Sotheby’s Nets Impressive $290.2 M. at Steadily Paced Imp-Mod Sale

Auction records for Picabia, Balla, Lipchitz, Courbet, Jean Arp, Man Ray, with 81 percent of lots selling

The week’s Impressionist and modern evening sales ended last night with a respectable auction at Sotheby’s that brought in $290.2 million, besting the $144.3 million that Christie’s garnered at its lackluster sale the previous night.

Though tonight’s figure marked the second-highest-grossing Impressionist and modern sale for Sotheby’s—the first being the $330.6 million it earned in spring 2012, which included the most expensive painting ever sold at auction, Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895)—it was also in some ways unremarkable: though six artists records were set (Jean Arp, Man Ray, Giacomo Balla, Francis Picabia, Jacques Lipchitz and Gustave Courbet), the previous records had been fairly low; 52 of the 64 lots on offer sold for a solid sell-through rate of 81 percent by lot; and the final figure fell right between the evenings’ high and low estimates (which are calculated without the approximately 12 percent commission) of $212.9 and $307.9 million.

It did seem that Tobias Meyer, the man who presided over the Scream sale, was chasing another record tonight: longest sale ever. The lots sold over the course of 130 minutes during which Mr. Meyer was content to allow the bids, more of which than usual came from the Sotheby’s phone banks (one phone bidder went home with the Juan Gris, the Giorgio de Chirico, the Lipchitz and the Auguste Rodin), to bounce back and forth like lobbed tennis balls, every so often throwing out the names of Sotheby’s specialists and his trademark prod: “Should we bid?”

The top lot, Alberto Giacometti’s Grande tête mince (Grande tête de Diego) (1955), sold for $50 million after seven minutes to a phone bidder, with some bidding by dealer and former Sotheby’s specialist Stephane Connery, also for a client on the phone. The third-most-expensive lot of the evening, Pablo Picasso’s Mousquetaire à la pipe (1969), saw spirited bidding between Sotheby’s specialist Alexander Platon, dealer Christophe Van de Weghe and David Nahmad, who eventually bought the work for $31 million.

Leaving the room around lot 30, the dealer Richard Feigen was characteristically surly, calling most of the bidders unsophisticated.

“The Mondrian was one of the most interesting paintings and it didn’t sell,” he said. “Look at this Picabia,” he said, flipping through a catalogue to Volucelle II (c. 1922), which set the record for the artist at $8.79 million. “It’s a piece of decorative garbage.”

People still think of art as a good place to put their “excess liquidity,” he said, regardless of quality. “As long as interest rates are near zero we’ll have this profligate money floating around and these wild prices.”

Still, if the idea that art appreciates reliably had been the motivation for some of the purchases last night there were a number of counterarguments available in the sale. In three consecutive lots: Joan Miró’s Tête, oiseau, étoile (1976) failed to sell at $1.7 million, even though it had sold for $1.3 million (with premium) at a Sotheby’s day sale in 2006; Marc Chagall’s La fuite (1911) sold for just $605,000 tonight, though it sold for $728,460 at Sotheby’s Paris in 2011; and Femme à la robe rose (1917) by Picasso sold for $4.2 million when it sold at Christie’s New York for $4.6 million in 2011. One of the final lots, Femme attablée (1959) by Picasso, passed at $1.1 million despite having sold for $1.4 million at Christie’s London in 1989.

There was a delay in the setting up of the traditional post-auction food tables before the press conference, prompting one journalist to ask another, “Do you think Dan Loeb has taken our sandwiches? I heard he’s trying to cut costs.” After the food had been put out the expanded international market was given extra attention at the press conference, as it had been at Christie’s the previous evening. Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht looked on as David Norman, co-chairman of Impressionist & Modern Art worldwide, said the sale proved the “continued power of Asian bidding.”

“This is a very sophisticated group of buyers, they enter the market at the highest level,” Mr. Norman said. “They are very experienced collectors in their own region of the world and their movement into Western art is really quite extraordinary and powerful.”

The fall auction season continues with the contemporary auctions next week.

Additional reporting Zoë Lescaze. All auction research courtesy of Artnet.

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