February was a busy month for us, bouncing from fair to fair, and it was also a busy month in the auction arena, so we’re going to play a bit of catch-up. Over in London, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s hosted Impressionist, Modern & Surrealist sales as well as Post-War & Contemporary sales.
Let’s first take a look at the Impressionist, Modern & Surrealist markets – and keep in mind this is the first set of sales after Brexit became official. The top lot at Sotheby’s Evening sale, a title usually reserved for a gaudy price, achieved just £13.2M ($17.2M) on a £8-12M ($10.3-15.5M) estimate… comparatively speaking, last year’s top lot was a Monet that pushed £30M. This time around we are talking about Pissarro’s Gelée blanche, jeune paysanne faisant du feu which went into the sale sporting the highest estimate a work by Pissarro has seen at auction (and it achieved the second highest price by the artist). Just behind in second, was a marine work by Paul Signac, which found a buyer at £7.6M ($9.9M) on a £3-5M ($6.5 – 9.1M) estimate. Both this work and the Pissarro were looted by the Nazis from Jewish collector Gaston Levy. Rounding out the top three was a bit of a surprise, a work by Franz Marc – it found a buyer at £4M ($5.2M) on a £1-1.5 estimate. When the sale closed, 29 of the 33 works sold for a total of £49.9M ($64.8M – est. £41.8-59.6); while that is a solid number with respect to the estimate, that figure represents a decline of 36.7% from last year’s sale… and last year’s sale was down 35.5% from the year prior – not a good trend.
The following night, Christie’s held two individual sales… The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale and the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale. Similarly, the night was void of a mega lot… last year they watched a Monet waterlily painting fail on a £40M estimate, but this time around they didn’t even have the opportunity at a major failure. The top lot between the two came from the Surreal offerings – Magritte’s A la rencontre du plaisir achieved £18.9M (est. £8-12M). In total, 7 Magritte paintings were offered in the Surreal sale, which accounted for 75% of the sale total. Just behind in second was Tamara de Lempicka’s Portrait de Marjorie Ferry, which sparked a small bidding war seeing the price climb to £16.3M and setting a new auction record for the artist. The same work sold back in 1995 for just $552K, and then again in 2009 for $4.9M – a pretty solid return for the seller both times! Rounding out the top three was a smallish Giacometti from 1950 – the work sold for £11.3M (est. £8-12M), which was only a modest gain for the seller. This same piece sold back in 2008, above its then estimate, for £9.4M. At the end of the night, Christie’s failed to find buyers for just 8 works, which works out to 84% sold. The sold works totaled £106.8M ($138.8M) – a considerably higher total than their counterpart, though Christie’s suffered a similar fate when comparing previous year’s sales… in 2019, this same sale achieved £165.6M ($220.2M), so this year’s sale saw a decline of roughly 35%.
The main issue here seems to be sourcing material for the sales… if collectors are not willing to part with their prized possessions, the auction houses can’t offer them, and in turn the bottom line suffers – it is not as much a statement on the strength of the market, as when nice examples are offered, they make excellent prices… this more so seems to be a result of economic uncertainty and an unwillingness on collectors part to risk consigning their top works in a time of great volatility.