A Passel of Picassos Helped Christie's Score a Solid $117 Million for Its Petite Impressionist and Modern Sale

Pablo Picasso's "Le Repos (Marie-Thérèse Walter)," 1932, was estimated to fetch $5,000,000-7,000,000 at Christie's
(Courtesy Christie's)

NEW YORK — Christie’s launched the spring auction season with a small but potent evening sale that took in $117,086,000, comfortably mid-stream of the $90.5-$130.2 million pre-sale expectation. Better still, 28 of the 31 lots offered sold, making for a trim buy-in rate of 10 percent by lot and four percent by value. Twenty-one of the lots sold made over a million dollars, and of those, seven scored over five million dollars — yet no artist records were set.  The confidence-building numbers, however, pale when compared to last May’s $156 million result, made on just 47 lots.

In certain ways, the biggest news of the evening was the absence of star auctioneer Christopher Burge, who appears to be further cutting back his auctioneering schedule, cherry picking, it would seem, bigger game. Jussi Pylkkänen, the London-based president of Christie’s Europe, made an admirable debut at the podium, delivering an almost flawless performance.

Pylkkanen tried to prove his mettle early on by initially refusing to split a bid on lot three, Pablo Picasso’s tiny-but-sexy "Le Repos (Marie-Therese Walter)" from 1932. Bidding started at $4.2 million and quickly ambled to $8.2 million at which point a bidder in the room offered $8.3 — a $100,000 increment. Pylkkanen refused to accept it and waited for the proper advance of $200,000 to $8.4 million. At that point, another telephone bidder offered another split bid, causing titters in the crowded salesroom. This time the auctioneer caved in and took it.

At last, the painting sold to another telephone for $9,882,500 (est. $5-7 million), including buyer’s premium. New York private dealer Nancy Whyte was among the posse of underbidders. The sleepy portrait last sold at Christie’s New York in November 2002 for $3,089,500, making it a rather astute investment.

Picasso had a very good night, as a sunny Cannes watercolor and India ink work from 1933, fresh from the estate of San Francisco collector Evelyn Haas, “Sur la terrasse,” sold to London dealer James Roundell for a buoyant $1,594,500 (est. $500-700,000). “I thought it was a classy object and a bit underpriced,” said Roundell, who characterized the evening thusly: “in performance terms, a real solid sale, so it bodes well for the market.”

Five Picassos made the top 10 list of the priciest lots, including the late and lively “Deux nus couches" (1968), featuring two oversized floating nudes set against a green background resembling Astroturf. It sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $8,818,500 (est. $8-12 million). The seller had acquired it in 1969 from Paris's storied Galerie Louise Leiris.

Another Picasso, lot 15, “Femme assise” (1953), attracted at least three bidders, selling to the telephone for $5,234,500 (est. $2.5-3.5 million.) “You can’t get anything modern for under five million dollars,” said underbidder David Benrimon, a New York dealer who further admitted, “The place to buy is at auction.”

It felt that way from a spectator's point of view, as a recently rediscovered Paul Cezanne watercolor from his prized "Card Player" series, “Joueur de cartes,” from 1892-96, on laid paper sold to a bidder seated near the front of the salesroom for $19,122,500 (est. $15-20 million). The work had been cloistered in the same family collection since circa 1935, and featured the familiar features of a mustachioed gardener seated like a Cezanne apple, lost in cardsharp concentration. (The fresh-to-market watercolor trailed Cezanne’s top price in that medium, as “Nautre morte au melon vert," from ca. 1902-06, sold for $25.5 million at Sotheby’s New York in May 2007.)

Christie’s executives Marc Porter and Stephen Lash were busily underbidding for anonymous clients on telephones but the winner wasn’t readily identified. Several observers believed he was an agent acting on behalf of a client, but our pursuit of an ID got no further.

Brightly colored, decorative compositions were easily dispatched as Henri Matisse’s Fauve period cover lot, “Les Pivoines,” painted in Collioure in 1907 and bursting in floral splendor, sold to the telephone for a tied top lot of $19,122,500 (est. $15-20 million). Susan Dunne of Pace Gallery was the underbidder. Tat work had last sold in Paris in March 1990 at Hotel Drouot, for the pre-Euro price of 23.5 million francs, or something like $4,077,029.

Even relatively light-weight examples by Impressionist masters managed to squeak by as Claude Monet’s sketchy yet atmospheric “Les demoiselles de Giverny," part of his 25 strong grainstack series, realized $9,602,500 (est. $9-12 million).

Of the three casualties, Alberto Giacometti's 11 3/8 inch high bronze, "Femme debout" (est. $700-900,000) [lot 30] sunk without a bid. Not exactly surprising, since the sculpture, conceived in 1947 and posthumously cast in 1976, ten years after the artist's death, was not somethng the market desired.

The smallness of the sale produced a happy atmosphere and little worry about missing the crucial 8 pm dinner reservation that usually causes a stampede mid-sale. There were, however, a few unusual moments of art market ardor, as when Mary Cassatt’s delectable “Francoise in a Round-Backed Chair, Reading” (ca. 1909) by the storied American expatriate painter appeared on the auction block. New York dealer John Driscoll of Babcock Gallery beat out rival bidders at $1,538,500 (est. $1-1.5 million).

“We bought the picture that was in the wrong sale for a very reasonable price and we’re very happy with it,” said Driscoll.

Driscoll, who bid on behalf of a private client, went on to explain that the Cassatt would normally be featured in an American painting sale. Perhaps Christie’s slimmed down presentation this round provided opportunities for sharp-eyed players.

The action will resume Wednesday evening at Sotheby’s when “The Scream,” the much-hyped — and amazing — Edvard Munch pastel has a chance to stir the market to new heights.

To see some of the highlights of Christie's Impressionist and Modern sale, click on the slide show.