Christie's London Tallies Robust $145-Million Imp/Mod Sale Fueled by Degas, Picasso, and Magritte

A detail of Picasso's "Femme assise," 1949, which sold for $13,402,943
(Courtesy Christie's)

LONDON — Packed with more desirable works than Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-885156">Miro-soars?comment_sort=desc" target="_blank">its arch rival Sotheby’s, Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale delivered a solid and reassuring £92,583,550 ($145,541,341) tally with 56 of the 70 lots offered finding buyers. The total came within striking distance of the £100-million high estimate and the buy-in rate was a decent 20 percent by lot and 16 percent by value. Two artist records were set, four lots made over five million pounds, 27 works hurdled the one million pound mark, and 36 exceeded one million dollars. That compares to Christie’s June 2011 evening sale that made £140,019,200 ($219,816,142).

For the statistically minded, the average lot tonight, including buyer’s premium, was £1,653,278 ($2,598,953). The overall numbers would have been presumably higher were it not for the pre-auction private sale of the top-priced offering, Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s fleshy nude, “Baigneuse” (1888) (est. £12-18 million), which sold to a buyer for an undisclosed price somewhere within the estimate, according to Christie’s.

“We had a private sale offer,” said Jussi Plykkanen, president of Christie’s Europe and the evening’s auctioneer, “and the vendor [seller] decided to accept it.” When Pylkannen made the announcement of the Renoir withdrawal at the start of the evening sale, surprised gasps were heard in the audience. The painting last sold at auction in November 1997 at Sotheby’s New York for a toppy $20.9 million.

Hints of a game market flashed episodically throughout the long evening as Pablo Picasso’s large-scaled “Femme au chien” (1962), featuring his wife Jacqueline and Kabul, the artist’s beloved Afghan hound, and backed by a third-party guarantee, sold to a telephone bidder for £6,985,250 ($10,980,813), just within its estimated £6-9 million range. Another Picasso, the heavily impastoed and richly colored “Femme assise” (1949) grabbed the top lot, selling to William Acquavella of New York’s Acquavella Galleries for £8,553,250 ($13,445,709), well above its £5-7 million estimate. The 1949 Picasso last sold at auction at New York’s Parke-Bernet Galleries, a forerunner of Sotheby’s, for £37,000 in 1960. Asked about the evening, Acquavella succinctly observed, “Good things do better and other things have a tough time.”

That was apparent as Edvard Munch’s Fauve-like landscape, “Hagen I Asgardstrand” (1904-05) expired at £2 million (est. £2.5-3.5 million). The picture last sold at auction for £2,057,250 at Sotheby’s London in June 2008, a time when the market was humming.

Decorative, easy-living pictures continued to attract strong interest as Paul Signac’s Pontillist-styled “La Corne d’Or, les Minarets,” with boating traffic and the skyline of  Constantinople, painted in 1907, sold for £6,201,250 ($9,748,365) — just over its £4-6 million estimate. Another boating scene, Claude Monet’s “Le chantier de petits navires, pres de Honfleur” (1864), ignited a bidding battle, selling to New York private dealer Stephane Connery for £2,785,250 ($4,378,250), outpacing its £1.2-1.8-million estimate. The fresh-to-market picture, always a plus sign for finicky buyers, last sold at Sotheby’s New York back in May 1982 for £89,390 and is considered one of the artist’s earliest surviving oils.

A tranquil Paul Gauguin landscape, “Paysage aux troncs  bleus” (1892), a recently re-discovered painting from the time of the artist’s first trip to Tahiti, sold for £4,521,250 ($7,107,405), within the £3-5 million estimate. Gilbert Lloyd of London’s Marlborough Gallery was the underbidder.  

There were also long moments of conspicuous consumption when a dazzling group of 14 small-scaled Edgar Degas bronzes, all cast from the artist’s wax models after his death, appeared in succession. All of the bronzes carried a third-party guarantee and a handful of the group made dizzying prices, including the 12-inch-high “Cheval au gallop sur le pied droit” from an early 1920s cast, which sold for £2,617,250 ($4,114,317), vastly exceeding its £300,000-400,000 estimate. Another Degas, the 28 3/8-inch-high mini-study version of the iconic “Petite danseuse de quatorze ans” sold to a bidder seated in the front row of the salesroom for £2,841,250 ($4,466,445), just over its £1.8-2.5 million estimate. The same American bidder, who later declined to give his name — or the time of day — bought Degas’s “Femme assise s’essuyannt le cote gauche” for £825,250 ($1,297,293), more than triple its high estimate of £250,000. All 14 Degas sold for £10.9 million, including the added-on buyer’s premium, compared to the £4.5 million low estimate.

A rare-to-market and decidedly time-worn Kurt Schwitters collage, “Merzbild 9A Bild mit Damestein (L Merzbild L5),” a cutting-edge work from 1919, comprised of oil, paper, card, canvas, metal, and wood assemblage on cardboard in the artist’s frame sold for a record £1,273,250 ($2,001,549), nearly double its £700,000 high estimate. Bidding opened at £620,000 and instantly jumped to one million pounds, indicating the impatience of a determined buyer, not to mention the serendipitous possibilities of a deep-pocketed market, at least when it wants to be.

That was quite evident for the early and tough René Magritte painting, “Les jours gigantesques” (1928), featuring a naked woman being sexually attacked by a dressed man, though in Surrealist fashion — the duo are literally intertwined as if in a dream or fantasy. Despite the condition issues of the painting, including a repaired tear near the woman’s throat, it soared to £7,209,250 ($11,332,941), more than four times its high estimate of £1.5 million. It sold to New York financier Wilbur Ross, seated near the front of the salesroom. At least eight bidders chased the early Magritte, including London dealer Daniella Luxembourg.

A later Magritte, “Le monde des images” (ca. 1961), featuring a sunset scene seen though a broken window with shards of the glass reflecting the sun’s colors, sold for £4,857,250 ($7,635,597), well above its £3-million high estimate. Late Magrittes typically outperform the tougher and darker early paintings, but as David Rogath, a Magritte collector and art dealer from Greenwich, Connecticut, observed, “I think the prices are justified and in a short period of time will go much higher. Magritte is still undervalued.”

It was also a very good night for another Belgian artist, as the multi-figured and wickedly satirical James Ensor painting, "Les jours" (1902), featuring a card cheat, sold to a Belgian private collector for £1,609,250 ($2,529,741), doubling its £800,000 high estimate. Though the buyer declined to identify himself as his entourage exited Christie's, his agent was more obliging. "It's a museum piece," said Ghent dealer Louis Lannoo, "and we've only found one Ensor [for my client] in the past five years." Lannoo also pointed out that the former owner of the Ensor had a very good eye since he also sold the 1928 Magritte tonight.

The evening action resumes here on Tuesday with contemporary art at Sotheby’s.

Click the slide show to see highlights from the Christie's Imp-mod sales in London.