Kandinsky's $21-Mil Rider Leads Christie's $100-Million Imp-Mod Sale

Wassily Kandinsky's "Studie zu Improvisation 3" (1909) was the top lot, selling for $21,157,438.
(REUTERS/Luke MacGregor)

LONDON — The inherent strength of the art market showed through at Christie’s small but solid season opener of Impressionist and Modern works of art, which tallied £64,076,575 ($100,407,993). That sum fell midway between pre-sale expectations of £52.8-75.8 million ($82.8-118.8 million) — but poorly trailed last June’s £92.5 million ($145.5 million) result, which was achieved on 56 lots sold. Tonight, seven of the 44 lots offered failed to sell, making for a decent buy-in rate by lot of 16 percent and 13 percent by value. Two lots sold for over ten million dollars and 22 hurdled the million-dollar mark.

One offering set an artist record, Eugene Boudin’s atmospheric and unusually large beach scene with costumed figures, “Scene de Plage” (1864), which sold to London dealer Ivor Braka for £1,237,875 ($1,939,750) (est. £500-700,000).


Overall, Christie’s London department head Jay Vincze succinctly described the performance as “a pretty solid evening.” That remark certainly fit the performance of the evening's sculpture offerings, including a beautifully carved Auguste Rodin, “Eve après le peche” (ca. 1900-1915), which sold to a telephone bidder for £2,861,875 ($4,484,558) (est. £500-700,000). It is understood that the uber-prolific Rodin made approximately 25 versions of the carved marble Eve figures.

A petite yet dynamic Marino Marini bronze, “Cavallo,” conceived in 1950 but lacking a foundry cast date in the catalogue, sold to another telephone for an estimate busting £1,025,075 ($1,606,293) (est. £250-350,000). Also on the petite side, Alberto Giacometti’s bronze, “Femme debout,” from a life-time 1961 cast, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £2,637,875 ($4,133,550) (est. £1.5-2.5 million).

The priciest lot of the evening came up early, impressively exceeding skeptical expectations: the Nahmad-family-consigned Wassily Kandinsky, “Studie zu Improvisation 3” (1909), an oil-and-gouache-on-cardboard housed within a beautifully painted artist frame. It sold to seasoned Zurich dealer Beda Jedlicka of J&P Fine Art for £13,501875 ($21,157,438) (est. £12-16 million). A second bidder on the telephone also chased the Kandinsky — presumably the person who placed the lot’s third-party guarantee.

The Nahmads acquired the exceptionally rare Kandinsky, depicting a figure mounted on a turquoise-colored horse, at Christie’s New York back in November 2008 for $16,882,500, precisely at the moment the art market crashed in the wake of the world financial crisis. “My client is too young to remember those days,” said Jedlicka as he exited the salesroom. “The world has changed and the market is hot now.”

Hot it may be, but Christie’s apparently got burned with its guaranteed cover lot, Joan Miro’s powerful — though rather strange-looking — work, “La tige de la fleur rouge pousse vers la lune (The stem of the red flower grows toward the moon)” (1952), which flopped at what the auctioneer called as a “final bid” of £5 million (est. £5.2-7 million).

A choice group of eight market-friendly works from the art dealing family of Simone and Jean Tiroche just barely met the high end of pre-sale expectations of £3.6-5.4 million ($5.7-8.5 million), realizing £5.4 million ($8.49 million). The group was led, quality-wise, by the amazing and early Paul Cezanne composition, “Don Quichotte, vu de das” (ca. 1875), which sold to a telephone bidder for £577,875 ($905,530) (est. £300-500,000). The work last sold back in May 1990 at Christie’s New York, where it fetched $363,000.

Curiously, or so it seemed, London dealer Fabrizio Moretti — an Old Master specialist — was the underbidder on the Cezanne, expressing great disappointment at not nabbing the picture.

Other exceptional works in the sale included Amedeo Modigliani’s stunning portrait, “Paul Guillaume” (1916), depicting the artist’s first dealer in Paris — his name boldly painted above the subject’s sleek head — which sold to an anonymous buyer in the salesroom for £6,781,875 ($10,627,198) (est. £5-7 million). The picture was another Nahmad family consignment; the Nahmads bought it at Sotheby’s New York in November 2006 for $4,832,000 — apparently doubling their investment in six years. 

Of the four Pablo Picasso paintings that made the list of the evening’s top ten priciest offerings, the late and rather colorless “Femme assise dans un fauteuil” (1960), featuring his Spanish-born wife Jacqueline Roque, was notable for having triggered a bidding war, selling to a telephone for £6,101,875 ($9,574,174). It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2006 for $6,736,000 — again demonstrating the strength of the current market.

A big price was also garnered by a rare-to-market Constantin Brancusi gouache on board, “Etude de Mile Pogany” — in effect an undated study for a famed sculpture of his friend, Margit Pogany — which soared to £1,517,875 ($2,378,510) (est. £200-300,000).

Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works, at least the few that were on offer, met with an enthusiastic reception, as Claude Monet’s sunny beach scene, “Sainte-Adresse,” from the choice year of 1873, sold to an Asian bidder in the salesroom for £2,861,875 ($4,484,558) (est. £1-1.5 million). London dealer Alon Zakaim was the underbidder. A sparkling, Pontillist-styled Paul Signac, “Sainte-Anne (Saint-Tropez)” (1905), also seemed to appeal to the current market taste, selling anonymously to a telephone for £3,533,875 ($5,537,582) (est. £2.5-3.5 million).

Christie's usually puts on a cracking display of Surrealist works mixed in with the Impressionist/Modern fare. This time, however, the pickings were decidedly slim. Still, an early and mysterious Rene Magritte painting, La chamber du devin (the seer's chamber)” (1926), sold for £1,517,875 ($2,378,510) (est. £700,000-1 million).

What was the verdict on the sale, overall? Thomas Seydoux — currently a private dealer with Connery, Pissarro, Seydoux, and formerly European head of Christie’s Impressionist & Modern — offered his take: “For not the greatest material, they actually did quite well,” he said. “Frankly, I thought it was going to be worse.”

The Impressionist & Modern evening action resumes at Sotheby’s on Wednesday.