But Christie’s auction was stronger overall, with a better-edited selection of work
The June sales of impressionist and modern art in London produced very different results even if some startlingly high prices were achieved.
Things got off to a limp start at Sotheby’s evening sale on 19 June in a session that was marked by poor quality and overly high estimates. The 48 works in the catalogue had a target of £72.9m-£102.6m, and totalled just over £75m –slightly short of the low estimate, as pre-sale figures do not include commission. Fifteen lots failed, making a sold-through rate of 68.8%. “In view of the material on offer, things did better than I expected,” commented the London dealer Edmondo di Robilant.The highlight was Miró’s Peinture (Etoile Bleue), 1927, which was effectively pre-sold as it carried a guarantee and “irrevocable bid” symbol. The work had recently been exhibited at the Zurich Kunsthaus (“Miró, Monet, Matisse—The Nahmad Collection”, 21 October 2011–15 January 2012) and carried an estimate of £15m-£20m. It was chased by Sotheby’s head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer on the telephone, as well as Stephane Cosman Connery, who has just left his position as head of private sales at Sotheby’s, on a mobile phone in the room. Meyer bagged the painting at £23.6m, setting a new record for Miró.The other standout was a fine group of Kandinsky works on paper which attracted bidding from the room and on the telephone. The highest price of £1.33m was given for Entwurf zu ‘Grüner Rand’, 1919 (est. £750,000-£900,000), from a telephone bidder. But there were many casualties, including two Munchs [Seated Young Woman, 1916, bought in at £2.3m, estimate £2.5m-£3.5m, and Kragerø in Spring, 1929, bought in at £800,000, estimate £1m-£1.5m.] and Otto Dix’s, Sitzender akt mit Blondem Haar, 1931, estimate £4m-£6m, unsold at £3.1m.Christie’s sale the following night on 20 June was far stronger. It totalled £92.6m (pre-sale estimate £74.5m-£100m) with 80% of the lots finding buyers. The total could have been higher, but as the sale started the auctioneer announced that the top lot, a fleshy Renoir Baigneuse, 1888, had been sold privately. The nude had set had set a record in 1997 when it sold for $20.9m at Sotheby’s New York (est $10m-$15m)—this time around it was estimated at £12m-£18m. Christie’s said the price agreed was “within the estimate”. What happened? There was speculation that the vendor, seeing the poor results at Sotheby’s and perhaps with little interest in the work, had got cold feet and decided to sell privately rather than chance the auction process.Very good results were made for a group of 14 Degas bronzes from a private collection, with three horse sculptures attracting spirited bidding, although the highest price for the group was set by Etude du nu pour la ‘Petite danseuse de Quatorze ans’ from 1878-81, cast 1920-21. This made £2.8m over an estimate of £1.8m-£2.5m. The whole group carried a third-party guarantee. Surrealism continued to be strong, with Magritte’s Les jours gigantesques, 1928, estimate £800,000-£1.5m, making £7.2m after a tough battle between two telephones and an unidentified man in the room, who finally won. “It was a pretty strong sale, and better edited than Sotheby’s,” commented the dealer Nick Maclean afterwards: “It was very much in line with the taste of the market today, and showed how deep the market is for surrealist works.”