Works by Klimt and Magritte lead Sotheby’s stolid Modern art sales in New York


Sotheby’s evening sales doubleheader in New York on Tuesday (16 May) racked up $363.9m ($427m with fees), with works by Gustav Klimt and René Magritte notching the highest prices.

The evening began with the single-owner sale of works from the collection of late music industry executive Mo Ostin (1927-2022), which was followed by the evening sale of Modern art from various owners. Broken down, Ostin’s collection realised $104.8m ($123.7m with fees), near the low end of Sotheby’s pre-sale expectations of $103.3m to $155.3 million, while the Modern art sale snared $258.1m ($303.1m with fees), falling short of the auction house’s estimate of $272.1m to $378.7m. (Estimates do not reflect buyer fees.)

Christie’s equivalent sale on 11 May—combining a dedicated sale of works from the estate of publishing magnate S.I. Newhouse and a multiple-owner auction of 20th-century art—brought in a total of $426.6m ($506.5m with fees).

Out of the 63 lots offered across two Sotheby’s sales on Tuesday night, nine lots failed to find buyers for an overall and sleek sell-through rate of 88.3%. House and third party guarantees, also known as “irrevocable bids”, powered that statistic and accounted for 24 of the 54 lots that sold. Six lots from the Modern art section of the evening were withdrawn before the sale for undisclosed reasons.

The Ostin action began with Cecily Brown’s expressionist Free Games for May (2015), which hit $5.5m ($6.7m with fees) against a pre-sale estimate of $3m to $5m. The following lot, Willem de Kooning’s juicy work on paper Two Figures (1946-47), hammered at $4.8m ($5.8m with fees), just short of its $5m low estimate.

The hands-down star lot among the works from Ostin’s estate was a rarefied Magritte, L’Empire des lumières (1951). Ostin acquired the painting from fellow entertainment magnate David Geffen in 1979 for an undisclosed price, but at a time when the auction high for the artist was under $250,000. It fetched $36.5m ($42.2m with fees) against an estimate of $35m to $55m. It sold to an unidentified telephone bidder, as was the case for most of the evening’s lots.

A second Magritte entry, the Surrealist mountain landscape with trompe l’oeil shattered glass Le Domaine d’Arnheim (1949), went for $16.2m ($18.9m with fees) (est. $15-25 million). Ostin, who represented music legends from Frank Sinatra to Jimi Hendrix, acquired it privately (again) from Geffen in 1990.

Though not as hot or high as the $67.1m Jean-Michel Basquiat painting that sold at arch-rival Christie’s on Monday evening, the artist’s richly symbolic Moon View (1984) went for $9.1m ($10.7m with fees) against a pre-sale estimate of $7m to $10m. It formerly hailed from the Eli Broad collection and sold privately to Ostin in 2010. The same bidder snagged the Basquiat and Magritte’s L’Empire des lumières.

The blue-chip entries loped along with Cy Twombly’s graffito-scrawled abstraction Untitled (1962), which was a seeming bargain, hammering at $10m ($11.8m with fees), well below its $14m low estimate. Pablo Picasso’s large-scale Mougins townscape, Paysage (1965), realised $6.5m ($7.8m with fees), just below its $7m low estimate. And Joan Mitchell’s sublime Abstract Expressionist composition Untitled (1958) made $6.8m ($8.1m with fees) against an estimate of $7m to $10m.

Arshile Gorky’s deliciously spare yet poetic Portrait of Y.D. (1945) hammered at $2.1m ($2.5m with fees), well below its low estimate of $3m. The identity of Y.D. is up for debate, potentially referring to Marcel Duchamp’s sister Yvonne or the artist’s close musician friend Yenovk der Hagopian. It last sold at auction in May 1987 for $520,000. Ostin acquired it privately from Los Angeles dealer David Tunkl in 2006.

The Ostin sale saw just one work go unsold and took close to an hour to dispatch 15 lots, as if the ranks of telephone bidders were trying their hardest to go cheap with split bids.

The larger and decidedly more diverse Modern art sale that followed (after a 25-minute break) began with a postcard-sized Picasso watercolour and ink work from the artist’s Neo-Classical period, Saltimbanque accoudé (1922), which sold for $1.2m ($1.5m with fees), squarely within its pre-sale estimate of $1m to $1.5m. The sale quickly moved to larger works at bigger price points with Mark Rothko’s luminous Untitled (1959), which brought $3.8m ($4.6m with fees), just shy of its $4m low estimate.

Rarely present in evening auctions, Danish master Vilhelm Hammershøi’s Vermeer-like Interior. The Music Room, Strandgade 30 (1907) sold for a record-breaking $7.6m ($9.1m with fees, more than doubling its $3m low estimate. Klimt’s shimmering lake-scape, Insel im Attersee (Island in the Attersee) (1901-02), was the top lot and sold to a Japanese telephone bidder for $46m ($53.1m with fees), a result squarely in line with the auction house’s unpublished estimate of around $45m. The underbidder for the Hammershøi was New York art advisor Todd Levin. The Klimt was backed by an irrevocable bid.

Works by US artists were also on the block, including Edward Hopper’s sunlit countryside view Cobb’s Barns, South Truro (1930-33), which was deaccessioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art. It sold for $6m ($7.2m with fees), falling short of its $8m low estimate despite its institutional provenance. It was loaned for a time to the White House during Barack Obama’s presidency.

Back on French soil, Paul Gauguin’s floral still life Nature morte avec pivoines de chine et mandoline (1885) was on offer the Ambroise Vollard Collection (the storied French art and artist supply dealer) after being restituted to his heirs in February. It realised $8.8m ($10.4m with fees) against a pre-sale estimate of $10m to $15m. It went to an unnamed telephone bidder in Asia, according to Sotheby’s.

From that same period, Vincent van Gogh’s languid Jardin devant le Mas Debray (1887) sold for its low estimate of $20 million ($23.3m with fees). It came backed with an irrevocable bidm as did the playful late Picasso Femme nue couchée jouant avec un chat (1964), which made $19.5m ($21.2m with fees), just short of its $20m low estimate.

The Picasso last sold at Christie’s London in July 1998 for £1.1m. The net proceeds from its sale go to the Art of Giving, the art and medical research charity of collectors Jan and Maria Manetti Shrem.

Picassos of various periods were in ample evidence throughout the sale. The jaunty Femme au chapeau jaune (Dora Maar) (1939) brought $13.5m ($15.8m with fees) against a pre-sale estimate of $15m to $20m.

Though hardly “modern”, an Old Master outlier crashed the crowded party when Peter Paul Rubens’s helmeted Portrait of a Man as Mars (around 1620) sold to yet another telephone bidder for $22.5m ($26.1m with fees), firmly within its $20m to $30m estimate.

Of the relatively few sculptures on offer, Alberto Giacometti’s exquisite bronze idol Femme Leoni from a lifetime cast dating from 1960 sold for $24.5m ($28.4m with fees) and a massive trio of granite forms by Isamu Noguchi, Family (1956-57), sparked a bidding frenzy. It eventually hammered for a record $10.4m ($12.2 with fees), obliterating the artist’s previous highwater mark at auction of $4.9million. It was also backed by an irrevocable bid.

Even with that high note, the evening’s overall performance, while solid, lacked much fizz, according to Guy Jennings, a senior director of the London-based Fine Art Group. “Hardly anything bid above the high estimate and we’re feeling less exuberant than six months ago,” he said.

In tandem with New York’s buzzy spring art fair season, the evening auction action continues Wednesday (17 May) with Phillips’s 20th century and contemporary art sale and Christie’s single-owner auction of the late Gerald Fineberg’s collection.


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