Last Thursday, April 21st, Sotheby’s held their Impressionist and Modern art sale at their showroom in Paris, with some more than satisfactory results. Sotheby’s specialists were very good at predicting the top lots, with Pablo Picasso’s Nus masculins (Les trois âges de l’homme) taking the top spot in terms of both the pre-sale estimates and the hammer prices. A moderately-sized oil on canvas work from 1942, it shows three nude male figures meant to represent, as the title suggests, the three ages of a man: an adolescent playing some sort of flute, a bearded young man with a horned mask, and a heavyset older man laying on the floor. Specialists estimated it would sell for €2.5M to €3.2M, selling just beyond at €3.4M / $3.68M (or €4.14M / $4.48M w/p).
The specialists were similarly accurate about some of the other top lots. Francis Picabia’s painting entitled Tarin was also highly-valued, being a brilliant arrangement of human outlines among a group of siskin birds on leafy branches. The work is very typical of Picabia’s work in the late 1920s. Having previously experimented with cubism and Dada, Picabia was moving into surrealism during this time, marked by the figure outlines over top of simple still-lifes or portraits. Tarin was estimated to sell for anywhere between €1.9M and €2.4M, selling on the higher end at €2.35M / $2.55M (or €2.88M / $3.12M w/p).
Sotheby’s experts originally expected Marc Chagall’s 1974 oil-and-ink work Le Clown multicolore to reach third place, giving it a €1.6M to €2M estimate. While it did reach €1.35M / $1.46M (or €1.6685M / $1.8M w/p), it was surpassed by €50K by one of the other Picasso works on sale. Tête D’Homme, a small portrait from 1965, hit its low estimate when it sold for €1.4M / $1.52M (or €1.73M / $1.87M w/p). The 1939 still-life Vase de fleurs au coquelicot, the third and final Picasso work at the sale, surprised everyone when the hammer came down at €820K / $885.6K (or €1.03M / $1.11 w/p), coming close to tripling the €300K high estimate. Speaking of surprises, the sale featured a string of Bernard Buffet works. Nearly all ten Buffet works either hit their estimates or exceeded them, with only one remaining unsold. One of them, an example from Buffet’s ink-on-paper series Le Bestiaire, caught my attention. A drawing of a gnarly-looking bulldog with dark eyes that was only estimated to sell for €20K maximum, sold for €55K / $59.3K (or €69.3K / $74.8K w/p). It only confirms my original hypothesis that I made following Bonhams’ 19th Century sale earlier this month: “similar to the Internet, if something has a couple of cute dogs, it’s bound to get more attention than expected.”
It was a very good day for Sotheby’s as 41% of the available lots sold above estimate, while only four lots (12%) went unsold. In the end, the total auction hammer price reached €15.34M, falling nicely within the original €12.79M to €17.23M presale estimate.