Madonna Sells, LL Cool J Looks On at Sotheby's $230-Million Imp-Mod Sale [VIDEO]

Paul Cézanne's "Les Pommes" (1889-90), estimated at $25-35 million, sold for $41,605,000.
(© Sotheby's)

NEW YORK — Rumors of a fading Impressionist and Modern market evaporated Tuesday evening at Sotheby’s season opener that pulled in a solid and reassuring $230-million tally, nearing the $235.1-million high estimate. 

Thirty-seven of the 60 lots that sold made over one million dollars and of those, four made over $15 million. Just eleven of the 71 lots offered failed to find buyers for a respectable 15.5 percent buy-in rate by lot and just percent by value. (Though brisk, the sale lagged behind last May's $330.5-million result, super-charged by Edvard Munch's “The Scream,” which sold for $119.9 million.)


Two artist records were set, including Georges Braque’s stunning, color-saturated Fauve-period landscape, “Paysage a la Ciotat” (1907), which sold to New York dealer Emmanuel DiDonna of Blain DiDonna for $15,845,000 (est. $10-15 million). The work last sold at auction at Sotheby’s New York in November 2000 for $3,085,750, and tonight was one of just two works that carried so-called third-party guarantees, assuring a sale, no matter what the outcome.

“The Impressionist and Modern market is alive and thriving,” said Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s department head, immediately following the marathon two-and-a-quarter-hour sale, also noting with a pinch of dry humor that “the buyers haven’t all moved over to contemporary art yet.”

The engine that drove the evening was a fresh-to-market group of 20 works from the estate of New York collectors Alex and Elisabeth Lewyt, whose time capsule trove of paintings primarily acquired in the 1950s made $88.6 million of the overall total, compared to pre-sale expectations of $58.9-84.7 million. (Estimates do not include the chunky buyer’s premium that is added to the so-called hammer price, after the auctioneer knocks down the lot.)

The Lewyts’ exceptional and rare cover lot, Paul Cezanne’s gravity defying and perfectly composed still life, “Les Pommes” (1889-90), sold to an otherwise anonymous telephone bidder for $41,605,000 (est. $25-35 million) and the couple’s early Amedeo Modigliani masterwork, “L’Amazone” (1909), featuring a confident woman dressed in an orange riding jacket and black gloves, made $25,925,000, selling to another telephone bidder (est. $20-30 million).

It wasn’t just paintings that made huge prices but works on paper and sculpture as well, including the Lewyts’ dreamy and iconic Marc Chagall, “Anmal Dans Les Fleurs,” a gouache, watercolor, pastel, and oil on paper from 1952-59 which sold to another telephone for a rousing $4,757,000 (est. $1-1.5 million).

Later in the evening, Honore Daumier’s brilliant cariacature, “Les Avocats-Let Parquet des Avocats,” another work on paper from the early 1860s — offered by the storied John T. Dorrance, Jr. family collection — hit a record $2,629,000 (est. $600-800,000). Miami Marlins’s baseball franchise owner and well-known dealer/collector Jeffrey Loria was the underbidder. He threw up his hands in frustration after a final victorious bid from a telephone competitor, then swiftly exited the salesroom.

In the sculpture arena, a profusely documented, lifetime bronze cast of Auguste Rodin’s “Le Penseur, Taille de la Porte dit Moyen modele” (1906), originally from the collection of newspaper baron Ralph Pulitzer, sold to Oslo dealer Ben Frija of Galleri K after a long bidding duel for $15,285,000 (est. $10-15 million). “It’s a fabulous cast,” said Frija as he exited the salesroom, “and I am so excited for my client who was on the phone with me.” Coincidentally, Frija disclosed that he was also the buyer of the same Rodin back in 1995 on behalf of tonight’s unidentified seller.

In contrast to the heavy bronze, a lithe and unique 27½-inch-high painted metal Pablo Picasso sculpture, “Sylvette” (1954), sold to New York collector Donald Bryant for $13,605,000 (est. $12-18 million). “I was kind of wishing it didn’t get to $12 million (before the premium),” said Bryant as he turned in his plastic bidding paddle just outside the salesroom, “and that was my last call.”

Reveling in his new acquisition, Bryant, who also owns a 1932 Picasso painting, naughtily added, “The fun part of this is when your wife has a heart attack about the price.”

Another strong Picasso contender was the late and lively oil-on-canvas “Buste d’homme,” painted on September 27, 1969. It sold for $9,685,000 (est. $5-7 million). It appeared possible that rap master LL Cool J (short for Ladies Love Cool James), of late the co-creator of the controversial single “Accidental Racist,” was the buyer. Unmistakable in his grey hoody and wool cap, and semi-hidden in a private skybox above the salesroom, the rapper belted out bids to a Sotheby’s executive manning a phone in the salesroom. Four other bidders competed for the Picasso.

Also in the celebrity mix, Madonna’s charitable offering, the crisply executed Fernand Leger, “Trois femmes a la table rouge” (1921), which was being sold by the star to benefit the Ray of Light Foundation in support of girls’ education, sold for $7,165,000 (est. $5-7 million). Madonna acquired the painting at Sotheby’s New York in May 1990 for $3.4 million.

No matter where you looked, prices seemed relatively strong, as noted by London dealer Jonathan Green of Richard Green Gallery, who snapped up Henri-Edmond Crosss Divisionist composition, “Printemps Rose” (1908-09) for $1,205,000 (est. $800,000-1.2 million). “Top paintings make top prices,” said Green, moments after the auction. “There are no cracks in the market. It’s not mad but it’s good and strong. I don’t see a problem.”

Green also underbid Claude Monet’s “Automne a Jeufosse” (1884) that sold for $4,869,000 (est. $2-3 million). “Even mediocre Monets are selling for a lot of money,” opined Nanne Dekking, vice-president of Wildenstein & Company.

The Impressionist Modern action resumes Wednesday evening at Christie’s.

Watch video report on Sotheby's season opener: