Twentieth century painter Fernand Léger has consistently proven to be one of the market's most highly valued artists in both Christie's and Sotheby's auctions of Impressionist and Modern art.
Nine works by Léger have sold for amounts in excess of $10 million at auction and including buyers' premiums. Save for one—Etude pour les constructeurs, fond bleu (1950)—each of his top ten sales were of works created around the time of the First World War.
With few exceptions, Léger's later works have received far less interest from the market. Of the 19 paintings by Léger in the top 1,000 most expensive artworks sold (Skate's Top 1000), only three were completed after 1930. Twelve of them date prior to 1920.
Given these consistent results, we wonder why PIASA, a leading French auction house, has so aggressively estimated today's sale of the artist's Nature morte sur fond jaune (1939). If this work sells for the mid-range estimate of just over $1.16 million, then it will be the third most valuable work to sell from its peer group, Léger's still-life paintings dating 1930–1939. Nature morte (Composition pour une salle à manger) (1930) and Nature morte (1930) sold for $1,995,082 and $1,312,760, respectively. The average price of the works in this peer group is $592,130), which makes PIASA's estimate seem overly aggressive, even if it is lower than the record.
A recent repeat sale from this peer group demonstrates further evidence of the house's aggressive estimate. On June 25, 2008, Nature morte au citron sold at Sotheby's for $898,153. Almost one year later to the day, it sold for $749,436. Given the seller's premium paid on the second sale in 2009, the return realized on this work is –31.77% on an annualized basis.
Looking at this sale in terms of the original transaction currency (pound sterling), the return achieved on the repeat sale was –18.19% (the premium price in both 2008 and 2009 was exactly £457,250). Furthermore, a full 25% of the peer group was "bought in" at auction, which means that no buyers could be found.
Another similar work, Nature morte aux deux fruits, was brought to auction three times before finding a buyer at Christie's in February 2010. Previous attempts at Loudmer Scp. in 1991 and Christie's in 1999 failed to find winning bidders.
Admittedly, the repeat sale of Nature morte au citron took place against the backdrop of the greatest financial crisis in several generations, and the short one-year holding period suggests that the 2009 sale may have been prompted by the seller's need to liquidate assets quickly. But 2009 saw remarkable strength in Impressionist and Modern art, including the major sale of Léger's La tasse de thé on February 23, 2009 for over $14.7 million. The market is strong for modern works by Leger, but has repeated demonstrated that it is not hungry for this serving of still-lifes.
To view the peer group for this sale, please visit Skate's Art Market Research.
ABOVE: NATURE MORT SUR FOND JAUNE, 1939. COURTESY OF PIASA
Currently on view in the group show "Redux" at New York's Cristin Tierney Gallery (through Feb. 4) are two works by Joe Fig, both related to his 200