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Christie’s 20th Century Evening Sale

May 16, 2023

A primitivist landscape showing a riverbank populated by flamingoes and small, dark figures in the distance. Large pink and yellow flowers sprout from the river in the foreground, while the background contains a forest of palms.

Les Flamant by Henri Rousseau

Following the success of the Newhouse collection, Christie’s New York continued on Thursday evening with their 20th Century evening sale. This consisted of fifty-four lots from various collections, including that of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Christie's sold most of the prominent works from Allen’s collection last November in the most valuable single auction in history (w/p = with buyer's premium). But while several lots came from Allen’s collection, none were among the top three. At the top was the much anticipated Les Flamants by Henri Rousseau, the great French post-Impressionist and primitivist painter. The tropical landscape has an incredible provenance, once part of the collection of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, head of a prominent German Jewish banking family who had much of their art collection seized by the Nazis in the mid-1930s. However, this particular painting was part of the collection Paul’s widow Elsa saved when she fled to Switzerland. Knoedler & Co. bought it sometime in the 1940s before it entered the Whitney family. Joan Whitney Payson, who would later serve as president of the New York Mets in the 1960s and 1970s, purchased the work in 1949 and passed it on to her daughter Payne after her death in 1975. Being an art collector is not unusual for a member of the Whitney family. Joan’s aunt Gertrude was the founder and namesake of the Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan. Everyone knew Les Flamants would set Rousseau’s new auction record even before Thursday's sale. The painting received a $20M to $30M estimate range from Christie’s specialists, plus the lot was guaranteed. Rousseau’s previous auction record had been set almost thirty years ago at Christie’s London at a 1993 Impressionist and Modern sale, where Portrait de Joseph Brummer sold for $2.97M w/p. The bidding went on for eight whole minutes before Jussi Pylkkänen brought the hammer down at $37.5M (or $43.54M w/p).

A still life of a a plate of fruit and a vase atop a table, all next to a white feminine bust on a pedestal.

Nature morte à la fenêtre by Pablo Picasso

Next was Pablo Picasso’s Nature morte à la fenêtre, a 1932 still life from the collection of Jan Krugier. Krugier was a Polish-Swiss art dealer who was the first to stage an exhibition of Picasso’s works after he died in 1972. Also following his death, Picasso’s daughter Marina gave him exclusive rights as dealer of her collection of her father’s art. Nature morte à la fenêtre was created at the tail end of Picasso’s fixation on creating plaster busts of his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter. One of these is featured in the still life. After this, Picasso would go on to have a sort of annus mirabilis in 1932, according to some art historians, creating some of his most famous works, particularly his nude portraits of Walter like La Lecture, Le Repos, Jeune fille devant un miroir, and La Rêve. Having been predicted to sell for more than $40M by Christie’s specialists, the Picasso underperformed slightly, achieving a hammer price of $36M (or $41.8M w/p). And finally, something from a living artist, in third place was Ed Ruscha’s Burning Gas Station from the Alan and Dorothy Press collection. This work and five others from the same time show a Standard Oil gas station, which Ruscha would pass by during drives between his native Oklahoma and Los Angeles. Before finding its way into the Press collection, Burning Gas Station was previously owned by Larry Gagosian and the James Corcoran Gallery, from which the Presses purchased it. It eventually brought in $19M (or $22.26M w/p), just slightly below its initial $20M to $30M estimate, but nonetheless one of the sale’s top lots.

A Standard Oil gas station against a dark green background, with the left-hand side of the building on fire.

Burning Gas Station by Ed Ruscha

Though none of the pieces from the Paul Allen collection made it into the top three lots, all of them, regardless, did very well. There were seven paintings: three by O’Keeffe, three by Hockney, and one by Hopper. All of them sold above their estimates, with the biggest surprise being Georgia O’Keeffe’s Black Iris VI. It last sold at auction at Christie’s New York in 1998 as part of the collection of Jacob Gould Schumann III. It sold for $1M hammer back then, far below its $2M minimum estimate. Christie’s specialists this time around knew that the O’Keeffe would probably fetch a far higher price not only because of the time elapsed since the 1998 sale but because of it being from the famous Paul Allen collection. Christie’s specialists gave it an estimate range of $5M to $7M. When the time came, the O’Keeffe far surpassed expectations, achieving more than double the high estimate. Jussi Pylkkänen finally brought the hammer down at $18M (or $21.1M w/p). But the biggest surprise of the evening in general was a simple chalk and pencil drawing by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Au cirque: Éléphant en liberté shows a man in what looks like a matador’s costume forcing an elephant onto its hind legs. At the time, Toulouse-Lautrec was confined to a sanatorium outside Paris after suffering from alcohol abuse and syphilis. While there, he created about fifty drawings to prove his sanity to physicians. After his release, the artist allegedly declared, “I’ve bought my release with my drawings”. The circus scene was one of the cheaper lots available on Thursday, with an estimate range of $400K to $600K. Bid followed bid until, eventually, the hammer came down at $2.2M (or $2.7M w/p).

Overall, the sale did very well. Of the fifty-four available lots, sixteen sold within their estimates, giving Christie’s specialists a 30% accuracy rate. Ten lots (19%) sold below estimate, and eighteen lots (33%) sold above, giving the sale a sell-through rate of 81%. Expected to make at least $254.3M, Christie’s 20th Century evening sale brought in a total of $276.1M. When combined with the preceding Newhouse Collection sale, Christie’s brought in a total of $426.5M, or $506.57M w/p, in a single night.