At Sotheby’s, Picassos Lead Lackluster $163 M. Impressionist-Modern Sale

Estimate: $35 million to $50 million
Estimate: $15 million to $20 million
Estimate: $10 million to $15 million
Estimate: $6 million to $8 million
Estimate: $5 million to $7 million
Estimate: $5 million to $7 million
Estimate: $4 million to $6 million
Estimate: $4 million to $6 million
Estimate: $4 million to $6 million
Estimate: $4 million to $6 million
Estimate: $4 million to $6 million
Estimate: $3.5 million to $5.5 million
Estimate: $3 million to $5 million
Estimate: $3 million to $5 million
Estimate: $3 million to $5 million

The thus far sleepy fall auction season continued last night with Sotheby’s fall Impressionist and Modern sale, where auctioneer Tobias Meyer hammered down a total of $163 million of art, with buyer’s premium, during a sale in which the house had hoped to garner between $169 million and $245 million.

Of the 67 lots on offer, 21 failed to sell during the roughly 100-minute sale, leading to a mediocre sell-through rate of 69 percent by lot, roughly mirroring the performance of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern sale last night, where 70 percent of the works sold. Tonight at Sotheby’s, three of the top six lots with the highest high estimates failed to sell—a 1956 portrait of Jacqueline Roque ($6 million to $8 million) and still life of a tomato plant ($10 million to $15 million), both by Picasso, and a ghostly Cézanne portrait of a woman ($5 million to $7 million).

>> Click the slide show above for results of the sale’s top 15 highest-estimated lots.

Though no artist records were set, a number of lots saw spirited bidding. At a press conference after the auction, specialist Simon Shaw called Pablo Picasso the “star of the evening, aside from” Mr. Meyer, and the artist was responsible for half the works in the sale’s top 10.

The top lot, his Nature Morte aux Tulipes (1932), led to an extended, if slow, bidding war between David Nahmad in the front row and Sotheby’s specialist Philip Hook, representing a buyer on the phone. Even in the $30 million range, Mr. Meyer eked out in the hundred thousand dollars, accepting a bid of just $100,000 more from Mr. Nahmad at $36.6 million, which caused some murmuring in the room, perhaps because it was so low. That bid came just after Mr. Nahmad was reminded by the charming auctioneer that the work was “beautiful.”

“Philip,” Mr. Meyer said to the specialist, “I rely on your verbal skills to relay the beauty to your bidder as well.” Apparently it worked and the lot went to the phone at hammer price of $37 million, $45.5 million with premium.

According to The New York Times, the work was formerly owned by Christie’s owner François Pinault, who bought it at his auction house for $28.6 million in 2000 and then reportedly sold it to Casino magnate Steve Wynn, tonight’s seller. Tonight’s sale amounted to a respectable 45.1 percent increase of value over that 2000 figure, twice the growth of the Dow Jones Industrial Average during that period, though it fell well short of the $106.5 million earned at Christie’s in 2010 by the slightly larger Nude Green Leaves and Bust, which Picasso painted in the same year and which features the same sculptural portrayal of the artist’s then-lover Marie Thérèse Walther.

As with all modest sales, it was a matter of knowing what you wanted.

The dealer and collector Thomas Gibson was the underbidder on a Picasso, Nu et homme assis, which depicts just that, because it had once belonged to his friend George Embiricos, and he’d always admired it. “It’s quite good quality, even if its subject is erotic.”

The dealer Christoph Van de Weghe picked up a René Magritte’s Le Mémoire (circa 1957) for his inventory, and near the low estimate, at a hammer price of $750,000. “It’s a very, very commercial Magritte,” he said after the sale, and pointed to it in his catalogue. “You’ve got the face here, the sun here, the eggs, just the whole set.”

Though few lots jumped their high estimates, the sale had its bright spots. One came about an hour in, when Marcel Duchamp’s Belle Haleine, Eau de Violette (1921) sold to a gentleman apparently bidding for someone on the other end of his cell phone for $2.43 million, beating its $1.25 million to $1.75 million estimate and setting a new record for a work on paper by the artist. The drawing, which depicts a perfume bottle with a photo of the artist dressed as his alter ego Rrose Sélavy, was first owned by Man Ray (who shot the photo) and then André Breton. (Incidentally, the perfume bottle itself holds the artist’s all-time record, having made $11.4 million during one of the 2009 sales of the collection of Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé at Christie’s.)

A surprise lot was Picasso’s Le Viol, a 1940 work on paper that doubled its high estimate, hammering down at $12 million. It depicts the artist’s lover Dora Maar and is taken for an allegory for the impending invasion of France. It earned a number of bids around the room as it jumped to its sale price.

“People are still prepared to pay for the good lots,” said the dealer Jack Tilton—who had himself purchased at low estimate an Henri Matisse work on paper for a client—of the Picasso. “It’s just a matter of the auction houses finding them.”

The sale featured five works by Henry Moore that collectively went for some $15 million. The most expensive of these, a monumental bronze work from 1959, sold for $4.7 million to Andrea Crane, of Gagosian Gallery, which had planned to show the artist this month in its West 21st Street location, though Hurricane Sandy has delayed that exhibition. Moore is having a bit of a moment now, having achieved a new auction record of $30 million at Christie’s London this past February.

After lot 50, a Cézanne nude (circa 1898–99) sold for $5.35 million, squarely within its $4 million to $6 million estimate, the audience began to clear out, and demand appeared to dissipate. The six subsequent works, including a posthumously cast Giacometti sculpture, a Kees van Dongen portrait of a woman playing guitar and a Pierre Bonnard landscape, failed to meet their reserves. Of the final 17 lots in the auction, 11 failed to sell.

In the post-sale press conference, Mr. Shaw, the Sotheby’s specialist, admitted that some of the reserves and estimates may have been overly ambitious, though he scuttled the notion that the house had padded the sale, saying that they had rejected plenty of subpar lots in the months leading up to the sale.

“These were works that we stood behind,” he said, “but it was clear that in some cases, collectors felt that the estimates  were just too high. Still, we’ve already got offers flying in from all over the world, so I’m sure we’ll sell those lots [privately] before the night is done.”

The auctions continue next week with the contemporary sales. All auction research courtesy of Artnet. All slide show images courtesy Sotheby’s and all prices in it listed with premium, except where noted.