A lively auction revived immediate hopes for the market at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art auction tonight, as bidders braved shouts from locked-out art handlers and rallied to yield a sale total of $199.8 million, including buyer’s premium, which fell solidly between high and low estimates of $167.6 million and $229.9 million.
It was a big win compared to Christie’s disappointing performance last night, when around 40 lots of the 70 lots sold within or over their pre-sale estimates, at a sell-through rate by lot of 81.4 percent. Two artist records were set, for Gustave Caillebotte and Tamara de Lempicka, as well as a new auction record for post-1960 Pablo Picasso, with the artist’s L’Aubade (1967) selling for $23 million (Picassos from this period are known to have sold higher privately). The sellers of that work, Mr. and Mrs. Sydney Barlow, bought the painting at a Sotheby’s sale in 1979 for around $100,000—as good a demonstration as any of the newly discovered late Picasso market.
“If there ever was a turnaround we saw it tonight,” said auctioneer Tobias Meyer, after the sale, removing a microphone from its stand and gripping it in a motivational way. “I’ve rarely felt a room as energetic.”
David Norman, a specialist in Sotheby’s Impressionist/modern department, chalked the success up to strategy. “We lost consignments because of not going to higher estimates,” he said. Last night, Christie’s representatives admitted that their estimates may have been too high.
One of the more drawn-out bidding wars was for the Klimt landscape on the cover of the catalogue, Litzlberg am Attersee (1914-1915), which climbed past a low estimate of $25 million (Sotheby’s declined to release a high estimate) to hop to $40.4 million with premium, after a seven-minute bidding war between a phone buyer and a Zurich dealer in the room who was representing a client on his mobile phone. The leisurely pace at which the bids went back and forth recalled an all-lob tennis match, and led to a tense room (“Who pays that much for a Klimt landscape,” scoffed a frustrated journalist), silent enough so that the horns of the locked-out handlers could be heard outside.
“We actually approached the lawyer who represents the owner over the summer and made an offer higher than we’d paid, but it was not tempting enough,” said David Lachenmann, the Zurich dealer, after he’d won the lot. “So we’re quite pleased to get it at this price.”
Another work, Gustave Caillebotte’s Le Pont d’Argenteuile et la Seine (1883), which, despite a slow start (“Shall we bid?” Mr. Meyer asked the Nahmads in the front row, trying to prime the pump) eventually led to a new record for the artist at $18 million with premium, nearly double its $8.5 million price at Christie’s New York in 2008. Tonight’s result earned applause.
The crowd seemed to want to spend money. Larry Gagosian snuck in a last-minute bid for Max Ernst’s Enseigne pour une ecole de harengs, by waving a gold pen in the air. “130,000?” Mr. Meyer asked him. “Are you sure?” Mr. Gagosian nodded, shrugged and won the lot.
“The whole sale was amazing. Fresh material, fair estimates, that’s what happens,” said collector Alberto Mugrabi, who had not pulled any punches in expressing his disappointment over the Christie’s sale. “From one night to the other, that’s a humungous change, no?”