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Bigger isn’t always better – Christie’s Impressionist & Modern – London

March 19, 2019

On February 27th, Christie’s hosted a trio of evening sales in succession… they then decided to turn around and give the results as if it was a single sale… I genuinely cannot explain the warped minds behind their press department – for the sake of clarity, get it together guys.

Cezanne

The reported top three lots were split across the set, with one coming from each of the three sales… the overall top lot, coming out of the Hidden Treasures sale, was Cezanne’s nature morte de peches et poires at £21.2M ($28M – Est. £19-27M*). The Hidden Treasures sale offered 21 lots from an important private collection (believed to be brothers and art collectors, Monte and Neil Wallace) – much of the work was purchased privately and had been unseen by the public for decades. Unfortunately, this segment of the sale seemed to be stymied by supposed “selective bidding,” but it was more likely the ambitious estimates that many of the works carried. Just 12 of the 21 lots offered in the Hidden Treasures sale found buyers, with another two – a Bonnard and Matisse – being withdrawn just prior. Not including those two lots, Christie’s had expected to bring between £97.7-126.1M and they totaled a paltry £50.5M… and that figure includes the premiums! It’s worth noting that the vast majority of that “miss” could theoretically be attributed to just one lot… the cover-piece, the star of the show, Monet’s large Saule pleureur et basin aux nympheas (dated 1916-1919), awkwardly failed to attract a single bid… the silence was deafening as the expected £40+ M lot passed.

*Side Note* During my research I uncovered that pre-sale, Christie’s was quoting the Cezanne estimate at £20+ M (Estimate on request in catalog) … the lot ended up hammering at £18.5M… then, surprise surprise, Christie’s dropped the published estimate on the results page to £19-27M.

Signac

The number two lot on the evening, coming out of the Impressionist & Modern Sale, was Signac’s Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint-Tropez) at £19.5M ($25.8M – Est. £13-18M). The work came out of the private collection of Canadian cable TV entrepreneur David Graham, who passed away in 2017… in total, 6 works by Signac, Caillebotte, Vallotton, Vuillard and Boldini were sold from Graham’s estate in this sale. The £19.5M paid was good for a new auction record for the artist… interestingly, the buyer(s), described as a mysterious man and woman, were bidding with two different paddles throughout the sale… they were unknown individuals to the other dealers present in the room but the duo went on to scoop up some of the best material on the block. In addition to the Signac, the couple also went home with the number 4 lot on the evening – Gustave Caillebotte’s Chemin montant, which sold for £16.6M ($22M – Est. £8.5-10M) and set a new auction record for the artist; along with the number 5 lot on the evening – Renoir’s Sentier dans le bois which went for £12.6M ($16.8M – Est. £7.5-10.5M)… in total accounting for nearly £40M or one-quarter of the entire evening sale total!

Magritte

Rounding out the top three and our series of sales, was Magritte’s Le lieu commun, hailing from the Art of the Surreal sale. Coming in with a £15-25M estimate, the work found a buyer at £18.3M ($24.3M) … this canvas, consigned by an Asian collector, had never appeared at auction and is just one of a handful of large, hyper-realistically painted men in bowler-hats that still remains in private hands. There were 6 additional works by Magritte and all of them sold… one in particular, Le Pain Quotideien, was recently restituted when it was discovered at the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas – the work was stolen off the stretcher bars in 1968 from Brussels-based collector Jan Van Haelen. Now, more than a half a century later, the canvas was finally reunited with its original stretcher as the Van Haelen heirs offered it up with a £2-3M estimate, eventually selling for £3.3M. The Art of the Surreal was by far and away the best performing segment of the three… just two works failed to sell of the 33 (94% sold) on the block, and the total take was £36.8M on a £32.2-46.5M estimate.

At the end of the evening, the results were uninspiring, to say the least… that’s not how we should be describing evening sales. Christie’s saw an 82% sell through rate and a sales total of £140.8M – a miserable figure when you realize they went into the evening with a £182-245M… but that didn’t stop Christie’s from boasting how this was the “second highest total for a Christie’s Impressionist and Modern sale in London.” Let’s be real… if you put enough material out there, it’s a sure-fire way of hitting record totals, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was a strong sale.

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