The results of London’s latest major Impressionist & Modern Art sales



The results of London’s latest major Impressionist & Modern Art sales are meager. The sharp fall in turnover (-47% at Sotheby’s and -39% at Christie’s) is partly due to the auctioneers themselves manifesting a high level of caution by considerably restricting their offer in a bid to maintain existing valuations and to avoid fuelling market fears during the calmer summer period.

On 21 June 2016, Sotheby’s prestige Impressionist & Modern Art sale suggested a distinct contraction of the high-end art market, with Christie’s results the following day confirming the trend. Sotheby’s total of $149.9 million represents a 47% drop versus its equivalent sale on 24 June 2015 ($281.7 million). The shortfall was not unexpected since Sotheby’s had deliberately chosen to present a particularly small catalogue of just 27 lots (of which 24 found buyers) compared with an annual average of 40 lots sold over the past decade. Nor should we forget that Sotheby’s result last year was its second best sales total in its London operations history. But the latest total is still 10% below the average turnover total from its June prestige sales over the past 10 years!

Although the Impressionist & Modern market has clearly contracted, it is still powerful with two masterpieces fetching tens of millions each. The top result from the week of London sales was generated by a Cubist masterpiece by Pablo PICASSO, Femme assise (1909, 81 x 65 cm), which fetched the equivalent of $63.5 million at Sotheby’s. This is a record amount for a June sale and Picasso’s seventh best-ever auction result. His all-time auction was set last year (11 May 2015) at more than $179 million for Les femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’) at Christie’s New York. A perfect museum-quality work, the Femme assise painting represented an extremely rare opportunity for the auction market, having emerged after 40 years from a private collection belonging to the American Richard K. Weil. The model for the painting was none other than Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s first wife and his muse during the Cubist period.
The second major masterpiece in Sotheby’s sale was Amedeo MODIGLIANI’s Jeanne Hébuterne au foulard (1919, 92 x 54 cm), a remarkable painting that fetched $2.7 million 30 years ago (Christie’s London, 23 June 1986, lot 42) and $56.7 million last week! Recently, Modigliani became the author of the second most expensive painting ever sold on the secondary market when his Nu Couché (1917-1918) was acquired for $170,4 million by the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian (head of the Sunline Group) for the prestige of his Long Museum in Shanghai.

Christie’s sale the following day contained 36 lots, including 20 with price tags above the million-dollar threshold, and also offered some of the best signatures of the Impressionist and Modern period: Kirchner, Jawlensky, Chagall, Kandinsky, Léger, Magritte, Renoir, but also three paintings by Picasso, one by Monet and above all, another work by Modigliani, Madame Hanka Zborowska. Featured on the cover of its catalogue, Madame Hanka Zborowska sold within its estimated range (at $12.1 million), having spent 37 years in the same collection. The sale generated a total of $68.3 million, down 39% compared with its Impressionist & Modern sale in June 2015 ($113.3 million) and representing Christie’s worst total on this type of sale for six years. It is now almost back to its low point of $61 million in 2009 (23 June), a period that experienced a sharp but temporary market contraction.
So… the art market is definitely slowing; that is undeniable. However, market participants have not yet triggered alarm bells… and it is difficult to say at this time whether the market is in denial or simply exercising a prudent strategy in order to create the scarcity that ultimately underpins value.