The run of November sales in New York began with a $479.3 million Impressionist and modern art evening auction at Christie’s, where the total beat a pre-sale high estimate of $476 million (and crushed the low estimate of $360 million). The sell-through rate was a solid 88 percent by lot, with just eight of the 68 lots failing to find buyers.
The total was the second-highest haul ever achieved at an Imp-Mod sale, bested only by a $491.4 million auction at Christie’s in November 2006, when Oprah Winfrey purchased Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912) for $88 million, making it the fourth most expensive work ever sold at auction at the time. It was one of four works by Klimt in that year’s sale from the Bloch-Bauer family, and that bundle alone netted $192 million for the house.
But even without an estate of such firepower, the sale tonight nearly bested an historic moment in Christie’s lore. “Are we slightly frustrated that did not beat that sale? Sure!” Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti told ARTnews after the sale, with a laugh. “But we are pleased with the result.”
When asked whether he thought ahead of time that the sale would be strong enough to command such bidding, Cerutti said, “We’re not playing the game of predicting—obviously it’s a strong result, but we’re always looking for the best.”
The week’s opening salvo also ended a run of somewhat sleepy Imp-Mod evening auctions at Christie’s in New York. In May of this year, the total was a respectable $289 million, but the same sale a year ago netted just $165 million, a good chunk of which came from one work: Edouard Manet’s Le Printemps(1881), which sold for $65 million.
This time around, the top lot was much stronger, and it was followed by others nipping at its heels. The proceedings were led by Vincent van Gogh’s Laboureur dans un champ (1889), which flew by its pre-sale estimate of $50 million to achieve a total of $81.3 million, selling to Rebecca Wei, the Hong Kong-based head of Christie’s Asia.
The high figure was $1 million shy of a record for the artist. At Christie’s in May 1990, the Japanese industrialist Ryoei Saito paid $82.5 million (around $157.6 million when adjusted for inflation) for van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), making it at the time the most expensive work ever auctioned.
There were a number of all-time high marks for certain artists set during the sale, including for Fernand Léger, whose Contraste de formes (1913) sold for $70.1 million, higher than the on-request pre-sale estimate of $65 million. Records were also broken for René Magritte, Edouard Vuillard, Jean Crotti, Suzanne Duchamp, and Emil Nolde.
The sale was also notable for the lack of guarantees among the top lots. Neither the van Gogh nor the Léger had guarantees going into the sale, ridding the lots of a safety net that could save the house from despair if bidders failed to materialize in the room or on the phones.
“When it comes to guarantees, I like to remember that it’s always a case-by-case basis,” Cerutti told me after the sale, with the comfort of knowing that the works did indeed sell.
For such a successful sale, the proceedings tended to drag, with even the biggest lots mostly failing to prompt gasps or cheers in the Rockefeller Center sales room. It began with with a suite of works that were solidly if not memorably sold, with the bidding coming mostly on the phones, until Magritte’s L’empire des lumières (1949) solicited bidding from Wei and Christie’s Post-War and Contemporary co-chair Alex Rotter, who drove it up to between themselves—until a man on the aisle swept in and got it for a hammer price of $18 million, or $20.6 million with the buyer’s premium.
Two lots later came the Léger, and Christie’s newly tapped gavel-whacker Adrien Meyer—who, after being named co-chair of the impressionist and modern art department in July, was presiding over this particular sale for the first time—opened the proceedings at $56 million. He threw out chandelier bids until he got to $59 million, letting the figure hang there and hoping to avoid a pricey pass.
Then, Christie’s Americas chairman Marc Porter hopped in at $60 million from the rostrum at Meyer’s right, and after a quick bid in the room Porter went back to $62 million, where it hammered, allowing him to capture the lot—which with the buyer’s premium came to $70.1 million—for the bidder on the phone.
After the cover lot, Monet’s Matinée sur la Seine (1897), sold in the room to the dealer Nancy Whyte for $23.4 million, it was time to offer the van Gogh, another guarantee-lacking hurdle that could derail what had been a stellar sale. But instead of sputter, it was hot right out of the gate. Meyer opened gavel-in-hand at $42 million, then bid $44 million—and then Porter blurted out “$55 million!” to cheers from the room.
“You all have dinner plans, so that’s just perfect,” Meyer said.
But then the lot’s saga took a twist. Wei, the Christie’s Asia director, started going at it with Porter, armed with an equally bullish client. When Wei went up to $68 million, Porter swung back with a bid of $70 million. But when Wei saw and raised him to $72 million, Porter was out.
It was just one of the lots for which Asian bidding took home the prize, as action came frequently from specialists based in China, Japan, Taiwan, and even Indonesia. Charmie Hamami, who is based in Jakarta, successfully beat out Imp-Mod deputy chairman Conor Jordan to win Pablo Picasso’s Femme accroupie (Jacqueline), 1954, snagging it for $36.9 million with fees.
American bidding seemed a little thinner, but, when asked, Nancy Whyte, the New York-based advisor who secured the Monet on behalf of a client, said that wasn’t much of a cause for worry.
“Bidding was really across the board, and all the big lots sold,” she said, exiting the sales room after a long auction. “So they should all be very happy.”
The New York sales continue Tuesday with the Impressionist and modern art evening sale at Sotheby’s.