Sotheby’s Racks Up $219 Million in Impressionist Sale Amid Heavy Asian Bidding

Alberto Giacometti, The Square, 1948, bronze, 24½ inches long. Brought 13 million dollars May 7 at Sotheby's New York.


Led by Picasso, Matisse and Monet, Sotheby’s New York tallied $219 million at an uneven Impressionist and modern art sale last night. One-third of sales came from Asian buyers, according to Sotheby’s. The auction came in the wake of news that the house would accommodate activist shareholder Daniel S. Loeb with three seats on its board of directors.

The evening’s total just barely met the house’s low estimate. Of 71 works offered, 21 failed to sell, for an unimpressive sell-through rate of 70 percent. Last May’s auction of similar material at Sotheby’s brought $230 million.

“It was a sale with its highs and lows,” conceded Simon Shaw, co-head of department worldwide, at a post-sale press conference.

“It started off great but things were overestimated, and the market is very smart,” said New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe, who bid unsuccessfully on a Monet and a Picasso. Referring to the previous night’s sale at Christie’s, he added, “But the energy overall was much better today than yesterday.”

By all accounts, that was due at least in part to the crisp pace set by the auctioneer, London’s Henry Wyndham, stepping in after the resignation of Tobias Meyer in November. “He has a good rhythm,” observed New York art dealer and collector Alberto Mugrabi after the two-hour auction. “He’s a fantastic auctioneer,” van de Weghe said. “He’s very entertaining.” He’s also quick: a great many works were dispatched in less than 60 seconds.

The evening’s star lot-and the subject of a 13-minute bidding war-was Picasso’s The Rescue (1932), which brought $31.5 million, more than doubling its $14 million low estimate. (The painting brought $14 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2004 from the same party who sold it last night.) It shows a bather being rescued from drowning while others play ball on the beach. Bidding via Sotheby’s David Norman and Simon Shaw, phone bidders inched upward in quarter-million-dollar increments in a contest that outlasted by a minute the slugfest over Edvard Munch’s The Scream in the same sales room two years before. “That was two Russians going at it for sure,” one market source speculated of last night’s Picasso contest.

The Spaniard had a mixed night, however. While two other works in the top 10 were by his hand, five of 13 items on offer by the master failed to find buyers, for a Picasso sell-through rate of 62 percent. The most dramatic failure of the night was his Head of Marie-Thérèse (1932-34). It had been in the collection of MoMA curator William Rubin and had never before come to auction. Tagged at up to $20 million, it was on the block 90 seconds before going down without a buyer.

“It has a powerful, aggressive presence,” David Norman told A.i.A. after the auction. “I guess if you’re spending $15 million, you want a gentler, more lyrical piece.”

“After that long contest for The Rescue, I thought ‘Picasso! Picasso! Picasso!'” said New York dealer Frances Beatty, of Richard L. Feigen & Co. “But then we came back down to earth.”

Asian bidders ruled the night, taking home the second-, third- and fourth-highest-priced lots.

Number two was Henri Matisse’s 1924 oil The Morning Sitting, which rang up at $19.2 million, just below its low estimate of $20 million, in less than a minute of bidding. The canvas depicts dancer and musician Henriette Darricarrère, the artist’s studio assistant, at work on her own canvas.

Third most expensive at $15.8 million was Monet’s Japanese Bridge (1918-24), a nearly abstract canvas in blues and greens showing the foot bridge spanning the artist’s lily pond at Giverny. After three minutes of bidding, the work sold in the middle of the house’s estimated range.

Fourth priciest was Alberto Giacometti’s 1948 bronze The Square, showing five of his trademark attenuated human figures. Estimated at up to $18 million, it fetched $13 million last night-thrice what it fetched at Sotheby’s New York in 2000.

New York dealer Hillel “Helly” Nahmad, recently sentenced to a year in prison for his role running a gambling ring, was in his usual seat at the front at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales, along with his father and others. The family was seen to bid on several works at Christie’s on Tuesday, though last night they mostly sat on their hands.

“The auction houses have to work much harder to achieve good sales,” New York dealer David Benrimon told A.i.A. as the auction wound down. He had bid unsuccessfully on a 1947 Miró canvas that brought $8 million. He’d had better luck selling, with a Braque still life from 1927, acquired from his gallery four years ago, which brought $1.9 million on a high estimate of $900,000.

“Yesterday had no steam,” he added. “But both last night and tonight, there was no electricity.”

For her part, Beatty defended what had been termed a lackluster sale the night before. “It’s extraordinarily jaded to call a $285-million sale ‘tepid,'” she said. “I mean, what on earth are we thinking?”

After this weekend’s Frieze, NADA and Outsider art fairs, along with numerous satellite fairs, the spring sales conclude next week with auctions of postwar and contemporary art at Christie’s May 13, Sotheby’s May 14 and Phillips May 15.