Top Lots Fail at Christie’s Disappointing $144.3 M. Imp-Mod Sale

Falls short of $189 M. estimate as pricy Picasso, Modigliani flop

Christie’s kicked off the official start of the fall auction season Tuesday night with a lackluster Impressionist and modern sale that saw 12 of the 46 lots on offer fail to sell, among them a number of high-profile and high-estimate pieces. It earned a total of $144.3 million that, while respectable, failed to meet the house’s low estimate of $188.8 million (which is calculated without the approximately 12 percent buyer’s premium), to say nothing of its $277.7 million high estimate.

At the press conference after the sale President of Christie’s America Doug Woodham emphasized the depth of bidding on middle-range lots in the $5 million range, which did see a number of bidders and may be the way forward for Imp-Mod category given the ever-dwindling availability of top-flight pieces, along with increased bidders from Asia, China specifically. The mood in the auction room was tepid, with a number of unfamiliar faces and frequently filled with the sound of ringing cell phones, which is notable for what it said about how quiet the room was and for the fact that most pros know to silence theirs before they get in.

The top lot, Diego en chemise écossaise (1954) by Alberto Giacometti, was essentially pre-sold, going to its third party guarantor. It hammered under its $30 million low estimate, at $29 million, and though it was a record for the medium for the artist that’s mainly because he is of course best known for his sculptures. (“Art is finished,” an older woman at the back of the room remarked, for unclear reasons, as it stalled.) When Bloomberg reporter Katya Kazakina asked at the press conference why the estimate had been so high to begin with, auctioneer Andreas Rumbler said the buyer had been following the Giacometti market for 20 years and was quite pleased with his purchase.

“The nice thing about Asian clients is that they give you gifts immediately afterward,” Mr. Rumbler said, on an apparently unrelated note, at the end of the conference. He then held up a small brown gift bag that had been resting on the conference lectern and grinned.

The two major lots to pass without bids were Le peintre et son modèle dans un paysage (1963) by Pablo Picassso, the auction catalogue’s cover lot, estimated to sell for between $25 million and $25 million, and Monsieur Baranowski (1918) by Amedeo Modigliani, estimated to sell for the same amount. Both failed to sell after some relatively minor chandelier bidding by Mr. Rumbler and then a full minute of silence during which they received no bids from the room. Mr. Rumbler said at the press conference that the estimate was high in the case of the Picasso since its current owner didn’t want to sell it for less.

Egon Schiele’s Mann und Frau (Umarmung) (1917) passed at $4.8 million, this despite the fact that it had sold for $7.4 million at this same sale three years prior. Right as Natalia Goncharova’s Woodcutters (circa 1911) passed at $5.6 million, the room was treated to an iPhone ringing in the flying-saucer tone labeled “Sci-fi” by iOS, which at least earned some laughter for the house. (Art advisor Nancy Whyte, who’d bid on some earlier Picassos, said after the sale that Goncharova’s market is limited, another reflection of the difficulties of placing quality material in today’s Imp-Mod auctions.)

Sci-fi, indeed. The bids were so slow in coming for a Vincent van Gogh drawing in Lot 16 that Mr. Rumbler thanked the audience for its patience as it bounced back and forth mostly in $50,000 increments between phone bidders. “I hope he knows how small it is,” Mr. Rumbler said of the bidder, near the end of the seven minute session. It sold for $5.49 million.

If much of these auctions are about the public trading of artworks between wealthy parties, some of the deals just weren’t good enough for the collectors in the know. A Fernand Léger still life from 1924 failed to sell at $4.75 million, even though that appreciation would seem reasonable since it had only gone for $2.1 million at Sotheby’s fall sale in New York in 2004. A Degas sculpture, on the other hand, sold for $725,000 with premium to a phone bidder, nearly the same price it’d sold for in 2005, $744,000.

As was apparently the case with the Chinese, you had to be in the mood to buy. Alexander Corcoran of the Lefevre gallery in London picked up the night’s first lot, a Henry Moore watercolor, Woman Knitting (1949), for $1.33 million and bid on a sculpture by the artist whose market he described as “still hot, if the piece is right.” An older man with a younger-looking woman went home with Jean Arp’s Entité ailée (1970) for just over the high estimate before premium at $950,000 and Joan Miro’s Composition (Projet pour un mural de céramique destiné au Wilhelm-Hack-Museum de Ludwigshafen, Allemagne) (1978) for squarely within estimate at $2.45 million, also before premium. He wasn’t recognizable to me and, after the sale, didn’t appear to know how to pay for his art. “Now you’ll remember, near where you came in,” a specialist told him, guiding the couple to a back door, away from the other collectors and the press.

Outside after the sale the character actor Ethan Suplee mingled with David Nahmad, who attended this sale but had skipped last spring’s, which coincided with federal racketeering charges being handed down for his son Helly, a friend to both Mr. Suplee and Leonardo DiCaprio.

“I like to look at the art,” Mr. Suplee said. “So I came to look at the art”

Who do you collect? “I don’t collect anything, I’m just a marketer,” he said, for reasons again unclear. He said he was not there on behalf of Mr. DiCaprio.

The sales continue tomorrow evening with the Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern sale.

(All prices include premium, unless otherwise noted. Auction research courtesy of Artnet. Additional reporting by Zoë Lescaze.)

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