THE top prices at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern art sales were for a pastel and a watercolour.
Such was the media attention devoted to the $120 million (€90 million) sale of Edvard Munch’s The Scream that the rest of the Impressionist and Modern art sales in New York last week, in which there were some genuine nuggets, passed with relatively little comment. The whole series at Christie’s and Sotheby’s garnered $526 million (€405 million), which is among the top six or seven sales ever held in that category, and for Sotheby’s, which sold the Munch, it was the second highest total ever.
Christie’s had much the smaller opening sale, which one dealer described as “an aperitif” to Sotheby’s. However, if we strip out The Scream from the figures, we find that average prices at the Christie’s sale were higher than at Sotheby’s. If it was an aperitif, it was a fairly potent one.
The sale was led by a long?lost Cézanne watercolour sketch of one figure in The Card Players, one of his most celebrated series of paintings, an example of which recently sold for a stupendous $250 million (€192 million) to the royal family of Qatar.
That sale must have had some bearing on the price of the sketch, and it sold within estimate for $19 million. I cannot recall when, if ever, the top prices at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern art sales were for a pastel and a watercolour rather than a more durable oil painting or sculpture.
This is a market where collectors can expect to make reasonable returns over a period of time. A colourful, if rather jumbled, still life of peonies by Matisse – for which the owner had paid $4 million at the height of the 1989/90 boom – sold for $19 million, but a better return was had for a small, succulent painting by Picasso of the head of his young lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Bought 10 years ago for $3 million, it now sold for $9.9 million. It was one of more than 30 Picassos at the sales, which brought an accumulative $88 million, maintaining the Spaniard’s pole position in this market.
The top Picasso of the week played second fiddle at Sotheby’s to The Scream. The jagged portrait of Dora Maar seated in an armchair belonged to the late billionaire businessman Theodore “Teddy” Forstmann. In spite of a small tear, which had been miraculously restored, it sold within estimate for $29 million. Altogether, Sotheby’s had 17 works from Forstmann’s collection, valued at $64-$96 million, and all but one sold, to bring $83 million.
Forstmann had been “a fierce competitor at auction”, said Sotheby’s, and occasionally he appears to have overpaid. In November 2006 he paid over the odds for a jazzy abstract painting by Picabia at $1.8 million, and an acrobatic circus performer by van Dongen for $4.4 million. Both sold below estimates for $1.7 million and $3.4 million respectively, but he probably had fun living with them.
Following a record-breaking year for Surrealism, it was again a major feature of the sales. Salvador Dalí’s Printemps Nécrophilique was once owned by Elsa Schiaperelli, the eminent early-20th-century couturière whose work, often in collaboration with Dalí, is currently the subject of an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It sold above estimate for $16.3 million, the second highest price on record for a work by Dalí.
A portrait by Max Ernst of his lover, the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington, painted in France under German occupation in 1940 after the two had been forced to separate, sold above its estimate for $7.9 million, also the second-highest price for the artist.
And a record was set for André Breton, the pivotal literary figure in Surrealist circles in Paris during the 1930s. Chanson-Objet is a collage of found objects and poetry that Breton gave to the Surrealist photographer Dora Maar in 1937, just after her relationship with Picasso had begun. Very few examples of Breton’s poèmes objets, as he called them, come up for sale, and this one quadrupled the previous record for Breton, selling for $866,500.
While the Giacometti market looked a little patchy and the main example of his work was withdrawn from the sales, sculpture generally was as strong as ever, with a small bronze head by Brancusi, previously sold in 1999 for $1.2 million, now fetching $12.7 million.
A 26in cast of Rodin’s The Kiss, which had been bought in 1999 for $182,000, sold for $2.4 million, and a 1923 wood carving of a weeping woman by the German expressionist Ernst Barlach doubled the artist’s previous record, selling to a UK collector for $938,500.
So, looking beyond The Scream, there is a market with considerable depth and strength, firing on all cylinders.