Star Lots Go Lonely at Sotheby’s London's Anemic $125 Million Impressionist and Modern Sale

“L'Entrée De GivernyEnHiver” (1885), de Claude Monet, vendido por 8.217.250 libras
(Cortesia Sotheby's)

LONDON — In stark contrast to Tuesday evening’s stellar Impressionist and Modern sale at Christie’s, arch-rival Sotheby’s had a tougher go tonight with less exceptional material, realizing £78,837,650 ($125,424,934). The tally nicked the low-end of the £77.3-111.2 pre-sale estimate.

At the end of the night, 41 of the 53 lots offered sold, accounting for a buy-in rate of 23 percent (by both lot and by value). Twenty-five of the 41 that sold made over a million pounds and 34 exceeded one million dollars (for comparison, the Christie's sale the night before had 28 lots that brought in more than a million pounds). The result was not significantly better than the same sale last year, which hauled in a total of £68.8 million ($111 million), and had a buy-in rate of 24 percent.

Devastatingly, the much-anticipated cover lot, Gustav Klimt’s quietly Symbolist styled landscape, “Seeufer mit birken/Lakeshore with Birches” (1901), owned by the same family since 1902 and estimated at £6-8 million, failed to sell at an imaginary £3.8 million bid (that is, the action ended with a so-called 'chandelier bid,' where the auctioneer pretends there's an offer in the room).

As members of the family sat shell-shocked near the front of the salesroom, facing the unhappy prospect of owning a burned picture, the picture was rescued via three offers from different bidders who had sat on their hands earlier. The family finally accepted the higher bid of £5 million (£5,641,250, or  $8,974,100, when the buyer’s premium was added — still well below the low estimate).

Auctioneer Henry Wyndham made the announcement about the Klimt's fate late in the sale to a room already made nervous from a number of other high-end casualties. The message seemed to improve the mood. “We took the highest offer of the three that came in quickly,” said Sotheby’s senior specialist Philip Hook, “because it is better to strike when the iron is hot.” Officially, however, the Klimt was kept out of the statistics for sold lots and wasn’t included in the official tally.

The unusual sequence of messages rushing back and forth while the auction was in progress likely made for heart-pounding behind-the-scenes drama. Of course, this wasn’t apparent in a quiet salesroom that never appeared to be getting overly enthusiastic for what most seasoned observers believed to be relatively unexciting kit. Still, overall, for what Sotheby’s had on offer, the market nibbled contentedly enough to show its mettle. On a few occasions, bidders even showed outright hunger for the best things.

That was evident for lot five, Claude Monet’s snowy, shadowy composition, “L’entrée de Giverny en hiver” (1885), which became the top lot of the evening at £8.2 million ($13 million), over an estimate of £4.5-6.5 million. Not far behind was Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s large-scaled, ambitious streetscape, “Das Boskett: Albertplatz in Dresden” (1911), which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £7.3 million ($11.6 million) (est. £5-7 million). A young woman in a green sweater standing at one side of the salesroom was the underbidder. When asked, she declined to give her name, though she reluctantly divulged with a nod of the head that she was a dealer.

Shyness or secrecy seemed to be a theme tonight, as demonstrated by a Tel Aviv-based art advisor who snapped up four pictures for two different clients. Though he declined to advertise his name, the dark-haired advisor, outfitted in a crisply pleated dress shirt and jeans, ticked off a mini-buying spree. First off was Max Ernst’s Surrealist-styled “La Comedie de la Soif” (1941), which sold for £1,6 million ($2.6 million). The same painting last sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2007, basically at the height of the last market boom, for £748,000.

Next was Paul Delvaux’s 48-by-72-inch night scene, “Les Adieux” (1964), which the advisor bought for £1.5 million ($2.3 million) (est. £700-900,000). It had been last sold at the old Sotheby’s Parke Bernet in New York in 1982, for $242,000 at the hammer. The advisor (bearing paddle number 211) also nabbed Rene Magritte’s mysterious, star-lit “Fortune Faite” (1957), a work which has been in the same private collection since the late 1960s, for £825,250 ($1.3 million) (est. £700,000- 1 million). His final purchase of the salea was Joan Miro’s mid-sized, late gestural abstraction, “Personnage” (1973), which went for £1.1 million ($1.8 million) (est. £700,000-1 million).

One could say that such purchases indicate that the current market is best stimulated by Surrealist work and dynamic abstraction. That said, there were no takers for the main draw, the larger and earlier Joan Miro, “Peinture” (1933). It simply expired after a few half-hearted  bids at £6.4 million (est.£7-10 million), causing an audible chorus of gasps in the salesroom.

“It should have been bought,” said Sotheby’s specialist Andrew Strauss after the auction. “It just didn’t have its night and I can’t explain it. I suppose [the composition] was a bit static but it had all the language you wanted from a Miro.” According to Strauss, the current market is one “driven by the rarity factor, as well as image and estimate."

The fresh-to-market Monet snowscape made a brilliant price as did a small handful of other works, including the Fauve-period, color-charged Georges Braque“L’Oliveraie” (1907), which soared to over £5 million ($8 million) (est.£2-3 million), and a fantastic Otto Dix collage, “Die Elektrische (The Electric Tram)” (1919), which  made close to £3 million ($4.7 million) (est. £700,000-1 million). (London dealer Richard Nagy was the underbidder for the Dix.)

“It was never going to have the same fireworks as Christie’s, but in the end, they did very well," said New York-based art dealer, commenting on the evening. "There are moments of sheer unpredictability in the the market and we saw it tonight, as we saw it at Christie’s.”

“If you offer something good for a normal price, it will sell for much more,” said storied Paris dealer Daniel Malingue, who bought lot 17, Salvador Dali’s work on paper “Bureaucrate et Machine a Coude” (1933) for £713,250 ($1.1 million) (est. £400-600,000).

The evening action switches to contemporary art next Monday at Bonhams in London.

To see a selection of the most important lots in Sotheby's London's Impressionist and Modern evening sale, click on the slide show.