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Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening – Left Holding the [Hartley] Bag

November 13, 2018

Sotheby’s had its shot at the Impressionist and Modern market last night – if you read my review of the Christie’s sale from the night prior, it’s going to feel a bit déjà vu-ey…  Just as a refresher, Christie’s moved 52 of the 61 works offered and saw a total figure of $279M (w/p) – they expected to bring in at least $304M… so let’s see how Sotheby’s faired.

As the sale got underway, the auctioneer feverishly rattled off the lots that were guaranteed or that had irrevocable bids placed on them prior to the sale… 14 lots were guaranteed, and another 10 were said to have irrevocable bids.



The only thing dissimilar to Christie’s showing was the scheduling of major lots… Sotheby’s seemed to front-load this sale, which certainly helped the energy in the room – things felt like they were heating up, but it was more like one of those hand-warmer packets that get really hot for a few minutes and then cool off… the first 15 lots all were guaranteed or had irrevocable bids. Those first 15 lots all sold – twelve of them in excess of $1M, seven at more than $5M, and three toppings $20M!

The top lot of the evening was a bit of a surprise… it came just about halfway through the sale – Rene Magritte’s Le Principe du Plaisir was not even projected as one of the top three lots, though it was accompanied by provenance back to the artist and was fresh to the market. The work, depicting a suited man seated behind a table with a glowing aura in place of his head, was one of the guaranteed lots and expected to bring between $15-20M… it ended up hammering at $23.5M while setting a new auction record for the artist at $26.8M (w/p).


Egon Schiele

Taking second was Egon Schiele’s Dammernde Stadt (Die Kleine Stadt II), which was the most substantial lot to enter the evening free of an irrevocable bid or guarantee. The dark townscape was the center of a contentious 5-party bidding war that seemed to go on forever… though it was only about 6 minutes. In the end, the hammer fell at $21.5M, or roughly $24.6M with premium (est. $12-18M).

Rounding out the top three was one of three major Kandinsky’s, and interestingly it carried the lowest estimate of the trio (there were also two other “minor” works by the artist – est. $3-5M and $400-600K).



This work is part of a series of paintings which all bear the name Improvisation in the title… the series is regarded as ground-breaking in the artist’s career and are thought to be his most important experimental works, in which his “development and mastery of Abstraction is fully evident.” This particular work, Improvisation auf Mahagoni, was expected to bring $15-20M and hammered at $21.2M ($24.2M w/p). The other two major works by the artist that were featured in the sale (not part of the same Improvisation series) had estimates of $22-35M and $18-25M, and sold for $22.8M and $20.6M respectively. All three works were guaranteed prior to the start of the sale.



There were a couple of particularly noteworthy appearances… Nazi-looted works by Oskar Kokoschka and Ernst Kirchner made their way to the block. Both were originally owned by Jewish collector and dealer Alfred Flechtheim and were seized in 1933… earlier this year, the Kokoschka was restituted to Flechtheim’s heirs by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Last night, it topped it’s $15-20M estimate as it sold for $20.4M! The Kirchner did even better, as it found a buyer at $21.9M (est. $15-20M)!


Marsden Hartley

Aside from that, there was not much else to write about… oh, besides the failures (and underwhelmers). The expected star of the evening failed… hard… it was expected to bring “in excess of $30M” but did not see much action. They opened bidding on Marsden Hartley’s Pre-War Pageant at $20M but they were only able to garner bids up to $24M… and it was almost painful. The auctioneer was coaxing bids from the floor, to no avail… it was a costly mistake for Sotheby’s as they offered an in-house guarantee on the lot. Just for clarity, there are two types of guarantees… there are in-house guarantees, where the auction house themselves guarantee the selling price, and there are third-party guarantees where the auction house secures a selling price from a private individual prior to the sale… when a work does not sell at auction, the guarantor is obligated to buy the work at the pre-arranged price. So, in this case, Sotheby’s is going to be forking over somewhere around $25-30M to the seller and now the private sales team at Sotheby’s has some new inventory to get rid of.

munnings (1)


Other notable lots (for the wrong reason), included works by Vlaminck (hammered at $6.5M on a $9-14M estimate), Jawlensky (hammered at $5.2M on a $6-8M estimate), Miro (hammered at $6.2M on a $7-10 estimate… also, from the looks of it, Donald Trump could have been the muse), Matisse (hammered at $3.5 on a $4-6M estimate), and Monet (hammered at $3M on a $3.5-4.5M estimate). Additionally, works by Kirchner (est. $6-8M), Kandinsky (est. $3-5M), Munnings ($1.5-2.5M), Diego Rivera (est. $800k-1.2M), Miro ($6.5-8M) and Sisley (est. $1.5-2M) failed to find buyers. To be honest, it seemed as if the air left the room after lot 50 – 10 of the final 16 lots failed to sell and 4 of them went below the estimate! Not a good way to close out an evening sale.

When the dust settled, 49 of the 65 works were sold (roughly 75%) and they took in just over $315M… expectations heading in were in the range of $284-393M so they got their number, but only with the help of the premiums added in. Without the premiums, the sale only garnered $269.7M… the reason I bring this up is that the difference between those numbers is where Sotheby’s makes its money – in this case roughly $45 million… but they’re still on the hook for the Harley, and that is going to take one big chunk out of their bottom line on this sale.

Wahoo… no sales tonight!