Sotheby's Soldiers On With Its $163-Million Impressionist and Modern Art Sale

Sotheby's Soldiers On With Its $163-Million Impressionist and Modern Art Sale
Pablo Picasso's "Nature morte aux tulipes," 1932, sold for $41,522,500
(Courtesy Sotheby's)

NEW YORK — The Impressionist and Modern auction market continued to resist unrealistic estimates at Sotheby’s on Thursday evening, turning in a mixed result and a $163,008,001 tally. That total came close to meeting the low end of the $169,200,000-245,200,000 pre-sale expectations. It also compared unfavorably to last November’s $199,804,500 total and 19 percent buy-in rate by lot. Similar to Christie’s performance on Wednesday evening, Sotheby’s sold 46 of the 67 lots offered for a buy-in rate by lot of 31 percent and 21 percent by value.

Four lots made over ten million dollars, five hurdled the five million mark, and 32 sold for over a million dollars. No artist records were set, but some exceptional prices were made by Pablo Picasso, whose paintings dominated five of the top ten lots and accounted for a whopping $81.3 million, all told — almost half of the evening’s result.


As at Christie’s, there were some pricey buy-ins, including Picasso’s widely exhibited but spartan “Plant de Tomate” (1944), which expired at an imaginary bid of $8.75 million (est. $10-15 million). (It last sold at auction in May 2004 at the storied John Hay Whitney single-owner sale, where it made $6,840,500.) As Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern department, acknowledged after the sale, for some lots “it was clear collectors felt the estimates were too high.”

Even so, bidding often chased quality. Fernand Leger’s jaunty late gouache-and-ink-on-paper study from 1950, “Les Constructeurs,” attracted five bidders and sold for $1,370,500 (est. $600-900,000)

The salesroom briefly ignited for Picasso’s stunning “Nature Morte aux Tulipes” (1932), featuring a plaster bust of the artist’s young lover and muse, Marie-Therese Walter. It attracted three bidders and sold for the top lot price of $41,522,500 (est. $35-50 million). International dealer David Nahmad was the underbidder, seated with his extended family in the front row. As the painting crawled higher, Nahmad methodically split his bids from the normal increment of $100,000 to $50,000, to the mild consternation of auctioneer Tobias Meyer, who nevertheless accommodated the powerful player’s penchant for keeping a lid on his purchases.

“Nature Morte aux Tulipes” last sold at Christie’s New York in May 2000 for $28,606,000. Tonight the bidding started at $27 million. The painting now ranks as the tenth most expensive Picasso at auction and came in second as the week’s priciest art work, trailing the Claude Monet “Nympheas” from 1905 that made $43,762,500 at Christie’s last night.

Another Marie-Therese ode, “Femme a la fenetre (Marie-Therese)” (1936), a simpler composition with the subject’s hands clasped, sold for $17,218,500 (est. $15-20 million). Nahmad was once again the underbidder.

Of the other Picasso winners, an explosive price was achieved for the remarkably graphic pen-, brush-, and ink-on-paper, “Le Viol” (1940), one of the prime works from the collection of the late Greek shipping magnate/collector George Embiricos, which soared to $13,522,500 (est. $4-6 million). The $12-million hammer price, before buyer premium fees were added, doubled the high estimate.

The six Embiricos offerings accounted for $22.1 million, including Henry Moore’s masterful outdoor bronze, “Two Piece Reclining Figure No.1” (1959), which made $4,674,500 (est. $3-5 million), selling to Andrea Crane of Gagosian Gallery, and Max Ernst’s tactile oil-on-panel “La Terre este une femme” (1963), which sold to New York private dealer Mary Hoeveler for $992,500 (est. $400-600,000).

Of the more esoteric offerings, a rare and extraordinary collaboration, “Belle Haleine, Eau de Violette” (1921), by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp, sold to New York advisor Gabriel Catone of Ruth/Catone for $2,434,500 (est. $1.25-1,75 million). The Dadaist composition, categorized as an “imitated rectified readymade,” was the maquette for the label of the perfume bottle Duchamp created that same year. (The actual object of the same title sold at the Yves Saint Laurent/Pierre Berge sale in Paris at Christie's in February 2009 for €8.9 million, or $11.2 million.)

Other standout prices included Monet’s lush landscape, “Champ de Blé” (1881), deaccessioned by the Cleveland Museum of Art to benefit future acquisitions. It snared $4,122,500 (est. $5-7 million). Another highlight was the unexpected, and rather somber, full-figure female nude by Paul Cezanne, “Femme nue debout” (ca. 1898-99), which sold to New York private dealer Nancy Whyte for $5,346,500 (est. $4-6 million). London dealer Ivor Braka was one of the underbidders.

“If you have something really exceptional,” said Whyte, moments after the sale, “there’s lots of bidding.”

Several auction-goers put a positive spin on the disappointing pair of evening sales. David Rogath, the seasoned  Greenwich Connecticut collector and principal of Chalk & Vermilion Fine Art, observed, “I think both houses did very well if you look at the details, and I think the market is fine.” Rogath bid unsuccessfully on a late Picasso “Mousqeutaire au chapeau, Buste,” deaccessioned by the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, which ultimately made $4,338,500 (est. $4-6 million), as well as the large Embiricos Henry Moore bronze.

“Sotheby’s had a chance to go second and they made the best of it,” he added.

Still, the market doesn’t seem particularly solid and continues to appear allergic to works of second-tier quality. That became rather evident towards the end of the sale as 11 of the last 17 lots failed to find buyers.

“I think it’s a case of too many bad pictures,” said private dealer Roger McIlroy, who bought a Brancusi plaster last night at Christie’s for $12.4 million. “There’s a desperation for good stock and this auction machine will do anything to get it.”

The evening sales resume on Tuesday with Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s.