31 lots bombed for a shocking buy-in rate of 38 percent by lot and 45 percent by value.

The performance comes close to that of the dark, post-crash November 2008 evening sale when the house made $146.7 million and suffered a 44 percent buy-in rate by lot for the 81 lots offered. In this week’s sale, Christie’s tallied $140,773,500, compared to unrequited expectations of $211.9-304 million. One artist record was set, three works sold for over $10 million, and, of the pruned group of 51 that sold, 34 made over a million dollars.

Last November, Christie’s evening sale made $231.4 million against pre-sale expectations of $198.3-286.2 million and turned in a much slimmer buy-in rate of 20 percent by lot.

To get an instant snapshot of Tuesday’s casualty-rich evening, of the 11 Pablo Picasso works offered, seven failed to sell, including “Femme endormie” from 1935, a portrait of the sleeping Marie-Therese Walter, usually a bulletproof subject.

Another star lot, Edgar Degas’s iconic, if posthumous, bronze sculpture “Petite danseuse de quatorze ans,” complete with a muslin fabric skirt and satin hair ribbon, crashed at an imaginary $18.5 million (est. $25-35 million). The same work last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2000 for £7.7 million ($11,598,163). Expectations on both the seller and auction house were wildly off-base, contributing to a rocky start of the premier auction season.

“It was the headline casualty of the evening,” admitted Conor Jordan, head of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern art department, in a sobering post-sale news conference. “The estimate was seen as too aggressive.” Prior to this evening, seven of the Degas bronzes sold at auction for more than $10 million, and the top price — £13.3 million ($18.9 million) — was set at Sotheby's London in February 2009.

Along with the drum roll of buy-ins and imaginary chandelier bids announced with thespian vigor by auctioneer Christopher Burge, who tried hard to keep the evening going, there were the odd bursts of bidding action in the room and on the telephone. Max Ernst’s incredible cover lot, “The Stolen Mirror,” a 1941 Surrealist masterpiece that the artist lived with for many years, and which came fresh to the market from his heirs, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for a record $16,322,500 (est. $4-6 million). It crushed the previous mark, set at Christie’s London last June when “La chute de l’ange” from circa 1923 made £2,729,250 ($4,429,162).

That an Ernst would rank as the top lot of an evening sale says something about the market — namely that Surrealism is hot, if the quality and rarity are apparent.

“I think the market is good for properly priced, good quality paintings and sculpture,” said London dealer Jonathan Green of the Richard Green Gallery, as he exited the salesroom. “But if it is overpriced or not top-quality, there doesn’t seem to any interest. The market becomes much more selective in challenging times.” Green bought Alfred Sisley’s cloud-bedecked 1887 landscape “La fenaison-Apres-midi de Juin” for $3,330,500 (est. $2.5-3.5 million) and Henry Moore’s petite, 6 ?-inch-high “Family Group,” a lifetime bronze cast conceived in 1944, for $482,500 (est. $300,000-500,000).

Another bright spot amid the doom and gloom came courtesy of an anonymous, elegantly clad woman who, seated next to her lookalike daughter, calmly bought three major works for a cumulative mini shopping spree of $18,055,000. Taking cues from a cell phone glued to her ear, the bidder bought Amedeo Modigliani’s elongated portrait “La blonde aux boucles d’oreille” from circa 1918-1919 for $8,146,500, Picasso’s Dora Maar portrait “Femme assise” from 1938 for $5,122,500 (est. $4-6 million), and Tamara de Lempicka’s Art Deco-influenced 1931 portrait of a highly stylized couple, “Idylle (Le Depart),” for $4,786,500 (est. $3-4 million).

The Modigliani, for example, last sold at Christie’s New York in November 1985 for a hammer price of $528,000.

Buttonholed moments after the two-hour sale, just as she was wrapping herself in her glistening fur stole, the bidder declined to give her name but acknowledged the purchases were for a private collection. “We don’t have names,” she jested. “Au Revoir, merci.”

Christie’s partially identified the geographic location of the buyer in a post-sale summary, describing the origin as “South American private.”

There was another flourish of market power as Picasso's famed 1937 etching, the grief-stricken and weeping "La femme qui pleure, I," sold for a whopping $5,122,500 (est. $1.5-2.5 million), a record for a single print at auction. Still, it was odd to offer a multiple, number three from an edition of 15, in an evening sale of paintings and sculpture.

Strong showings elsewhere included an early, polished bronze Constantin Brancusi sculpture, “Le premier cri,” conceived by artist in 1917 and famously owned long ago by Henri-Pierre Roche, the French author of “Jules et Jim,” who also introduced Gertrude Stein to Picasso. It sold to a telephone bidder for $14,866,500 (est. $8-10 million). Larry Gagosian was the underbidder.

Curiously, other major sculptures couldn’t find buyers, such as Alberto Giacometti’s overestimated “Femme de Venise VII” from a 1957 lifetime cast, which died at an imaginary $8.2 million bid (est. $10-15 million).

To match what felt like a surreal evening, two classic works by René Magritte also found favor. The artist’s nighttime hallucination “La fin du mond,” from 1963, made $7,026,500 (est. $4-6 million), and “Les vacances de hegel,” a 1958 painting depicting an open black umbrella with a glass of water perched on it, made $10,162,500 (est. $9-12 million). The 1963 Magritte last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 1993 for a $500,000 hammer.

Still, there was little confusion about the overall result.

“They had too many pictures overestimated,” said London dealer Ofer Waterman, “and too much of the material was shopped around. It’s an uncertain market.”

“The quality wasn’t really there,” added seasoned London dealer Guy Jennings.

The market will get another acid test Wednesday evening at Sotheby’s, and no doubt that house has some hours left to convince consignors to lower their expectations.