Twice each year, the major auction houses offer up an absurd amount of material in New York, and last night Christie’s kicked things off… most unfortunately, this evening sale would pale in comparison to recent years – putting a damper on hopes of pushing the $2 billion mark for the week (combined estimates put the week’s total around $1.8B). Watching the live feed, there was noticeably less energy in the room than usual for an evening sale… bidding was more sporadic, and prices achieved were not nearly as lofty as we often see… not to mention, a few major lots failed to sell.
The sale began with a few “lesser” works… a small Picasso, which measured just 8 x 6 inches, followed by a small Dali gouache, and then another Picasso (a pencil on paper work)… the first substantial lot was number 6 – Giacometti’s Femme Assise. It was an obvious predictor of how things would go… it featured provenance back to the artist and was fresh to the market, as it was privately acquired in 1986. With a seemingly fair $14-18M estimate, the winning bid of $12M was not a great look ($13.8 with premiums – w/p). That is how much of the night would unfold… just a bit short.
The top lot of the evening went to the catalog cover piece – Claude Monet’s Le basin aux nympheas, was projected to sell between $30-50M. They opened bidding at $20M and things quickly stalled out at $22M… it was actually a bit tense for a moment, and then a few more bids rolled in… slowly climbing, the work ultimately found a buyer at a mere $28M ($31.8M w/p) … I feel a need to repeat and highlight that – the top lot of an evening sale sold below the estimate.
Second on the evening went to Picasso’s La Lampe, which was set up for success… the work, featuring the first physical depiction of his mistress and long-time muse Marie-Therese Walter, was accompanied by provenance dating back to the artist’s estate. In an oddly twisted way, the work had remained with his daughter Maya until it was sold in 2008… not sure about you, but I don’t know many people who’d want to hang onto a painting of their father’s mistress. In any case, the work was expected to bring between $25-35M and just eked into that range as the hammer fell at $26M ($29.5M w/p).
Rounding out the top three was a sculpture by Giacometti titled Le Chat… a cleverly titled rendition of a stray cat the artist took into his studio. The work features provenance back to the artist and was part of Baroness Johanna Lambert of Brussels’ private collection since 1955 (the year the work was cast). With an estimate of $14-18M, this lot also just made the range with a hammer price of $15M ($17.1M).
Usually, there are a plethora of other well-performing lots from evening sales and a short list of failures but this time around things were diametrically different. While there were a total of 16 lots that topped their estimate, most of them were just passed the range… except for one – Monet’s white-out landscape Effet de neige a Giverny, hammered at $13.5M ($15.5M) on a $5-8M estimate, accompanied by applause and all.
Aside from that, the evening had a pretty rough feel overall… many works under-performed. A handful of works by Picasso, estimated at $10-15M, $8-12M, $5-8M, and $4-6M, sold at the low end (or below) the estimate range (that doesn’t include the aforementioned La Lampe) along with an unsold work estimated at $15-20M… bidding on that sputtered out at $14M but didn’t meet the reserve. Picasso wasn’t the only one to have a poor showing… Three works by Monet (including the top lot) sold below the estimate… $28M (est. $30-50M), $14M (est. $15-25M), and $3.3M (est. $3.5-5.5M) along with one unsold lot, which was estimated at $12-18M – bidding topped out at just $7.5M on that one. In addition to those, works by Magritte (est. $6-9M and $3-5M) and Toulouse-Lautrec (est. $6-8M) failed to sell.
Nothing could have prepared them for lot 40 though… Van Gogh’s small floral work titled Coin de jardin avec papillons was offered with an estimate on request (luckily, I stopped by on Saturday and bugged a security guard until she went and got a specialist so I could find out the estimate – in the region of $40M)… they opened the bidding at $27M but bidding was sparse and it quickly passed.
By the end of the evening, Christie’s found buyers for 85% of the material… a number that sounds good for most auctions these days but not for an evening sale of this caliber… especially when you consider which lots made up the unsold 15%. Comparatively speaking, this year’s total take of $279.2M was approximately 42% less than last year’s sale! And let us not forget that the $279.2M includes the premiums… without those, the total was just $239M. The low end of expectations was $305M, so they were well short of the mark… hopefully, this is not a sign of things to come for the remainder of the week.