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Impressionist art: unknown Russian buys $95m Picasso

New buyer beat established collectors at Sotheby’s impressionist and modern art sales in New York

New York

The Russian Revolution has arrived. On the evening of 3 May, a new buyer from the former Soviet Union beat four of the world’s leading collectors to buy Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat for $95.2m (right) at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art sale. The underbidders included some of the world’s most prominent art collectors (right). Picasso’s iconic portrait of his lover and muse achieved the second highest price ever paid for a work of art at auction.

Those sitting near the bidder, probably an agent acting on the buyer’s behalf, said the man who bought it “sounded Russian”, and he was initially named by The New York Post as Roustam Tariko, 44, a Moscow-based billionaire who made his money from banking and sales of vodka. Then as curiosity reached fever pitch, a New York source close to the market told The Art Newspaper that he believed the buyer was in fact Alexander Abramov, 45, a steel magnate also based in Moscow. Both Mr Tariko and Mr Abramov deny they are the buyers. Because of the secrecy which surrounds these high level transactions, the truth may never emerge.

The auction of the Picasso was the climax of a series of sales that underlined the current strength of the markets for impressionist, modern and contemporary art. In two weeks, art buyers splurged over $913m at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips’ evening and day sales.

Picasso power

“As the ultimate blue-chip artist, it seems that there is no satisfying the appetite in today’s market for Picasso’s work,” said Nick Maclean of the private art dealing firm Eykyn Maclean. The sales confirmed the artist’s position as the ultimate luxury brand. With the sale of Dora Maar, he continues to dominate the upper reaches of the art market, with four paintings in the top ten most expensive works of art ever sold and ten in the top 20. There was a rich supply during the week, with 18 high-end works offered in evening sales, and another 140 (including prints) in the day sales.

The sales also saw mid-market works perform well. Mr Maclean noted that there “were more surprises at the lower level than at the top”.

“What we saw at the sales this year was a reversal of the previous situation,” said James Roundell of the dealership Dickenson Roundell. “If you take out the few highlights, you saw the less good works of art performing better than the high quality works. This may be because the auction houses had to put far more aggressive estimates on the top pieces to get the consignments,” he added. Sotheby’s, it emerged, had given guarantees totalling around $80m.

Christie’s

“This is a strong but not crazy market, it is not out of control,” said Christie’s star auctioneer Christopher Burge after its 2 May Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale.

The total of $180.28m, with 95% sold by value and 86% sold by lot, was the highest for the auction house since May 1990. The day sales were also strong, with rates in the high 80% region, and Christie’s overall total for the week was $208.7m. While the firm’s most hyped lot was Van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne, Madame Ginoux, 1890, this failed to ignite the saleroom, and the real action happened later in the evening with Picasso’s Le Repos (see below). While Russians underbid some of the lots, none were successful, but a new collector came in at a high level, buying a Monet Waterlilies for $11.2m.

Van Gogh, L’Arlésienne, Madame Ginoux, 1890, sold for $40.34m (est $40m-$50m)

This subtle, wistful depiction of a cafe owner who befriended Van Gogh was the last of five portraits of her left in private hands. It was consigned by the Bakwin family who have owned it since 1929. But it was not a typical Van Gogh, rather “Van Gogh doing a Gauguin”, said James Roundell, of the dealership Dickenson Roundell, with its greenish skintone and relining put off buyers. The Israeli shipowner Sammy Ofer was spotted inspecting it closely before the sale, and was the eventual buyer, bidding through Christie’s international director Jussi Pylkännen, against the Nahmad family of dealers in the room. Christie’s was relieved to have sold the painting, even if it was below estimate.

Gauguin, Vase de Fleurs et Gourde, after 1890, est $7m-$10m, sold for $4.49m

The anonymous buyer of this widely admired still-life probably got a bargain, because of doubts over the date of execution. The painting is dated 1886 but the Wildenstein Institute has assigned it firmly to the period after 1890, when Gauguin lived in the South Seas. The work certainly has the vibrant colour of that period, as well as the presence of an enigmatic figure glimpsed at the right, which is typical of Tahitian works. But the slight uncertainty over the date (Tahitian works are worth much more than earlier examples) plus some condition concerns meant that the piece sold well under estimate.

Claude Monet, Nymphéas, Temps Gris, 1907, est $10m-$15m, sold for $11.22m

In the past new collectors tended to start with modest purchases and progress gradually, both in quality and in price. Today some start directly at the top and this is an example. This was the first major purchase by a US private buyer. The work was being sold by Athena Roussel, grand-daughter of Aristotle Onassis, and was very attractive if slightly less colourful than the bolder, later Waterlilies that the market now prefers.

Pablo Picasso, Portrait de Germaine, (detail) 1902, sold for $18.6m (est $12m-$18m)

Bill Acquavella, the dealer who often buys for the Las Vegas mogul Steve Wynn, bought this Picasso against two under-bidders, one probably Spanish as the bids were relayed by Christie’s Iberian deputy chairman, Pedro Girao. The work is important art historically because Germaine was the coquette who was shot at by Picasso’s close friend Charles Casagemas in a cafe. Not realising he had missed, he turned the weapon against himself. His suicide would haunt Picasso and tip him into his melancholic Blue Period.