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When Are Too Many Picasso Paintings Too Much?

May 15, 2018


Another round of sales are underway at the big auction houses in New York this week… Sotheby’s was first to present their offerings of top-level Impressionist and Modern Art in their evening sale last night; Christie’s (and Bonhams) will both hold evening sales tonight, the 15th.


Taking top honors at Sotheby’s was the coveted Modigliani, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), which was expected to sell for an astounding $150M! The work, executed in 1917, has detailed provenance back to the artist and was acquired by the current owner at Christie’s New York in 2003… at that time, he paid just $26.9M. This time around, the work sold for $157.2M (including premium) – quite an impressive appreciation albeit a modest 12.5% annual rate of return. That lofty figure was only achieved through an irrevocable bid (guarantee); in turn, it became the most expensive piece ever sold at auction through Sotheby’s.


Nothing else in the sale came close to the Modigliani… in a distant second was a vibrant little Picasso painted in 1932. The work, Le Repos, was expected to sell for $25-35M and just eclipsed that mark with the help of the premium at $36.9 – the buyer was reported as a Private Asian Collector.

Following that was Matinée sur la Seine by Monet… personally, I was not a huge fan of the work when I went to view the sale… the 1896 canvas was projected to bring in $18-25M – the bidding fell just short of that but adding in the buyer’s premium bumps the price to $20.5M.

Other notable lots included a work by Georgia O’Keeffe, which made an impressive $11.2M on a $4-6M estimate… and a work on paper by Mary Cassatt that absolutely crushed it’s $700K-1M estimate as it topped $4.5M!

In unusual fashion for an evening sale, there were a handful of unsold lots… 13 in all and some carried fairly hefty estimates – 3 Picassos ($3-5M, $6-8M, $12-18M), Tamara De Lempicka ($4-6M), Henry Moore ($4-6M), Monet ($2-3M) and a handful of others… 13 unsold lots in an evening sale of just 45 works is almost shocking – that works out to 71% sold. Not good.

Aside from the works themselves holding back the sale, we should consider the amount of material coming to the market – when there is an abundance of top-level works buyers can be selective and the result is unsold work… I mean there were 11 Picassos up in this evening sale and another 8 tonight in Christie’s evening sale… not to mention the handful that were sold in the Rockefeller sales last week… on top of the high-end art fairs (TEFAF and Frieze) that rolled through New York last week where Picassos and other major works could be found aplenty. There just are not endless buyers at the top end of the market and a high number of unsold works is a bad look for these premier sales.

The 32 works that did sell, yielded a total of $318.3M – a figure that was certainly within the pre-sale estimate… but only made it there with the help of more than $40M in buyer’s premiums… without that, the sale took in just $277.5M.