There were originally some pieces featured in Bonhams Impressionist & Modern sale last Thursday that I was very excited to see go across the block. But while the auction started strong, the entire thing turned out ever so slightly disappointing. The first six lots in a row sold over their estimates and contained the sale’s biggest surprises. The biggest surprise and the lot with the top hammer price was Edvard Munch’s Figures by the Seine in Saint-Cloud. It was created in 1890, not long after the artist left Norway to live in Paris for a brief period. While not displaying much of his later Symbolist works’ bold colors and sense of dynamism, the painting more than doubled its £120K high-end estimate, reaching £310K / $404.7K (or £390.9K / $510.3K w/p).
Only a few moments after the Munch sold, the sale’s third-best hammer price went to Louis Anquetin’s Elégantes, scène de rue. The moderately-sized pastel and charcoal on paper drawing fell within its estimate when it sold for £130K / $169.7K (or £164.1K / $214.2K w/p). It’s a street scene closeup, focusing on a young, red-headed woman in an olive green dress. The work’s main subject comes as a relief to the viewer since the background characters include a cadaverous blonde woman with an umbrella and a voyeuristic, mustachioed man in a top hat passing by in a horse-drawn cab.
The only notable work that did exactly as expected was the gouache, watercolor, ink, and gold leaf on paper work entitled Maternité. It was created in 1957 by the Japanese-French artist Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita during his second stint in France in the 1950s. Though the piece is a take on a Madonna and Child, Foujita chose not to give the work that name. Instead, he removes the religious aspect with the simple title, meaning Motherhood. The only obvious sign of religious influence is the child, with their arm extended and two fingers raised, resembling the Christian sign of benediction. The more subtle reference to Western religious artwork is the use of gold as the background. While it is reminiscent of the bright, sometimes gold, scenes of traditional Japanese paintings and folding screens from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the gold recalls its use for halos and other magical, miraculous, or supernatural elements in Western religious art. Even though it only sold for £150K / $195.8K (or £189.3K / $247.1K w/p), just short of £180K minimum estimate given by Bonhams specialists, it still took second place at the sale.
While two-thirds of the lots either hit or exceeded their estimates, unfortunately the sale failed to fall within the £1.3M to £1.97M estimate. The entire auction fell short at £1.25M (or $1.64M), mainly because a few significant lots went unsold. The most highly-valued lot, the Joan Miró bronze and wood sculpture Tête et oiseau, did not even come close to its £300K to £500K pre-sale estimate. Meaning Head and bird, the work was conceived and created towards the end of Miró’s life. While created by one of the twentieth century’s greatest avant-garde artists, I could understand why it went unsold. The entire thing comes across as a combination of a ruined industrial monument and a deranged totem pole. The face on the work appears like a decaying, long-nosed clown mask hung up on a stick. Later on, buyers passed on the Édouard Vuillard painting Madame Jean Bloch et ses enfants estimated to go for £100K to £150K by Bonhams experts. Maybe it was the fact that Vuillard’s signature was stamped onto the canvas rather than properly signed that drove buyers away. Or perhaps some people might not want a family portrait of a family that is not their own. Who knows? But Bonhams may have overestimated the interest that modern art buyers would have in some of the selected works. Hopefully they’ll put a little more thought into it next time.