This week we saw the big boys host their major semi-annual offerings in New York… that is, Sotheby’s and Christie’s Impressionist & Modern and Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sales. The presale buzz put a bit of a damper on expectations this week – many outlets were quick to point out that overall estimates (including Phillips’ sales) were down 24% from last year’s series, and not a single lot is projected to top the $50M mark… you may remember a couple of years ago they included the da Vinici that sold for $450M, and last year a Hockney set a record for a living artist at $90M! So, we’re coming off a few years where there were some rather spectacular results… and being relatively fresh in our minds, it’s easy to understand why the media wasn’t exactly in a frenzy in the leadup to it all this year.
With that, let’s get into the first sale of the week – Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale… The top lot of the night went to Magritte’s Le Seize Septembre – hammering at $17M ($19.5M w/p) though it only came in with the 4th highest estimate of the sale of $7-10M. It was one of the more unexpected results seen on the evening though there were a few others that performed better based on their estimates. To that, it was the number two lot of the evening that had the best showing and it’s definitely an interesting one… Futurist sculptor Umberto Boccioni’s Forme uniche della continuta nello spazio found a buyer at $14M hammer ($16.1M w/p), but what I find so fascinating about this particular work is that while it was conceived in 1913, the bronze was not cast until 1972… more than 50 years after the artist’s death. And on top of that, it was fabricated from another bronze, not even the original plaster cast – so what are you actually paying for?? Other examples of the bronze exist, mostly found in prominent collections like MoMA, the Met and the Tate… that said, the first were not made until 1931, or 15 years after the artist’s death, so he never even witnessed this work in bronze himself. As I mentioned, this was the top-performing lot given the $3.8-4.5M estimate, achieving more than 250% above the estimate, but for the life of me, I cannot understand why. Rounding out the top three was Picasso’s Femme dans un fauteuil, which was one of the few lots to brandish an estimate in excess of $10M… they were expecting between $12-18M, but it actually hammered just short of that at $11.5M ($13.3M w/p). It last sold in May of 2000 for just $3.3M so the seller still made a nice chunk of change.
There were a handful of other lots that had nice showings including works by Pissaro at $8.8M hammer (Est. $4-6M/47% above estimate); Matisse at $4.4M hammer (Est. 2-3M/47% above estimate); Lempicka at $4.4M hammer (Est. $2-3M/47% above estimate); and Dali at $2.2M hammer (est. $600-900K/144% above estimate). While there were obviously quite a few lots that made higher prices, they weren’t overachievers… of the remaining top 10, just three others hammered in their estimate range with four hammering below their estimate.
As always, there were a few unsold lots but nothing sizeable… 6 works failed to find a buyer; a Chagall with a $2.5-3.5M estimate and a Gauguin, also with a $2.5-3.5M estimate, were the most substantial of the bunch. Curiously, a Leger was pulled just prior to the sale which removed a potential $8-12M from the sale… then again, perhaps there was little interest and it simply would have been a major blemish on the night.
When the sale wrapped, they had sold 52 lots for a total of $191.9M… that’s on a pre-sale estimate of $148.3-203.1, so not terrible, but when you consider those buyer’s premiums they only achieved a total hammer of $164.7M – a far more “middle of the road” number and one that more accurately reflects the state of the market. The low end of Christie’s estimate was 51% lower than 2018’s sale which generated $279.3M on an equal 52 lots… would this be a bad time to mention that the 2018 total was down 42% from 2017? The material coming to the market and the prices being paid are just not what they were a few short years ago.