Sotheby’s and Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sales last week reconfirmed several trends and themes on current art market:  namely, the market, especially the market for high-quality or distinctive works by name artists, remains quite strong. But it seems that it is even stronger more at the lower levels, a theme that is not new in the broader art market but may be newer in a Impressionist and Modern market flush with fresh supply, but also  very selective at the upper reaches with sellers asking the fullest value upfront.


>> Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art generated $318.3 million, toward the low end of its pre-sale estimate of $307.4 million to $378.1 million. The top lot of the night, and one of the most-wanted piece of this season was Amedeo Modigliani‘s large nude Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (1917), sold for a premium-inclusive price of $157 million after sparse bidding. It originally carried a $150 million estimate, and become most expensive work of art ever sold at Sotheby’s, but failed to surpass Modigliani’s own record of $170.4 million, set at Christie’s in 2015.

Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) , Amedeo Modigliani, sold for $. 157m at Sotheby’s

All told, the evening made considerably more than the $173 million realized at the equivalent sale last spring and despite this impressive Modigliani’s record numerous other works were bought in or sold for below estimate, even with their premiums and of 45 lots on offer32 ( 71%) were sold. For instance 2 lots offered for sale by the Berkshire Museum of Art, which was also a controversial deaccession caused some advocates to protest outside the auction house before the sale, saw mixed results: the Henry Moore‘s painting Three Seated Women(1942) was estimated at $400,000 to $600,000 but sold  just for an under-estimate $300,000; while a Francis Picabia‘s,  Force Comique(1914) sold for $1.1 million with premium, missing its high estimate of $800,000 to $1.2 million. Combined, they generated $1.4 million toward the museum’s goal of $50 million.

Picasso, Le Repos, offered by Sotheby’s

On the other hand they got a good result for another highly anticipated lot was Pablo Picasso‘s, Le Repos(1932), estimated at $25 million to $35 million and sold for $36.9 million after a volley of bids. However, on 11 Picassos on offer, only 6, or roughly half, found buyers for a total of $63.6 million: is the Picasso’s market becoming choosier?

3/6, anyway, figured into the evening’s top 10 lots. Many of the top lots in the sale had recent and not-so-recent previous auction sales, which always provides an interesting barometer of the evolving market. For example, Claude Monet‘s, Matinée Sur La Seine (1896), estimated at $18 million to $25 million,  sold for $20.6 million. It last appeared at auction in November 2000, also at Sotheby’s, when it sold for $5.7 million on an estimate of $6 million to $8 million: so it almost duplicate its value.


> Looking to Christie’s Buoyant Million Impressionist and Modern Sale,on May15 it generated  $415.8 millions, with one-third of the lots selling above their high estimates and almost all muscular results.


The two top lots in Christie’s sale, the Malevich and Brancusi, are a interesting case study on current market trends: both were offered with the same estimate level, a very considerable$70m, and both had impeccable museum credentials( the Brancusi had been on long-term loan at the Met for decades and the Malevich had been at the Stedelijk museum before it was restituted in 2008). So, namely, both sales can be rightly considered once-in-a-generation opportunities at a time when art buyers have more money than opportunities to buy world-class works.

Constantin Brancusi's La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard) (1932). Courtesy of Christie's.
Constantin Brancusi’s La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard) (1932). sold at Christie’s.

However, the works saw a contrast in selling strategies: the Brancusi was sold by the heirs of the original buyers who purchased the work in 1955 directly from the artist for a few thousand dollars. “This is what you call fresh to market,” Judd Tully remarked drily in his ARTnews report. On the other hand the Malevich was took the opposite tack: a seller comfortable with risk, the Nahmad family, offered the work without any financial guardrails. Selling “naked”, was seen as validating the market of the Russian master.

In comparison to Sotheby’s, anyway, bidding and sales were much more evenly distributed across Christie’s slate of offerings. for instance, another expected standout, Joan Miró’s Femme entendant de la musique (1945) brought nearly $21.7 million, or roughly 50 percent above its high estimate of $15 million.

And while competition for the premier lots never reached feeding-frenzy levels, there were healthy swells of activity for what buyers must have identified as undervalued gems. Among these were Edouard Manet’s L’Italienne (1860), which was secured on behalf of a remote client at a price of $11 million, more than twice its estimate of $5 million; and Picasso’s Deux nus (1962) went for $2.8 million, against a pre-sale estimate of $700,000 to $1 million.

As always, the question remains how much we should read into the overall Impressionist and Modern market, or the art market as a whole, based on healthy results for a sale of 37 works in an intelligently managed auction. Post-sale chatter attributed the results to quality lots estimated well, but it felt like many, if not most, legitimate buyers were carefully choosing their spots.

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