Review of Sotheby’s New York’s Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Evening Auctions, 28th October 2020

The depth of bidding may not have been as overwhelming as hoped but the end results of the two main auctions at Sotheby’s last week indicated a market still strong enough to deliver some sensational results. These included fabulous prices for more ‘traditional’ works of art, including a white glove (all sold) sale in the Impressionist and Modern auction – a rarity indeed for a multi-owner sale.

However, the two items that everyone was watching out for were sadly withdrawn from the Contemporary sale on the day of the auction: Brice Mardens’ ‘3’ and Clyfford Still’s stunning ‘1957-G’. The fact that such an august museum as the Baltimore Museum of Art (home to the Cone collection) found it necessary to offer two such A+ works caused such uproar that Christopher Bedford, The BMA’s director, withdrew the two paintings from sale. I think the Still painting could have touched world record status – it was a majestic work given to the BMA by the artist himself. They were arguably the highlights of the Contemporary sale and a further glitch was the unsold Rothko that was up for 25m USD. Yet even without these three pieces adding to the figures the main body of the auction sold well – albeit often before the auction via backed guarantee bids.

Notable sales included the amazing Frank Stella Concentric square work of 1968 which fetched over 8m USD including premium. This artist and this ‘square’ series form the backbone of so many Contemporary evening sales but rarely are they commented upon. Stella is, for me, as vital a part of American Art as the Ab-Ex heavyweights that he countered. Stella’s concentric squares are so vital to that post-war period with their holding a formality, an elegant minimalism, amongst the many mad, but wonderful, vagaries of 1960s artistic practice.

Matthew Wong’s work has been central to all collectors in this field in recent months and ‘Dialogue’ is a truly sensational work filled with signature colour and Klimt-like composition. It made a deserving 1.7m USD including premium. I would put him a class apart from the similar colourist Nicolas Party despite both their huge commercial success. It is just so sad that Wong is no longer with us – what a talent.

There were other major works offered by museums of which one was the vast and wonderful Helen Frankenthaler ‘Carousel’ of 1979 which made 4.7m USD. Measuring 220 by 525 cm. this painting was offered by the Palm Springs Art Museum – presumably to free up wall space for new acquisitions, though it is hard to know what could be better than ‘Carousel’.

Another deserved high price was the brilliant ‘Camouflage’ by Abstract Expressionist Lee Krasner which fetched 3.7m USD. Such a brilliant, signature work that despite its relatively late date of 1963 date exhibited all the visceral energy of her best work.

In the Impressionist and Modern sphere, the two wonderful Giacometti sculptures: ‘Femme de Venise IV’ and ‘Grand Femme I’ were sold privately before the auction (i.e. not presold as a guarantee). They were both from the collection of the outstanding collector Ron Perelman and stood out as the real highlights of the sale. It was a shame not to see them go to market as I think the 9 ft. ‘Femme’ would have made a price north of 40 or even 50m USD such was its calibre and rarity. That said, the staggering ‘Femme Leoni’ made 26m USD and was the best of the sculptures in the sale: a lifetime cast, 167cm in height and redolent of his 1940/50s oeuvre.

Van Gogh’s ‘Fleurs dans un verre’ of 1890 only scraped through at a shade under 14m USD despite being such a wonderful still-life (worth noting that there has been a recent concern over VG attributions which might be an ongoing issue for his market since the vast prices of the mid 2010s). The lack of a signature is a big problem for most collectors but unsigned Van Gogh paintings are a common occurrence and should not be such a huge issue in my view. Rene Magritte’s wonderful ‘Reverie de M. James’ (after the great patron Edward James) also should have done better with a final price of just over 5m USD. It was a marvellous, whimsical, piece but lacked the signature motifs that so many image-driven collectors yearn – clouds, apples, bowler hats etc.

There was a wonderful result for an exceptional Giorgio de Chirico painting too. A new world record in fact for ‘Pomeriggio de Arianna’ which fetched over 16m USD. At 135 cm. in height the work certainly has wall-presence and dates from 1913 – his finest period, which was to be so vital to the Surrealists in the 1920s.

Overall, with a ‘white glove’ sale for the Impressionist department and an overwhelmingly financially successful sale series Sotheby’s will be happy. We thought the press was far too negative about this sale series given that they will be very fruitful indeed; being without many costs at all – few catalogues, no travelling personnel etc. Mr Drahi should be a content man.

Lastly, please do use an advisor/art market professional when acquiring valuable works of art – as with all high value acquisitions, there are numerous pitfalls to be avoided and assistance is well worth seeking.

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