Review: The Fall Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Auctions in New York, 11th-16th November 2018

After several months of business-getting in the run up to 16 mammoth sales of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art we saw two Billion US dollars-worth of paintings and sculpture go up for auction last week. Inevitably, the notable highlights were Edward Hopper’s Chop Sueyand David Hockney’s ‘Portrait of an artist (Pool with two figures)’ which both made figures in excess of 90m USD [prices throughout include premium] and served to provide us with further evidence, if any was needed, that the art market continues to thrive at the top level.

The week started with Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Sale and some fabulous prices achieved for the private European collection of Fauve and German-Expressionist works including outstanding paintings by Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958) and Wassily Kandinksy (1866-1944). The extraordinary early oil entitled ‘Improvisation auf Mahogoni’ made a staggering price of 24m USD including premium. The tenacity of the successful bidder can be warranted by the huge amount of interest shown from several top German-Expressionist dealers in their underbidding. Other notable sales were the vastly important Rene Magritte oil ‘Le principe de plaisir’ (a record 27m USD) and Egon Schiele’s restituted masterpiece ‘Dämmernde Stadt (Die Kleine Stadt II)’ which made a well-deserved 25m USD.

At Christie’s the Impressionist and Modern Art sale did not see the same level of bidding. They sadly passed their wonderful Van Gogh (1853-1890) ‘Coin de jardin avec papillons’ to loud gasps in the audience. Perhaps the Paris location and the date was not of the same importance as the Arles paintings of his later life but I still felt it was a worthy painting of a price around the 35-40m USD mark. Doubtless the picture will be snapped up post-sale for considerably less having been ‘burnt to market’. That said the sale’s numbers were solid with great results for Pablo Picasso’s (1881-1973) pastels and Claude Monet (1840-1926); with Monet’s ‘Nympheas’ making 28m USD depsite having no autograph, just a rather cumbersome estate-stamped signature.

The Ebsworth Sale saw a near flawless collection of the finest American and Abstract Expressionist works of art go to the rostrum and fetch jaw-dropping figures. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Edward Hopper were the big results. In particular I loved the Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) ‘12 Hawks at 3 O’clock’ which fetched 14m USD and a small but perfect Elsworth Kelly ‘Red White’ (1923-2015) which made 3m USD. There is a great Kelly/Calder exhibition currently on view at Levy Gorvy on Madison Ave. which is well worth a look and gives some idea of his link to Europe when the majority of his contemporaries shied away from Paris and, vitally, the colours of Henri Matisse.

The Contemporary sales were universally good with Phillips making nearly 90m USD from their Evening sale including a vast result for a 1945 Joan Miro (1893-1983) oil of 22m USD. Christie’s had the Hockney sale and Sotheby’s would have been delighted with the price for their large late Hockney too – a California landscape which fetched a vast 28m USD. The Contemporary art market is still booming, especially amongst blue-chip artists with an established market behind them.

Perhaps the mid-market Sales could have been better and slightly more focused. The Impressionist and Modern Art Day sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s saw buy-through levels at a relatively modest 70%. I put this down to the exorbitant amount of work on the market through the week of sales. It is hard to focus on 1,100 paintings if a collector is buying at the 10,000-1,000,000 USD level! Auction fatigue was palpable amongst both collectors and the trade itself.

It was a surprising week insofar as the depth of the market still seems very good at the top end. Ultimately, as ever, one needs to acquire the best possible work within a well-structured budget and to focus on those items fresh to market. Always use an advisor when buying at the top level as the security of a neutral, professional opinion is vital; these days more than ever.