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Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary Evening Sale

March 7, 2023

An abstract work of a town surrounded by green hills. In the foreground, the white spire of a church rises up into a blue and red sky.

Murnau with Church II by Wassily Kandinsky

On Wednesday March 1st, Sotheby’s London hosted a modern and contemporary evening sale featuring thirty-six works from Picasso, Pissarro, and Vlaminck to Warhol, Haring, and Hirst. It was a relatively short affair, barely lasting more than an hour (w/p = with buyer’s premium). The star of the sale was a work that had been on people's minds for months leading up to the auction. I previously wrote about it back in November, when the Dutch government returned the work to a family who was forced to sell the painting during the Holocaust. Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau with Church II, created in 1910, is one of the earliest works by the Russian artist on his road toward the abstraction he was later known for. The painting was in the collection of Johanna Margarethe Stern-Lippman, a Dutch Jewish collector who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944. This decision came after the family submitted new evidence to the restitutions commission of the Netherlands, including a postcard featuring an image of the painting. Although Murnau with Church II fell short of its £37M low estimate, it still came out at the top of the sale by a long way when the hammer came down at £33M / $39.6M (or £37.2M / $44.6M w/p).

A large abstract work of many colors painted and splatter onto two conjoined canvases

Abstraktes Bild by Gerhard Richter

Coming in second, Gerhard Richter’s 1986 work Abstraktes Bild is an incredibly large abstract painting made of two conjoined canvases, measuring over 8½ by 13 feet. It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2007 for $9.79M w/p. This time, the painting did much better, slightly exceeding its estimate range and reaching £20.8M / $24.9M (or £24.2M / $29M w/p). Finally, in third was Pablo Picasso’s Fillette au bateau, Maya. The work has an impressive provenance, having been acquired by the Swiss art dealer Thomas Ammann in 1991 before making its way to New York’s Gagosian Gallery and then to the collection of fashion designer Gianni Versace. Versace consigned the painting at Sotheby’s London in 1999, where it was purchased for £3.7M w/p by the collector who consigned it for Wednesday’s sale. The work is a portrait of Picasso’s daughter Maya, who was around three years old when it was created in 1938. It is one of about fourteen portraits Picasso created of his daughter around this time. Estimated to sell for at least £12M, several bidders brought the hammer price further up into its estimate range at £15.5M / $18.6M (or £18.09M / $21.7M w/p).

An abstract portrait of a young girl holding a toy boat.

Fillette au bateau, Maya by Pablo Picasso

While it didn’t make the top three, there was one lot featured in Wednesday’s sale that, similar to the Kandinsky, has an incredibly fascinating story, and it also involves Nazis. Dans på stranden, or Dance on the Beach, is a long, 35.4-by-158.5-inch tempera on canvas by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. It was originally commissioned by the director Max Reinhardt, who ask Munch to create several friezes to decorate the entrance room of his Kammerspiele theater in Berlin. However, the painting did not hang there for very long. The theater was refurbished, and the paintings were sold to various collectors and galleries. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Edvard Munch and many other modern artists had all of their work labeled degenerate by the German government, and many museums were forced to deaccession their work. This included works by Chagall, Ernst, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Klee, and other artists associated with Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, and Bauhaus, among other modernist movements. Munch’s friend Thomas Olsen acquired much of his work in the 1930s as Germany’s museums were ridding themselves of “degenerate” art, thereby saving many of his paintings from eventual destruction or appropriation. Dance on the Beach has remained in the Olsen family collection ever since and sold at Sotheby’s for £14.5M / $17.4M (or £16.9M / $20.3M w/p), falling nicely within its £12M to £20M estimate range.

Of the thirty-five available lots, fourteen sold within estimate, giving Sotheby’s specialists a 40% accuracy rate. Another eight lots (23%) sold below estimate, seven lots (20%) sold above, and six lots (17%) went unsold. The entire sale made £137.18M / $164.6M, barely climbing past its presale total low estimate of £133.6M. The sale would have fared far better had some lots, like an untitled enamel on aluminum work by Christopher Wool, estimated to sell for at least £2.5M, attracted more attention and met their reserves.