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Christie’s NY 20th Century Evening Sale

November 17, 2023
A large impressionist painting of waterlilies on a blue and green pond.

Le bassin aux nymphéas by Claude Monet

The Emily Fisher Landau collection sold that at Sotheby’s on Wednesday, November 8th, was a tough act to follow. Upon its conclusion, it became the most expensive sale of the year, featuring some of the most valuable lots sold at auction in 2023. However, Christie’s did not disappoint anyone during its 20th Century evening sale the following day. Held at its Rockefeller Center location in New York, the auction consisted of sixty-three lots by Impressionist and post-Impressionist masters like Cézanne and Pissarro, as well as more modern Masters like Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Joan Mitchell, and Pablo Picasso. Expected by Christie’s experts to take the top spot was the Monet water lilies painting Le bassin aux nymphéas. As I noted in a previous article about how disabilities and illnesses have shaped the work of great artists, Monet was losing his vision due to cataracts when he started to create the Water Lilies. Painted between 1917 and 1919, Le bassin aux nymphéas still has vibrant hints of blue and green, which the artist had difficulty distinguishing the worse his eyesight got. Though the signature is stamped, the subject and the size of the work, about 39.5 by 79 inches, might have been enough to justify a $65 million pre-sale estimate. The bidding started at $52 million and jumped to $60 million within five seconds. Once it reached $64 million, it became clear that the other bidders were no longer interested. Jussi Pylkkänen brought the hammer down after only one minute and nineteen seconds of bidding at $64 million (or $74 million w/p), making it the third most valuable work sold at auction this year.

An abstract work of a nude figure kneeling upon an orange circle in an invisible box.

Figure in Movement by Francis Bacon

A few works had their pre-sale estimate ranges withheld, indicating that Christie’s only gives out their estimates on request. Four of these five lots, including the Monet, took the top spots on Thursday. Of course, they likely earned those spots because of third-party guarantees, but regardless. Beside the Monet, there was an incredibly large 1976 painting by Francis Bacon. Figure in Movement, measuring 78 by 54 inches, is one of the large-scale works executed between 1971 and 1976 created in the wake of the death of Bacon’s partner, George Dyer. The art critic David Sylvester referred to Figure in Movement as Bacon’s greatest single-canvas work created during this time. The painting has been exhibited at the Tate Gallery in London, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, and the Fondation Beyeler in Basel. Bidding opened at $35 million, quickly jumping up to $40 million. After a full minute of ensuring everyone was all done, the hammer came down at $45 million (or $52.2 million w/p). Finally, the two lots sharing third place were two large mid-century American paintings. The California artist Richard Diebenkorn created Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad after being invited to visit the Soviet city. Though already familiar with the work of Henri Matisse, Diebenkorn viewed collections of Matisse paintings while staying in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), which seemed to have rubbed off on him since Recollections seems incredibly familiar to the brightly-colored interior scenes Matisse painted like Window at Tangier and Large Red Interior. Recollections is often seen as a direct predecessor of Diebenkorn’s later Ocean Park series. Speaking of Matisse, the French master’s colorful interiors inspired not only Diebenkorn but also the genre of color field painting, of which Mark Rothko was the most notable artist. One Rothko work also featured at Christie’s, Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), had sold only once at auction before the sale on Thursday. The last time was at Sotheby’s New York in November 2014, when it sold for $32.5 million hammer. Both the Diebenkorn and the Rothko each sold for $40 million (or $46.4 million w/p). With an initial pre-sale estimate of around $45 million, the Rothko did slightly less than expected but still rather well. The Diebenkorn, however, far exceeded its original $25 million estimate. The Bacon, the Diebenkorn, and the Rothko are now in the fifth, sixth, and seventh spots in the most valuable works of art sold at auction in 2023.

A colorful, Fauvist-inspired interior scene with different shades of blue and a floral decorative pattern on the wall. The view outside the window takes up a third of the painting on the left.

Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad by Richard Diebenkorn

Like the Sotheby’s Emily Fisher Landau sale, auctions with totals that climb into the hundreds of millions of dollars seldom have any major surprises. However, a couple of lots offered at Christie’s that evening were over the top. The most surprising of these lots was the work immediately following the Diebenkorn; Egon Schiele’s Ich Liebe Gegensätze (a gouache, watercolor, and pencil on paper). It is one of several works previously owned by Fritz Grünbaum, an Austrian Jewish actor and singer who had his art collection confiscated by the Nazis before dying at Dachau. Christie’s auctioned two other Schiele works Grünbaum previously owned in this sale and three others in the Impressionist & Modern Works on Paper sale the following Saturday. All were returned to Grünbaum’s descendants earlier this year. The Manhattan district attorney’s office confiscated several other pieces from Grünbaum’s collection from several major museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museums, and the Alan Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College, Ohio. Meaning ‘I Love Antithesis’, Ich Liebe Gegensätze was created on a 19 by 12 1/2 piece of paper in April 1912. It is part of a series of self-portraits Schiele created when he was arrested and thrown in jail for 24 days on suspicion of corrupting a minor. In actuality, Schiele had invited some neighbors and their children to sit for him so he could create portraits and other drawings. His neighbors were not enthused by the other works around his studio, which they deemed pornographic. Ich Liebe Gegensätze was the most highly-valued of the three Schiele works from the Grünbaum collection, offered with an estimated range of $1.5 million to $2.5 million. Christie’s gave the others $1 million to $2 million estimates. Those works slightly exceeded their estimates, while Ich Liebe Gegensätze went above and beyond, achieving $9.2 million (or $10.99 million w/p), about 3.7 times its original high estimate.

A large color field painting by Mark Rothko mainly of orange with yellow stripes in the middle.

Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) by Mark Rothko

The Landau Collection sold at Sotheby’s on Wednesday was tough to follow, yet Christie’s managed it. All sixty-three lots sold, with fifteen selling within their estimates, giving Christie’s specialist a 24% accuracy rate. Eighteen (29%) sold above estimate, while the remaining thirty (48%) sold below. Against a pre-sale total estimate range of $515.2 million and $660.4 million, the 20th Century evening sale brought in $554.6 million, making it the highest-grossing sale yet this year. Five lots from this single sale now comprise half of the top ten most valuable lots sold at auction in 2023. Other than the top lots mentioned above, the Picasso painting Femme endormie sold for $37 million (or $42.9 million w/p), placing it in the number nine spot right above Magritte’s L’Émpire des lumières sold in May, but just below Kandinsky’s Murnau mit Kirche II sold in March.