After nine auctions in ten days the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary auctions came to an end on Friday. It can now be said that the art market has never been stronger following astonishing prices across the board for top-class works of art. The two all-time highest auction prices were made for a painting and a sculpture. Quite a feat to achieve this in the same sale too!
Christie’s chose to offer a small, boutique, sale combining categories in a mixed owner sale. This was a concerted effort to pull Contemporary buyers to Impressionist and Modern Art – a sector where they have fallen short in recent years, especially in New York. On Monday 11th May, in a sale titled ‘Looking forward to the past,’ records fell. It was a barnstorming success where two works flew past 100m USD and several other astonishing prices were seen. The biggest highlights of the week were Pablo Picasso’s Femme d’Algers, which made nearly 180m USD (including premium), and Alberto Giacometti’s L’Homme au doigt which made over 140m USD. There was 705m USD (including premium) garnered from a sold total of 35 pieces – quite frankly staggering numbers.
As a method of selling it was a stroke of genius. What a perfect way to gain business: by promising your consignors a unique selling occasion, the first ever mixed department sale of multi-sourced property, and promise them a melting pot of billionaire buyers from two separate departments. The secret to winning business is to give consignors ‘one-off’ events and this was such an example.
The fallout from this audacious sale was that Christie’s had two slightly under-nourished Evening sales to sell later in the week. The Christie’s Impressionist and Modern sale was most certainly weak in comparison with Sotheby’s but it still managed some impressive figures in light of the collection they had secured from the Whitehead Collection. The price highlights were the cover lot, a world record for Piet Mondrian which sold for over 50m USD (including premium) and a Soutine which made over 15m USD (including premium) from an undercooked estimate of 3-5m USD.
Over at Sotheby’s the previous week we saw a sale total in Impressionist and Modern of 420m USD – still a great figure considering the strength of the competition. The highlight prices were the Van Gogh cover lot – L’Allee des Alyscamps which fetched 66m USD including premium. It was a second-rate, though large, Van Gogh but just goes to show his massive following. When relatively ordinary paintings make over 50m USD one has to wonder if this is a new chapter in the art market. A Monet Nympheas, from his famous waterlilly series, made over 50m USD.
It was a week of extreme prices but some fingers will be burned over the next few years given the prices paid for some pretty mediocre paintings and sculpture. It is as important as ever to be cautious in these heady days of the market. It is always wise to use an advisor and not to expect buying and selling at auction to provide the best value.