Market Review: The Fall 2015 Sotheby’s and Christie’s Auctions, New York

Two significant sales formed the backdrop of the November sales this year: the Taubman collection at Sotheby’s and Christie’s curated sale entitled ‘The Artist’s Muse’. Overall it was a sensational couple of weeks – the figures are quite extraordinary – 2.2 Billion Dollar’s worth of art changed hands over the period. The Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art market is thriving, even after the slowdown that encompassed most luxury markets following the reports of a slowing economy in China.

 

Yet the sales seemed a little flat in some areas, notably the top end where the two houses had guaranteed and pre-sold many of their consignments. With the current auction model being warped by the top houses there is a feel of the auctions themselves becoming an overly theatrical playhouse of the ultra wealthy. The real sales, where the buying needs to be done, is in the Day Sales, both of which saw great bidding and competition for the top lots.

 

Of the highlights in the Taubman sale only a few really surprised the trade. Modigliani’s Paulette (Lot 12T) was a precursor to the nude at Christie’s and the price was astronomical for a pretty but unremarkable painting, which made 42m USD. The Jeanne Hebuterne portraits, two of which have been up recently, are certainly more elegant. The Edgar Degas, Danseuses en blanc, (lot 32T) that was bought from Richard Feigen in the 1980s was a good picture but failed to raise the roof and squeaked by at 17m USD, whether to the guarantee (a fake bid from the auction house bidding up to the level of the pre-sale agreement) or a genuine bidder we will not know.

 

At the traditional Impressionist and Modern Evening sale, taken majestically by Henry Wyndham, the top lots were far more interesting. A superb early Blue Period Picasso (lot 26) made over 60m USD but sadly the Van Gogh landscape (lot 14) was sold for ‘only’ 50m USD; something of a surprise given the heavy bidding, to 70m USD, in May for an Alyscamps painting of lesser quality.

 

Over at Christie’s on 9th November we saw the fireworks of their specially curated sale of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art all-in-one sale spectacular. The Modigliani, Femme couché, was their centrepiece and quite rightly so. The painting covered every inch of their marketing campaign. But no one could have foreseen a price of 170m USD – nearly toppling the Picasso, Femme d’Algers, in May that made 179m USD. The painting was rare, genuine, and very sexy indeed. The buyer, Mr Liu, I spotted at the Evening sale on Thursday night – he looked very happy with his conquest. He is a lucky man indeed ventolin tablets 2 mg. Other highlights at the sale were a good Lichtenstein, Nurse (lot 13a; 85m USD, whose prices do not stand to reason) and a remarkable Toulouse-Lautrec, Au Lit, (lot 16a) from 1892 that made 11m USD but deserved substantially more.

 

The Christie’s Impressionist & Modern Evening sale was a subdued affair. The room was only half full and the buzz of their Curated sale was clearly absent. That said, the prices held up well. A lovely Magritte (lot 22c) from his best period, the late 1930s, made 6.6m USD and my favourite item of the evening, the Matisse estompe charcoal drawing (lot 1c) fetched nearly 4m USD. The result overall was 145m USD. In a normal market this would have been a phenomenal figure but in these heady times it seemed mediocre. Given the guarantees and irrevocable bid ‘games’ being played by the top two houses we don’t actually know how well they fared in reality.

 

Over in the Day sales both auctions made over 50m USD and much of the bidding was frenzied for top items. That said, at the middle-range I had the feeling that some of the life was coming back. Late Vlaminck did well, as did a host of very average Chagalls. My gut feeling was that it is in the Day sales that the value can be had. A great example is the cover lot, a Metzinger (lot 1204) from the mid 1910s that made 845,000 USD including premium: a superb painting for the price.

 

Much will be made of these sales in the coming months. I think this should be the end of the Curated sale format which ostracises consignors to the traditional evening sales; watering down an ever more diluted pool of quality in this field. The next big event is Basel Miami and Art Miami – both of which stand to be full to the brim of private consignments. As I always write in conclusion: use an advisor at the highest level and buy for pleasure as much as investment.

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