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Sotheby’s Modern Online Sale

May 6, 2022
A still-life of apples on a table by the French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir sold at Sotheby's

Composition, Pommes by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

Sotheby’s modern and impressionist online auction on Wednesday, May 4th, may not have had any multimillion-dollar lots, but it was nonetheless a great sale for Sotheby’s. It garnered a good bit of attention, likely because many of the featured works were once in the collection of Marina Picasso. The modern master’s granddaughter is one of the five members of the Picasso Administration, the organization that oversees the artist’s estate. I’ve previously written about Marina Picasso when she and her son Florian unsuccessfully attempted to mint NFTs based on Picasso ceramics they own.

The painting Nausicaa by Maurice Denis showing a scene from the Odyssey

Nausicaa by Maurice Denis

The modern and impressionist department specialists accurately predicted two of the top three lots: Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1898 work Composition, Pommes is just a simple still-life of apples on a countertop. It was estimated to go for anywhere between £150K and £200K, selling for £160K / $199.8K (or £259.7K / $324.3K w/p). The lot directly following the Renoir was Maurice Denis’s oil on canvas work entitled Nausicaa. While some may know the title from the 1984 Hayao Miyazaki film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, it originates in classical mythology. The painting by Denis shows a scene from the Odyssey, where Odysseus washes up on the beaches of Phaeacia after surviving a shipwreck. He wanders through the woods naked until he stumbles upon Nausicaa and her servants washing clothes. Following this scene, Nausicaa gives Odysseus some clothes to wear so he can come with her to her parents and retell the story of his journey home thus far. Denis’s treatment of the scene was estimated to go for £80K to £120K. In the end, I think both the work’s size (41 x 55 inches) and the familiarity of the subject caused it to exceed the specialists’ expectations and reach £160K / $199.8K (or £201.6K / $251.7K w/p).

A 1920 landscape of Algiers by Albert Marquet sold at Sotheby's

Environs d’Alger by Albert Marquet

The third-place lot was a bit of a surprise since it was only thought to fetch £20K to £30K. Albert Marquet’s Environs d’Alger is a landscape from 1920 showing the city of Algiers. While you can only make out a few of the buildings in the distance, the foreground is colored with many shades of green from the hillside vegetation. The line where the city meets a Mediterranean bay is also rather distinct. While not expected to get anywhere near the top three, Marquet’s landscape reached £120K / $149.8K (or £151.2K / $188.8K w/p). The one lot that Sotheby’s specialists misjudged was Odilon Redon’s painting Ophélie, which was set to bring in just as much as the Renoir but was unfortunately passed over and went unsold.

A portrait entitled Ophélie by Odilon Redon sold at Sotheby's

Ophélie by Odilon Redon

But Sotheby’s may have missed the mark when predicting how much some would spend on the sale’s Picasso ink-on-paper drawings. According to Sotheby’s provenance information, both his Étude de personnages and Étude de tête were created in the 1920s and were “unlawfully removed” from Picasso’s studio. While my first thought was that the drawings had been looted during the Second World War, it’s more likely that a visitor or an assistant stole the pictures. This would have been especially easy for Étude de tête since it only measures 4¼ x 3¾ inches. Though estimated to go for only £800 and £1K, respectively, the name recognition Picasso has decades after his death resulted in several bidding wars over the drawings. Étude de tête sold for seven-and-a-half times its estimate at £15K / $18.7K (or £18.9K / $23.6K w/p). Meanwhile, Étude de personnages did even better when it destroyed the specialists’ predictions and sold for £11K / $13.7K (or £13.86K / $17.3K w/p), close to fourteen times its estimate.

Of the one hundred forty-six available lots, 45% sold above estimate, while an additional 38% sold within estimate. Only seven lots sold below estimate, and eighteen went unsold. Prior to the sale, Sotheby’s experts predicted the whole auction would bring in anywhere between £2.44M and £3.55M. So it’s safe to say that everyone was satisfied after the last lot sold and the total tallied up to £3.42M (or $4.28M). It shows that even the low-to-mid end of the modern and impressionist market is still strong.