LONDON — Sotheby’s opened the London auction season with a mild bang on Monday evening, tallying £121,075,400 ($190,500035) for its Impressionist & Modern evening sale, including a separate section of 21 Surrealist works. The total hit solidly midway between pre-sale expectations of £103-144 million.
Just nine of the 61 lots offered failed to find buyers for a relatively crisp buy-in rate by lot of 15 percent. Eighteen lots made over a million pounds and 28 exceeded one million dollars. The statistics compared favorably to last February’s £78.9 ($125.5 million) result and 23 percent buy-in rate by lot.
In fact, the current figures represent the second highest February Impressionist & Modern evening for Sotheby’s, trailing the £146-million sale headlined by Alberto Giacometti’s record-breaking “Walking Man” that strode to £65 million ($104 million) in February 2010.
Tonight’s top lot was the large but otherwise undistinguished Pablo Picasso, “Femme assise pres d’une fenetre” (1932), featuring Marie-Therese Walter, his young mistress and muse seated regally in a black armchair. It sold to an anonymous phone bidder for £28,601,250 ($45,001,207) (est. £25-35 million).
The painting carried a so-called “irrevocable bid,” also known as a third-party guarantee, and it appeared that the guarantor bought the picture. Sotheby’s wouldn’t comment on whether that was the case. Patty Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, represented the bidder on the telephone, which might give a clue as to the nationality of the guarantor.
The unsigned painting last sold at Christie’s New York in May 1997 for a hammer price of $6.8 milllion, before fees (est. $10-15 million).
Sexier results were realized for a trio of Egon Schiele works on paper sold by the Vienna-based Leopold Museum, a state-supported repository of works by Schiele. The museum has been selling select works by the artist to settle restitution claims involving Schiele’s storied “Portrait of Wally.”
In any case, the delicate assembly of works totaled £14,011,750 ($22,046,088) against pre-sale expectations of £9-12 million. (Estimates don’t reflect the added-on buyer’s premium that is included in the final auction price). “Liebespaar (Selbstdarstellung mit Wally)/Self Portrait with Wally” (1914-15), a gouache and pencil on paper depicting the artist’s lover desperately clutching Schiele’s waist, finally sold to a telephone bidder for £7,881,250 ($12,400,550).
Moments before he brought the hammer down, auctioneer Henry Wyndham gazed down at London-based bidder and Schiele specialist Richard Nagy, and inquired, “I’m going to sell it at £7 million — give me a sign! Are you alive or dead?”
Nagy didn’t respond against roars of laughter in the salesroom and the Schiele went to the telephone bidder.
The gaunt and seemingly angst-ridden “Self-Portrait in Green Shirt With Eyes Closed,” in gouache and pencil on paper, made £5,081,250 ($7,994,839) (est. £1.8-2.5 million). Private dealer Stephane Connery was the underbidder. “It’s a gorgeous piece,” said Connery later, “but it got a bit too expensive, unfortunately.”
The other Leopold offering, “Girl Lying on her Back with Crossed Arts and Legs,” in black crayon from 1918, the year the artist died from the Spanish Influenza pandemic, sold £1,049,250 ($1,650,890) (est. £700,000-1 million). All three works were backed by third party guarantees.
Sotheby’s also succeeded in apparently convincing the consignor of Claude Monet’s lilac-hued and rather awkward looking “Nypheeas avec reflets de hautes herbes” (ca. 1914-17), stamped with the artist’s otherwise absent signature in the lower corner, to radically drop the reserve, the secret minimum price the seller determines before the sale. It was a smart move, since the painting sold to a telephone at the hammer price of £8 million or £9,001,250 ($14,162,567), with fees (est. £12-18 million).
Another Monet fared much better. “Le Givre a Giverny,” a snow scene with two black frocked figures, made £8,777,250 ($13,810,125) (est. £4-6 million). At least four bidders chased the richly impastoed snow scene.
A third Monet also drew strong interest, as his early, Dutch period “Un Moulin a Zaandam” took £1,105,250 ($1,739,000) (est. £800,000-1.2 million). Amsterdam-based private dealer Matthijas Erdman was the underbidder. “The Dutch period pictures are undervalued,” said Erdman shortly after the sale, “but I couldn’t go on,” acceding to his client’s wishes.
Erdman also underbid another Impressionist gem, Camille Pissarro’s “Le Seine a Port-Marly” (ca. 1872), which made £914,850 ($1,439,425) (est. £400-600,000). Both pictures were part of the ravishing group of Impressionist works from the collection of the late Earl of Jersey, thought to be an early aristocratic English collector of French Impressionism. His wife was a former Hollywood actress and friend of the great American collector and screen star Edward G. Robinson.
The group of five made overall £12,686,600 ($19,961,096) compared to pre-sale expectations of £6.9-10.2 million, though the Earl’s Paul Gauguin, “La Maison Blanche” (1885) failed to sell at pre-sale expectations of £800,000-1.2 million.
Works on paper proved to be a strong suit for the evening. The stunning pastel on paper Edgar Degas, “Apres le bain, feeme s’essuyant” (ca. 1882-85) sold to the telephone for £7,769,250 ($12,224,359) — remarkably a shade less than the top Schiele (est. £2.5-3.5 million).
Given what still seems like a rather dodgy world economy, the sale demonstrated there’s still plenty of wealth rumbling along.
London dealer Alan Hobart of Pyms Gallery in Mayfair snagged three British sculptures in succession, bidding, it appeared, with the artful raise of an eyebrow.
Seated on the aisle towards the rear of the salesroom, Hobart outfought fellow London dealer and uber-collector Danny Katz for Henry Moore’s early, carved iron stone “Two Forms” (1934) for £409,250 ($643,914) (est. £150-250,000) and vanquished others for Barbara Hepworth’s carved Irish marble “Shaft and Circle” (1972) for £421,250 ($662,795) (est. £450-650,000). Both of those works were sold to benefit Tufts University School of Arts and Science.
The third Hobart buy was Moore’s bronze “Seated Figure” (1949) that made £713,250 ($1,122,228) (est. £600-800,0000).
New York art advisor Abigail Asher of Guggenheim Asher & Associates was also busy, nabbing Fernand Leger's snappy tabletop composition “Nature Morte” (1924) for £1,329,250 ($2,091,442) (est. £1.2-1.8 million), and the R-rated Schiele gouache and pencil, “Two Reclining Figures, Two Children” (1912), for a torrid £825,250 ($1,298,448) (est. £450-650,000).
There was surprisingly scant interest for Sotheby’s jaunty cover lot, Joan Miro’s impressive and large, fresh to market “Femme revant de l’evasion” (1945), which sold to dealer Ezra Nahmad for £8,441,250 ($13,281,463) (est. £8-12 million). The New York sellers, Miriam and Ira Wallach, acquired the painting in 1964 from the Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York. It was the bargain of the evening.
On the Surrealist side, an earlier Miro, “Le fermier et son epouse” (1936), a gouache on card, sold to a telephone bidder for £5,865,350 ($9,228,384) (est. £5.5-7.5 million). The work last sold at sotheby's New York in November 2007 for $10,401,000, making this resale, even with its third party guarantee, pretty much of a bust.
A strange society portrait by Salvador Dali, “Portrait of Mrs. Harrison Williams” (1943), drew strong bidding, selling for £2,281,250 ($3,589,319) (est. £1.5-2 million). Its subject, Mona Bismarck, was a glamorous figure from the 1940s, married to reputedly the richest man in America. The work was sold to benefit the Mona Bismarck American Center for Art and Culture.
The action continues Wednesday evening at arch-rival Christie’s.