It has now been established, after a second successive year, that the sales in February will permanently fall later in the month giving the teams at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillip’s another 3 weeks of business-getting over the December period… and well into January too. The reason for the later sale date? To allow Chinese clients to recovery from their New Year and find their cheque books. Although there were some very high calibre paintings at the high end it was by no means a blue riband series. Put simply, the shadow of the vast Rockefeller collection that will appear at auction in NYC in May loomed large. No question about it: some collectors were not willing to push for the mid-range works, to the extent the houses were expecting, at both the main Evening sales.
Of the two major Impressionist and Modern Art departments it was neck and neck on the figures with neither house able to really dominate the sale series – Sotheby’s fetched 155m GBP and Christie’s 149m GBP.
Overall the best pictures did very well indeed with my favourite of the week, a Fauve Derain at Sotheby’s (lot 11) entitled Bateaux à Collioure, guaranteed and making well over 10m GBP including premium. This was a great price for a great work and the small dimensions did not put off any bidders.
The Picasso, Femme au beret…, that had been the talk of the town over the winter period was a hugely important work from 1937 (the same year as Guernica). Very striking, colourful, a great date and the stand out painting for the entire sale series. A price of 49.8m GBP including premium was no great surprise and makes it the highest price paid at auction for a lot in sterling in Europe! I think credit for the price should go to the consignor for daring to consign such a picture to the sales before Rockefeller in May. Quite a risk but clearly worthwhile. The hugely important Picasso show at the TATE is a must-see and this might have had something to do with the great result for this Marie Therese at Sotheby’s. Picasso’s work throughout the period is universally outstanding. Art historians put this down to his fabulous 1930s sculptures which gave his painting a new lease of life.
Another highlight was the outstanding result of Umberto Boccione’s Testa & Luce & Ambiente, the painting from 1912 was at the forefront of the Futurist movement and there was no arguing with the price paid – an amazing 9.7m GBP was four times the previous record. Boccione was the finest of the Futurists with his sculpture Unique forms of continuity in space one of the defining artworks of the 20th Century.
Over at Christie’s the Evening sale was also strong boasting a superior Surrealist sale than Sotheby’s but lacking that standout ‘rockstar’ painting such as the Picasso. Olivier Camu had managed to source some outstanding items over the last few years but the Picasso on the cover of the catalogue was a real gem. Executed in 1930 just 5 years after the advent of Surrealism it is a classic take on the Surrealist aesthetic. Picasso throughout the 1920s followed the Rappel de L’ordre (of the artist and polymath Jean Cocteau) but by the end of the decade was entranced by the work of Miro, Dali and others. This Figure deserved all of its 7.2m GBP (Hammer price) and possibly more in light of its importance.
The main highlights of the Evening Sale were a large and rather dull Picasso, entitled Mousquetaire et nu assis which made 12m GBP hammer price and was one of 13 Picassos, yes, 13 Picasso oils, bought by Harry Smith, who I sat next to in the Christie’s sale – it seems he was buying for one private client though whether that is linked to a major museum, looking to expand its collection rapidly, I am unsure. These large late works can be wonderful but this particular image felt to me a little forced and formulaic without the irreverent spontaneity of other examples. I actually preferred the less dear Picasso at Sotheby’s of the same type and date.
Sadly there was a key withdrawal in the sale – that of the Van Dongen, La femme au collier, of 1905 which I thought very pretty. The lack of interest possibly led to its not being sold and I doubt there is any authenticity issue with the work. It will be re-offered at some point and deserves a big price though perhaps not the 5m GBP expected.
The Day Sales performed as well as ever with good sell through rates for both houses (both more than 80% by value). The 20m GBP total at Sotheby’s was overshadowed by the 30m GBP at Christies but both sales were strong. The Van Rysselberghe, Canal en Flandre, at Sotheby’s made over 800,000 GBP and was a significant signal that Post-Impressionist paintings, even at the ‘lower’ level, still have a solid foundation to their market.