It seems few sellers care to gamble on an auction these days, to the dismay of discriminating buyers ...
From THE ECONOMIST online
It would be hard to cap last year's auctions of Impressionist and Modern art at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York. And so it proved. Last May Pablo Picasso's "Nude, Green Leaves and Bust" (1932), from the estate of California's Brody family, had earned a record-breaking $106.5m (including commission and taxes) at Christie's, making it the world's most expensive work at auction. This time round, neither Sotheby's nor Christie's had a masterpiece on offer. The two-day sales turned out to be fairly anaemic, earning just under $399m total. Supplies of great work are scarce these days, and the market is fussy.
The lack of consignments by the executors of estates forced the auction houses to rely on voluntary consignments, which are difficult to secure in an uncertain market. In general, the pieces that came up for sale were of uneven quality, and many had ambitious estimates. Work that ordinarily would have merited a day sale seemed to pad out the more prestigious evening events. A few of the pictures had been on the market for some time already, including reportedly a Claude Monet painting called "Mauve Irises", estimated at $15m at Christie's, but which didn't sell. Over a quarter of the pieces in Sotheby's 59-lot auction couldn't find buyers.
The week started last Tuesday night with Sotheby's inauspiciously thin evening sale. Earning $170m, this was the smallest take the house had made for a sale in this category since the dark days of 2009, when the financial crisis more or less froze the auction business altogether. The house took a risk in estimating some of the pieces aggressively, and generally got away with it. But the high estimates discouraged active bidding in the room, decreasing the drama of the sale.
Picasso was the default star of this round of sales, with 14 pieces by him on offer between the two houses. On the cover of Sotheby's catalogue was "Femmes Lisant (Deux Personnages)", a colourful 1934 depiction of the artist's young lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, and her sister languidly reading (pictured below). It is a decent painting from a desirable period, which seemed poised to benefit from the buzz surrounding previous sales of Picassos from this period (including the Brody picture) and also from a blockbuster exhibition of work from the Marie-Thérèse years now on at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. But this painting lacked the wallpower of either the Brody work or of "La Lecture", a 1932 painting of Walter that earned $40.5m at Sotheby's London in February. Several dealers suggested that the $35m estimate placed on "Femmes Lisant" was aggressive; one held that $10m-15m might have been more appropriate. Nevertheless, the picture sold for $21.4m to an anonymous Asian buyer bidding in the room on behalf of a client. The same bidder also bought "L'Hermitage en Été, Pointoise" (1877), a landscape by Pissarro.
A brief but frenzied bidding war greeted "Les Cariatides", a large painting of two languorous women in various states of undress, by Paul Delvaux, a Belgian surrealist. In a sale that favoured surrealist works, this 1946 painting had everything going for it: it is big and in great condition, with a good provenance and sexy subject matter. It went for just over $9m (including taxes and fees), well above its top estimate of $5m, to Victoria Gelfand, a representative of Gagosian Gallery who works with Russian clients.
Generating excitement before the sale was a small wooden sculpture from Paul Gauguin's Tahitian period. As few Gauguin sculptures exist, Sotheby's acknowledged that placing an estimate on the piece, which also had a good provenance, was something of a guessing game. The estimate, $10m-15m, was justified in part by the strength of the sculpture market recently, said Simon Shaw of Sotheby's. A few weeks before the auction, the house was able to secure an irrevocable bid on the sculpture, guaranteeing that it would sell. As it happened, the auction brought in only one other bid, taken over the telephone. The piece sold for $11.4m; a lower estimate might have created more drama.
Despite the dearth of activity in the room—with many artworks getting just one or two bids—art professionals were upbeat. "It did well, even though there were no masterpieces," said Frank Giraud, a private dealer, at the sale. "It showed the strength of the market." He pointed to the impressive geographical distribution of buyers, "eager to buy and looking for good things." The only problem is the lack of supply. No one is selling their artwork now, unless they need the cash, Mr Giraud explains.
Christie's evening sale the following night confirmed the theory that when the market is dull or down, it is good to go second. Though the house took in $156m, less than Sotheby's and below its own pre-sale estimate, it had clearly worked with consignors to lower reserves on a number of pieces, which led to livelier bidding. An active salesroom promotes market confidence. Christopher Burge, the auctioneer, reaffirmed this in his post-sale press conference: "It felt like a busy salesroom to me."
Two landscapes shared the top spot in the auction, Monet's "Les Peupliers" (1891) and Maurice de Vlaminck's vibrantly coloured "Paysage de banlieue" (1905; pictured top). Both made $22.5m, within their pre-sale estimates, but the latter generated the most excitement, as it had been consigned by Steven Cohen, a hedge-fund honcho and ambitious collector. In the event, he made a respectable profit on the painting, having bought it at Christie's in 1994 for $6.8m. Conor Jordan of Christie's placed the winning bid, after a heated battle in the room with Guy Bennett, a private dealer and former head of Christie's Impressionist Modern department. It was later revealed that New York's Acquavella Galleries had purchased the piece on behalf of a client.
Of course the eyes were on Picasso. To match the Marie-Thérèse picture at Sotheby's, Christie's had the more challenging painting "Les femmes d' Alger, version L" (1955), a figurative grisaille work that was part of a series based on the Delacroix painting of the same title. Proving that bright, cheery Picassos aren't the only desirable ones, this painting (described by the auctioneer later as "esoteric") sparked a bidding war between Larry Gagosian and the Nahmad family, but ultimately went to an anonymous buyer on the telephone for $21.4m. It barely squeaked by its low estimate, another indication that the house had been a bit bullish with these. Another standout Picasso at Christie's was the diminutive sculpture "Homme au mouton", a steel cut-out no bigger than a top-hat. Mr Gagosian was also in the running for this one, but dropped out before it sold for $7.1m, besting its top estimate.
In the wake of the sales, Sotheby's stock went down 8% to $46. Some dealers say the market is now stronger in the private sales area, as potential sellers remain reluctant to gamble on a public sale. This could mark an historic moment for the houses: Impressionist Modern auctions have always been more successful than those of contemporary work, which suffer less from the problem of scarcity. Many are now eagerly watching the contemporary auctions this week, to see if the market for new work has finally outpaced the one for old standards.