The New York auctions began last night with an Impressionist and modern evening sale at Christie’s Rockefeller Center salesroom that totaled $289 million, handily eclipsing its low estimate of $207 million and falling just short of its $307 million high estimate.
“It’s the best Impressionist and modern sale in New York in seven years,” said Guillaume Cerutti, the Christie’s CEO who is overseeing his first major sales week since taking the helm of the company in January.
“I’m so proud to be here tonight introducing our team—it’s about patience, expertise, and teamwork,” he added.
But while tonight’s auction did indeed see a higher total than its corresponding sale in November, which brought in $264.3 million—and thoroughly crushed the sale a year ago, which brought in $141.5 million—there was still trepidation in the air, with 11 passed lots yielding a sell-through rate of just 78 percent.
“Our clients are discerning, it’s a discerning market,” Cerutti said. “It’s a sign that the market is very selective. For the last months, or years, we saw that we were somewhat struggling because the market is not so easy. People are selective with what they buy.”
(Cerutti became the first auction house CEO in some time to join the scrum of specialists and get his hands dirty, bidding on behalf of a client when Wassily Kandinsky’s Oben und links (1935) sold for $8.3 million.)
There was a noticeable lack of in-room bidding with just a few lots sparking battles between paddle-wielders, and there was no work that approached the boom time’s totals in the high eight and nine figures—just last November, Monet’s Meule (1891) netted $81.4 million after a 14-minute joust in the room.
One lot did provide some much-needed fireworks: Constantin Bancusi’s La muse endormie (1909–10), which sold for $57.4 million to a buyer on the other end of a cell phone clutched in the center of the room by former Sotheby’s rainmaker Tobias Meyer. That price absolutely demolished the artist’s auction record, which was achieved when Bird in Space (1923) sold at Christie’s in 2005 for $27.5 million. Estimated to go for between $25 million and $35 million, it cracked the artist’s record after a marathon nine-minute bidding war.
The auction began with auctioneer Andreas Rumbler ably hammering the opening salvo of lots to various Christie’s specialists, before heading into a suite of works given to the Cleveland Clinic by the entrepreneur Sydell Miller. All proceeds will go directly to the hospital. First up was Marc Chagall’s Les trois cierges (1939), which went to a European dealer in the front of the room for $14.6 million after he fended off an offensive by Chinese bidders on the phone with specialists.
“I am bringing down the hammer, whatever that is in Chinese,” Rumbler said, begging the Asian bidders to come back in.
Then came Picasso’s Femme assise dans un fauteuil (1917–20), which snuck past its high estimate of $30 million, to $30.5 million, selling to a buyer on the phone with the house’s Impressionist and modern deputy chairman, Conor Jordan. Rounding out the works from the Cleveland collection, Alberto Giacometti’s Buste d’Annette VI (1962–64) went to a bidder on the phone with evening sale head Jessie Fertig for $3.1 million, Max Ernst’s The Phases of the Night (1946) went to a collector in the first row for $6.4 million, and Marino Marini’s Piccolo cavaliere (1948) went to a collector in the second row for $1.1 million.
Then came the night’s cover lot, Picasso’s Femme assise, robe bleue (1939), a portrait of Dora Maar that he painted on his birthday. The work’s rarity and remarkable backstory—Paris dealer Paul Rosenberg rescued it from the Nazis by orchestrating an interception on a train that inspired the Burt Lancaster movie The Train—had earned it the highest estimate of the night, and when it came up it quickly became a back-and-forth between Europe’s postwar and contemporary head Frances Outred and Christie’s Asia president Rebecca Wei, who captured it on behalf of her client for $45 million. A single person in the salesroom clapped.
(Chinese bidding was strong all around, as specialists also secured for clients there Monet’s La berge du Petit-Gennevilliers, soleil couchant, 1875, for $2.8 million, and Monet’s La route de Vétheuil, effet de neige, 1979, for $11.4 million, among other lots.)
But it was the Brancusi that ended up being the night’s top lot, after the sale’s one truly electric tussle. This began with dealer Nancy Whyte fighting it out against two specialists before Tobias Meyer came in out of nowhere, eventually pushing the bidding to $49.5 million.
“Do we have the magic number?” Rumbler said.
Meyer paused for half a second before shooting his hand up.
He ended up capturing it for a hammer price of $51 million, $57.4 million with fees. The rest of the sale was denouement, so I raced outside to find Meyer handing in his paddle and making his way for the door.
“I can’t comment on that, but you saw what you saw,” Meyer said, moments after spending over $50 million dollars, when asked the identity of his client. “It’s a great object.”
A few seconds later, out walked Paul Kasmin, the Chelsea dealer who represents the Brancusi estate.
“Not too bad, I have to say!” Kasmin said. “It’s unbelievable, yes, but I seriously believe that for that work, whatever price paid was a good deal.”
The unexpected success of Brancusi’s ten-inch bronze head sculpture seemed to put attendees in a good mood as they walked out with ten lots to go, perhaps off to rest up for the hugely important blockbuster postwar and contemporary sales to come later in the week.
As he strolled alone down the hallway, David Nahmad stopped to stare longingly at a Fernand Léger work to be offered in the Christie’s Imp-mod day sale on Tuesday, which was hanging on a wall adjacent to the salesroom exit. He smiled at it, gave it an affectionate tap at the center of the canvas, and walked away.
The New York evening sales continue tomorrow with the Impressionist and modern art auction at Sotheby’s.