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Adrian Biddell discusses some of the highlights of the May 2016 sales of Impressionist & Modern Art at Sotheby's and Christie's

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

The Impressionist & Modern sales in New York are round the corner (sales scheduled at Sotheby's, Christie's, Phillips and Bonhams from 8th - 13th May). And this season the week is also host to the Sotheby's and Christie's Post-War and Contemporary sales as well. It means that the two sale categories are no longer spread out over a fortnight, but the auctions will take place within six days of each other. 2000 lots will be hammered down. If to this number you add the three main Fine Art Fairs that are scheduled to open the week before (during the auction houses' pre-sale viewing) – Art New York (begins 3 May) and Spring Masters and Frieze New York (both begin 5th May) - the exceptional number of items on offer from these collecting categories spread across Manhattan could easily exceed 8000.

The collision of fairs and sales is all about timing. Today's collectors are invariably by definition cash rich, but in the modern world ever more time poor. By squeezing all the auctions into a single week the auction houses can carve out a much longer public viewing for the Impressionist and Modern and Contemporary categories - the best part of 12 days, so that the pre-sale viewings become in effect quasi-fairs themselves. And with viewing coinciding with the three actual fairs, clients are ever more likely to be able to schedule the time to see the works that they want to at first hand.

By having everything on view simultaneously too the week encourages cross-over buying. Collectors may, for example, be looking to buy a Picasso in an Impressionist & Modern sale, but are also tempted to look at a Gerhard Richter or a Cy Twombly. And with the auction viewing periods no longer a week apart the schedule benefits those who come from farther afield, such as from Europe or Asia, who will not now need to spend such an extended time away in order to view or attend sales in both categories. The flipside, however, is that there is a huge bottleneck of material being brought to market in an even shorter period of time, which makes assimilation of all that's on offer something of a challenge. This, of course, is one good reason of many why Fine Art Brokers are here: to help make sense of all that is on offer, and provide professional advice and support when considering bidding or buying.

And what about the offerings? Confining myself to the auctions, and largely to the Impressionist & Modern sales, unlike the series of sales in New York last November (which featured the runaway success of the Modigliani nude), this time there are no eye wateringly high estimates. Instead there is a lot of property from estates. This usually means that the pickings are nice and fresh, which is very much what the market likes and needs – a good potential opportunity therefore to source some good material at sensible prices.

The most highly estimated item is a Waterlilies by Monet – Le basin aux nymphéas - of 1919, offered by Christies at $25-35 million. Originally measuring 100 by 200cm, the work was subsequently cut down to make two canvases. The canvas being offered is the right half of the original composition. In recent years, Waterlilies by Monet of this size have been offered with surprising regularity at auction, and attracted considerable interest, the highest price for one of comparable dimensions achieving $54 million just a year ago. In view of this the estimate on the one at Christie's seems reasonable. In its favour too is that it has been in the same collection for the past twenty years, and appears never to have been offered at auction. Doubtless too the runaway success of exhibition Monet to Matisse: the Making of the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy will help its cause, a show in which Monet has been the standout winner.

Christie's, Lot 27C, 12th May 2016, Claude Monet, 'Le bassin aux nymphéas', Oil on canvas, 100 x 103 cm; Est. $25-35 million

Indeed, of all the Impressionists, Monet continues to be the most bankable. As well as the Waterlilies there are four other Monet oils coming up: one more at Christie's and three at Sotheby's. All are earlier works. The best at Sotheby's – Marée basse au Petites Dalles - also carries the most enticing estimate: $3-5 million. From the collection of Mamdouha and Elmer Holmes Bobst, who acquired the work in the late 1960s, it is a beautifully rugged painting of the Normandy coastline painted in 1884; it thoroughly deserves to outshine its price expectations. But it is the second of the Monets at Christie's which is the most picture postcard perfect: a view of boats on the Seine titled Au Petit-Gennevilliers. Painted in the summer of 1874, immediately after the term Impressionism had first been coined, it is estimated at $8 - 12 million, and comes from descendants of the esteemed collector Henry Osborne Havemeyer, who bought the painting in 1901. More 'blue chip' it would be hard to find. Yet, despite the painting's clear credentials, in recent years these earlier Impressionist works haven't necessarily galvanised the market.

