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Sotheby’s London Modern Discoveries

October 20, 2023
An early landscape painting by Pablo Picasso

Montaignes près de Malaga by Pablo Picasso

On Tuesday, October 17th, Sotheby’s London hosted its Modern Discoveries sale, featuring over a hundred works by mainly twentieth-century artists, including Lucien Pissarro, André Brasilier, and Salvador Dalí. The sale started rather poorly, with some portraits by Suzanne Fabry bringing in far less than expected. However, things went swimmingly once the bidders and the auctioneer found their footing. Specialists expected nothing to sell for more than £200K, but those expectations were quickly shattered within the first eleven lots. An early oil landscape by Pablo Picasso quickly got some people’s attention. Created in 1897, when the artist was only sixteen, the landscape is entitled Montaignes près de Malaga and is one of Picasso’s earliest known works. It may not be as abstract as the paintings that made him famous, but it offers a glimpse into the creative mind of a young artist. The work shows a clear influence from the impressionist painting and other avant-garde works that Picasso was exposed to while his family lived in Barcelona for a period of time. Sotheby’s specialists predicted the landscape to be one of the sale’s top lots. And while it certainly did achieve that, I think few were expecting it to go so far beyond its predicted estimate. Expected to sell for no more than £150K, Montaignes près de Malaga eventually sold for £750K / $913.9K (or £952.5K / $1.16M w/p), or five times the high estimate.

A portrait of a boy in grey, yellow, and green by Pablo Picasso

Tête de garçon by Pablo Picasso

Another Picasso work made its way into the top three lots. Obviously, this one comes from far later in his career than the landscape. Like some other works, Picasso gave this one a very specific date for its creation: December 15, 1964. Tête de garçon is a portrait made from crayon, charcoal, and gouache on paper that, though relatively small, was predicted to sell for anywhere between £60K and £80K. The hammer eventually came down at £140K / $170.6K (or £177.8K / $216.6K w/p). With the same hammer price, the painting Sotheby’s specialist predicted to take the top spot ended up coming in third. The untitled oil painting was created by the German artist Rudolf Bauer in 1920. Bauer became associated with the German avant-garde art magazine Der Sturm during the interwar period, featuring work by Franz Marc, Oskar Kokoschka, and Sonia Delaunay. The painting offered at Sotheby’s has a color palette that shows Bauer’s roots in expressionism, yet its abstraction hints at the influence of Bauer’s colleague Wassily Kandinsky.

An abstract work of pale blue, purple, and red forms by the German painter Rudolf Bauer

Untitled by Rudolf Bauer

Eighteen lots, or about 16% of the total, consisted of Picasso’s works. Only three were not ceramics, including the landscape and portrait mentioned above. The third ended up being the other big surprise of the sale. The 7 ¼-by-4 ½-inch piece of paper has drawings on both sides, entitled Tête d’homme barbu and Nu assis de dos. What makes the two even more interesting is that they appear to have been created on two sides of a page removed from a book. On one, a close-up portrait of a bearded man, and on the other, a seated nude from behind, placed underneath the text from whatever book Picasso took the paper from. Thought to sell for no more than £12K, the double-sided Picasso drawing sold for £50K / $60.9K (or £63.5K / $77.4K w/p).

Of the one hundred-eight available lots, forty-three sold within their estimates, giving Sotheby’s specialists a 40% accuracy rate. Twenty-five lots (23%) sold below estimate, while eleven (10%) sold above. In total, twenty-nine lots (27%) failed to sell at all. Against a pre-sale total estimate range of between £2,125,000 and £3,035,000, Sotheby’s Modern Discoveries sale fell in-between at £2,395,000 / $2,918,500.