High-end Modern Art in New York



On 7 November 2012, while New York was still cleaning up the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy and Barack Obama was announcing his re-election, the prestigious auction house Christie’s held one of the most important sales of the year: its Impressionist and Modern Art sale.

A few hours before the opening of this major evening sale, Artprice’s art market confidence index was pointing to optimism (up 5 points with purchase intentions indicated by more than 70% of respondents). However, with a combined high estimate of more than $250m, Christie’s was clearly over-optimistic. At $179.8m, the final total was below their expectations, although compared with the 2010 total from the same sale ($180.4m) it was more than respectable and it relegated the 2009 total ($56.8m) to nothing more than a bad memory.

Six of the 10 best results from the sale were generated by Pablo PICASSO and Alberto GIACOMETTI (three each). The other 4 in the top 10 were Constantin BRANCUSI, Joan MIRO, Claude MONET (with his highly anticipated Nymphéas, which fetched the best result of the sale at $39m) and Wassily KANDINSKY who set a new personal world record of $20.5m with his Studie für Improvisation 8. The latter fetched only a little more than its low estimate but still buried a 12 year old record of $19m set on 17 May 1990 at Sotheby’s New York. The prices of the Moderns have returned to their historical high ground: some of the pieces generated results that have not been seen for 22 or 23 years. This is true for Abstract signatures (like Kandinsky) but also for Modern masters like Picasso and Henri MATISSE. The sale at $700,000 of Henri Matisse’s small but superb bronze statue, La Tiaré (20.3 cm), is a record for such a small sculpture. This price level was last seen in 1989 when his Henriette III (20 cm) sold for the equivalent of $644,000 at Sotheby’s New York.

A sign of the times… Christie’s Top 10 reveals that the two most expensive Picasso paintings were acquired by Asian buyers: Buste de femme for $11.6m and la Femme au chien for $5.6m.
Of the 9 Picasso works offered at this auction, 5 fetched over a million dollars, 3 are in the Top 10, while 3 remained unsold. That one third of the Picassos offered should fail to sell is no trivial matter: buyers are clearly selective, informed and prudent, and not buying at any price. In particular, they rejected the bronze sculpture of a young rooster,Coq, estimated at between $10m and $15m. This restraint is understandable when you consider that only two sculptures by Picasso have reached the $10m threshold in auction history, and both were larger and rarer on the market: Tête de femme, Dora Maar (limited edition of 2 copies) and La Grue (limited edition of 4 copies), while Le Coq is from an edition of six.

At Sotheby’s, three Picasso paintings missed the auctioneer’s anticipated reception: Plant de Tomate (1944) appeared too expensive this year in its estimated range of $10m to $15m, despite fetching $12m at Christie’s on 8 November 2006. In August 1944, the master painted 9 tomato plants (at a rate of nearly one a day) and in the seven years between 1999 and November 2006, the prices of these “love apples” rocketed from $1.9m to $ 12m. So it seems the ascent has paused for the time being. Nevertheless, it was Pablo Picasso who generated over half of Sotheby’s proceeds at its prestigious 8 November sale with four paintings and two drawings that brought in a total of $72.27m (excluding fees) versus $70.33m from the other 40 lots.
Although there was no absolute record, we note the truly excellent result obtained for a Picasso ink drawing entitled Le Viol (1940), which doubled its high estimate with a winning bid of $12m.
At this price, Le Viol is the third best auction result for a Picasso drawing and the best result for a plain drawing without gouache. Le Viol signed one of Sotheby’s four results above the $10m threshold at this sale, while Christie’s recorded six 8-figure results the previous day.