Sotheby's, Lot 25, 9th May 2016, Claude Monet, 'Marée basse aux Petites-Dalles', Oil on canvas, 60 by 73 cm; Est. $3-5 million

Christie's, Lot 16C, 12th May 2016, Claude Monet, 'Au Petit-Gennevilliers', Oil on canvas, 54.6 x 73.3 cm; Est. $12-18 million

Interest in later examples by the main stream artists is similarly true in the Modern field. For example, of the eighteen Picassos being offered in the evening Impressionist & Modern sales at the two main auction houses, the late works, specifically from the critically acclaimed year of 1969 command the highest pre-sale estimates. Christie's has the most compelling of these – a hauntingly self-referential Homme assis. Painted just four years before Picasso died, it is an impressive size – nearly 150cm / 45in high, and painted in the rude colours and brash brushstrokes that characterised the final flowering of his genius. The work is consigned from the estate of Susan and Kenneth Kaiserman, who acquired it in the mid-1980s, and it comes to auction estimated at a seemingly realistic $8-12 million. The top prices paid for late Picasso's work all date from the end of the 60s, and the highest of these have been almost always for his series of Mousquetaires, the top price being $31m achieved at Sotheby's in November 2013. Sotheby's also have a 1969 male figure Buste d'homme lauré on offer too at $8-12 million, as well as Mousquetaire from 1967 ($5-7 million). Neither are as garish as the Christie's painting, nor quite as impressive in size, but both similarly evoke the wry humour, isolation and pathos of Picasso's final years.

Christie's, Lot 9C, 12th May 2016, Pablo Picasso, 'Homme assis', Oil and Ripolin on canvas, 146.7 x 113.9 cm; Est. $8-$12 million

Sotheby's, Lot 34, 9th May 2016, Pablo Picasso, 'Buste D'homme Lauré', Oil on canvas, 116 by 89 cm; Est. $8-12 million

Another artist whose late work is similarly in vogue is Braque. One of the great purveyors of the twentieth still life, in the last two decades of his life he painted some of his largest, most energetic, colourful and effulgent compositions. An especially good one is being offered at Christie's: Mandoline à la partition (Le Banjo). Painted in 1941, it has a surprisingly lively palette for such a bleak year. But Christie's have made something of a virtue of selling these big, bold, late still lives, accounting for seven of the top ten prices at auction for works painted in 1939 or later. The painting hasn't been on the market for over 40 years, and carries a pre-sale estimate of $8 -12 million. It deserves to sell.

Christie's, Lot 19C, 12th May 2016, Georges Braque, 'Mandoline à la partition (Le Banjo)', Oil on canvas, 107.7 x 89.1 cm; Est. $7-9 million

But in truth, perhaps the reality is that in the market place date doesn't matter nearly as much as it did. But what does matter is colour, definition and wall power. Certainly, to buy a truly Fauve painting it has to be from the period when the Fauves were at their height – circa 1904-08. That is when the artists concerned were at their most passionately colourful. Sotheby's has two stand-out examples, a good painting by Derain, Les voiles rouges of 1906, and a great painting by Vlaminck – Sous-bois of 1905. The Vlaminck exhibits an astonishingly Matissian pointillism – very Luxe, calme et volupté, but without the figures. It's only downside being its title: 'sous-bois', which suggests the quiet dullness of Barbizon rather than the effervescent brilliance of the scene that Vlaminck actually conjures up. It is a tour de force of Fauvism, and carries an estimate of $12 – 18 million.

Sotheby's, Lot 14, 9th May 2016, Maurice de Vlaminck, 'Sous-Bois (Paysage)', Oil on canvas, 60 by 72.5 cm; Est. $12-18 million

Clearly for a Vlaminck to command such a price it needs to be from these critical Fauve years. But for the Neo-Impressionism of Signac, the argument is not so clear-cut. Traditionally paintings by Signac pre-1900 used to command premium prices, but in recent years the value of the later works has risen significantly, buyers attracted to the strength of boats in full sail and dramatic sunsets, features that characterise the post 1900 canvases. Because of this, five of the top ten prices for Signac's work at auction have been for post-1900 work, and all of these prices have been achieved since 2007. Sotheby's is offering a Signac from 1892 – a great date, and of a subject that resonates – the Port of St Tropez. Yet despite these obvious credentials, what boats there are in the scene have their sails lowered. It is a beautiful painting, but we wait to see if it galvanises the market.

