Christie’s Impressionist-Modern Sale Nets a Safe $117 M.

Christie’s opened up the spring auction season earlier this evening with a sleepy Impressionist-Modern sale in which auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen hammered down a solid total of $102.7 million, a down-the-middle sum for the 31 lots, which carried a total estimate of $90.5 million to $130.2 million.

Of the 31 lots on offer, three went unsold, a healthy sell-through rate by lot of 90 percent. A full 23 of the lots sold within or over their pre-sale estimates, though no artist records were set. The sale total was $117 million (once premium was added).

The mood in the room was tepid, with 22 of the lots selling to phone bidders. The night was notable for its absence of Christopher Burge, who, despite his retirement in recent years, has usually handled all the house’s major auctions, as he has since 1977 when the company first started doing them. His replacement for the evening, Mr. Pylkkänen, is president of Christie’s Europe, and takes to the rostrum for the big London sales.

Paul Cézanne’s Jouer des cartes, painted between 1892 and 1896, was one of the top lots of the night (there was a tie), selling to someone in the second row for $17 million at hammer, a record for a figurative work by the artist and the second-highest sum for a work on paper for the artist, with premium.

The other highest lot was Les Pivoines by Henri Matisse (1907), which went to a phone bidder, also for $17 million, following a drawn-out battle in which dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes, bidding for someone on her cell phone, three times indicated she was out, but then jumped back in, before finally relinquishing the lot.

“Will you say ‘no’ for a fourth time?” Mr. Pylkkänen asked her, trying to wrangle another bid. She shook her head, without phone to her ear. “Ah, you’ve hung up,” he said. “Best thing to do.”

A major lot from the sale, Alberto Giacometti’s 24-inch Buste de Diego, a rendering of his brother in an edition of six, was withdrawn at the last minute, depriving the house of an estimated hammer price between $8 million and $12 million.

Recent auctions have seen a renewed popularity for Surrealist works, but a Salvador Dalí was one of the works that failed to sell, garnering bids up to just $2.2 million, well under an estimate of between $3 million to $4 million. Significant rambling ensued as the hammer fell—a work of a similar size, though on board rather than canvas, set a new record for the artist last year at Sotheby’s in London, at $21 million.

There were deals to be had. The same phone bidder snapped up the sale’s one Miró and the large Picasso that hung in the room, both for under their low estimates. Another phone bidder nabbed both a Bonnard and the Aristide Maillol for below their low estimates.

At one point a young boy in a gold-buttoned blazer at the back of the room grabbed his father’s paddle and bid on the less sexually explicit of the two Schiele drawings, eliciting a response of “Oh, hello! Welcome!” from Mr. Pylkkänen. He bid on it one more time.

“I’m thrilled that we had such a high selling-lot percentage,” said department head Brooke Lampley after the sale. “It reflects the goals we set for this auction.”

New York dealer Helly Nahmad, whose family is said to own a warehouse of Picassos, also said the sell-through rate was a positive sign for the house and the market.

“Your really saw the depth in the market tonight,” Mr. Nahmad said. “One of those Picassos had something like 18 buyers? The market for Picasso is very strong.”

After the sale, talk outside the auction house circled around the lack of Mr. Burge, though the auctioneer will take up his gavel for next week’s contemporary auction.

“It really is the end of an era, Christopher not having been a part of tonight’s auction,” dealer David Nisinson said. “It’s not really surprising with all the changes they’ve had around here lately. I guess we don’t have Christopher Burge to kick around anymore.” He chuckled, and then grew serious. “Only joking of course.”

The boy who’d bid, Joni Otto-Bernstein, 11, was also out front, waiting for a car with his father, Nathan, whose involvement in the bidding seemed surprisingly limited. Joni, it turned out, had pretty much grabbed the paddle on his own, with minimal talk beforehand. And like the phone bidders, he had been looking for a deal.

“It was the least expensive piece there,” he shrugged, explaining why he’d bid.

“No, no, you liked the woman!” Mr. Otto-Bernstein said. The boy kept schtum, but his father couldn’t have been prouder. “This is a new generation of collectors,” he said. “It’s his chance.”

The major biannual evening sales continue tomorrow night, at Sotheby’s.

Auction data is courtesy of the Artnet price database.

CORRECTION (5/2/12 10:45 a.m.): An earlier version of this post stated incorrectly that Cézanne’s Jouer des cartes sold to a phone bidder for $17 million. The work actually sold to someone sitting in the second row at the auction house.