Christie's Limp $205-Million Sale Prompts Talk of "A Crack in the Market"

Christie's Limp $205-Million Sale Prompts Talk of "A Crack in the Market"
Claude Monet's "Nymphéas" (1905) sold for $43,762,500
(Christie's Images LTD. 2012)

NEW YORK — Christie’s had plenty of excuses for a weak evening sale of Impressionist and Modern Art on Wednesday evening, ranging from terrible weather to a falling stock market and possibly negative reactions to a second term for a Democratic president. Whatever the case, the house had to struggle for its $204,800,000 result, as 21 of the 69 lots offered failed to sell for a relatively high buy-in rate of 30 percent by lot and 20 percent by value.

Overall, it appeared that estimates were too aggressive and the long roster of 69 lots was burdened with too many artworks lacking the evening sale panache of trophy property. Still, six works made over ten million dollars and 31 of the 48 that sold hurdled the million mark. One artist record was set for an early and rare Wassily Kandinsky — yet the overall tally missed the low bar of the $209,250,000-314,150,000 pre-sale estimate. 

The results markedly improved on last November’s poor performance of $140,773,500. The buy-in rate that time was 38 percent for the 82 lots offered.

The action looked promising early on as several classic Impressionist offerings attracted spirited bidding, including for lot 4, Gustave Caillebotte’s atmospheric oil on canvas, “La Place Saint-Augustin, temps brumeux” (1878), which sold for $2,658,500 (est. $2-4 million) to London dealer Ivor Braka, and for Camile Pissarro’s bucolic “Hameau aux environs de Pontoise” (1872), which sold for $4,394,500 (est. $3-4 million), also to Braka.

“It was mixed pickings,” said the dealer as he exited the salesroom, “but there were some unfashionable but very good early Impressionist pictures that we haven’t seen for a very long time. That’s the sort of picture that has fallen out of fashion.”

That kind of momentum also held up for Alfred Sisley’s later oil, “L’allée des peupliers à Moret au bord du Loing” (1890), which sold for $2,882,500 (est. $2.5-3.5 million) to dealer Oliver Shuttleworth of London’s Waterhouse & Dodd.

At a still more stratospheric level, a medium-sized and delectably reflective Claude Monet “Nympheas” (1905) became the evening’s top lot, fetching $43,762,500 (est. $30-50 million), and drawing what appeared to be three telephone bidders.

Christie’s specialist Adrien Meyer, standing at a podium in the front of the salesroom and crowded by other specialists manning phones, made the winning bid based on what appeared to be secret signals coming from someone in the salesroom. It was a great result, especially since the proceeds benefit the Hackley School of Tarrytown, New York, thanks to a bequest from the estate of Ethel Strong Allen.    

The evening featured the sale debut of auctioneer Andreas Rumbler, the chairman of Christie’s Switzerland and a longtime Impressionist and Modern specialist for the firm. He replaced the freshly retired superstar auctioneer Christopher Burge. Rumbler was calm and competent throughout the evening though he encountered continuous resistance from an audience reluctant to raise their bidding paddles. It would be folly to speculate what Burge could have done in these circumstances, though there might have been a bit more gallows humor during difficult patches of unsold material.

Three of the top ten lots were by Pablo Picasso, including the 18-by-15-inch oil, “Tete de femme” (1952), which sold to New York private dealer Nancy Whyte for $5,234,500 (est. $4-6 million). New York dealer Rachel Mauro was the underbidder. “Is there a crack in the market?” queried Mauro as she left the salesroom. “The market is reacting to the aggressive estimates and the auctioneer had a tough time drawing people out.”

A somewhat larger Picasso, “Buste de femme” (1937), featuring the artist’s brunette muse and lover Dora Maar, sold to a telephone bidder for $13,074,500 (est. $8-12 million), and the late and larger “Femme au chien” (1962), starring the artist’s Afghan hound Kaboul, sold to another telephone for $6,354,500 (est. $5-7 million).

Still, an undoubtedly major Picasso bronze, the 25½-inch-high “Coq,” conceived in 1932 and cast in the 1950s, failed to sell (est. $10-15 million). Buttonholed for a comment outside the salesroom, Diana Picasso, a granddaughter of the artist who is compiling a catalogue raisonne of Picasso’s sculpture, looked somewhat surprised at the outcome, almost at a loss for words. “It’s a magnificent work and was properly estimated.”

Other sculptures had better results, including the remarkably rare white plaster Constantine Brancusi, “Une muse” (1912), which was included in the historic International Exhibition of Modern Art (aka the Armory Show) of 1913. It sold for $12,402,500 (est. 10-15 million) to private dealer Roger McIlroy, who gave his place of residence as “on an airplane.” It last sold at auction at Christie’s New York in November 1986 for $880,000.

Alberto Giacometti’s disembodied and grand “La Jambe,” a bronze conceived in 1947 and cast in 1952, sold for $11,282,500 (est. $10-15 million) to New York dealer Andrew Fabricant of the Richard Gray Gallery.

Other highlights ranged from the stunning and early Kandinsky, “Studie fur improvisation 8” (1909), based on a Russian folk tale and executed in oil on card and mounted on canvas, which sold to a telephone bidder for $23,042,500 (est. $20-30 million), to a spirited, Surrealist-period Joan Miro, “Peinture (Femme, Journal, Chien)” (1925), which fetched $13,746,500 (est. $12-18 million). The Miro was backed by a third-party guarentee.

The rich handful of super-lots took some of the sting out of numerous failures, including the early Marc Chagall “Nature morte” (1910-14), which was bought in at a chandelier bid $5 million (est. $6-8 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York in November 1986 for $528,000. Another pricey casualty was Edgar Degas's “Deux danseuses aux corsages faunes,” from circa 1902, that flopped at an imaginary $6.1 million (est. $7-10 million).

The evening action resumes Thursday at Sotheby’s — a sale which was originally scheduled to take place on November 5 but was weather-delayed by Hurricane Sandy. It will most likely provide a better indicator of whether there’s really a crack in this conservative market.

To see images of the art from Christie's Impressionist and Modern Art sale, click on the slideshow.