Sotheby's, Lot 8, 9th May 2016, Paul Signac, 'Maisons du port, Saint-Tropez', Oil on canvas, 56.5 x 55.3 cm; Est. $8-12 million

As well as these big ticket items, there are some remarkable works that are - thankfully for most collectors' budgets - not always in the $2 million plus bracket. Surrealism is one area that still remains within reach. A host of works by Magritte, Picabia (briefly aligned with Surrealism), Max Ernst, and others populate both Sotheby's and Christie's sales. As usual, because Magritte was the most prolific, he is the best represented. The most intriguing item for me by the Belgian painter is the wonderful Surrealist object Femme-bouteille. Believed to be one of the earliest of the 27 or so such painted bottles recorded, each of which is unique, it's enticingly estimated at $500,000-800,000. Intriguing, however, doesn't necessarily equate with 'commercial'. For sure, a far more saleable work by Magritte is Les Jeunes amours, estimated at $1.2-1.8 million. Again, date is not an issue – it was painted in 1965, four years before Magritte died. Instead, it is the image that counts, and the three apples by the sea have a clarity and simplicity that emits a mesmeric force. Indeed it is curiously similar in effect, if not necessarily in intent, to one of Jeff Koons seminal basketballs that floats in a bath: One total equilibrium tank (Spalding Dr J. Silver Series) of 1985 to be offered in Christie's specialist sale on 8th May: Bound to Fail. And given todays' collectors' interests in the eclectic, it is perfectly plausible that both works could end up in the same home.

Christie's, Lot 13C, 12th May 2016, René Magritte, 'Femme-bouteille', Oil on glass bottle, 29.8 cm; Est. $500,000-800,000

Sotheby's, Lot 3, 9th May 2016, René Magritte, 'Les Jeunes Amours', Oil on canvas, 33 by 41 cm; Est. $1.2-1.8 million

Christie's, Lot 21A, 8th May 2016, Jeff Koons, 'One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank (Spalding Dr. J Silver Series)', Glass, steel, sodium chloride reagent, distilled water and basketball, 164.6 x 83.1 x 39.3 cm. © Jeff Koons. Estimate on Request

Other Surrealists that make a splash in the sales are the works of two leading female artists of the genre: Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington. Kahlo's work has long been highly prized, and is represented in Christie's evening sale with Two Nudes in a Forest, painted in 1939 and offered with a price tag of $8–12 million. Carrington is featured in Sotheby's equivalent sale with an exquisite oil of the same date – a tribute to her then great love: Max Ernst. The pre-sale estimate of $300,000-500,000 is an indication of how undervalued her work continues to be. Another Surrealist whose work has long been underappreciated by the market is André Masson. Buried in Sotheby's Day Sale are three oils by the Frenchman. The fullness and exuberance of each work's composition and the richness of their colours exude an energy and confidence that suggest once again that date is no longer so important. Painted in the last two decades of the artist's long life, each oil displays immense wall power, and yet the most expensive is estimated at what in the fullness of time will surely be seen as a knock down price: $120,000-180,000.

For further advice on these and any other works coming up at auction or being offered in the forthcoming Fine Art Fairs do not hesitate to contact myself or one of my colleagues at Fine Art Brokers:

Ray Waterhouse:
Jonathan Dodd:
Adrian Biddell:
Allison Raddock:
Jamie Anderson: / telephone +1 212 717 9100

Christie's, Lot 21C, 12th May 2016, Frida Kahlo, 'Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma)', Oil on metal, 25 x 30.2 cm; Est. $8-12 million

Sotheby's, Lot 4, 9th May 2016, Leonora Carrington, 'Bird Superior, Portrait Of Max Ernst', Oil on canvas, 50.2 by 26.7 cm; Est. $300,000-500,000

Sotheby's, Lot 188, 10th May 2016, André Masson, 'L'écorcheur De Licornes', Oil on canvas, 99 by 78.7 cm; Est. $60,000-80,000