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Low totals, but dealers' worst fears assuaged: Impressionist and Modern sales '94, New York

Reasonable results, with collectors looking lively

New York

Sotheby’s and Christie’s sales of Impressionist and Modern works of art of 8-9 November produced very different results, but each was a textbook example of the workings of a healthy, selective market.

Results were pegged directly to the quality and freshness of the work on offer.

Sotheby’s meagre, forty-six lot sale offered too many works already familiar to the market or of mediocre quality, resulting in an unsold rate of 37% and a disappointing total of $25.9 million. The day sale did somewhat better, selling 70% of offerings for $13.9 million.

Christie’s scored with six different estates and other fresh, attractive material, selling 77% of lots offered for a total of $37.5 million, and a whopping 84% of day sale material for another $16 million. At every sale, for the first time since the fall of the market in the early 1990s, dealers bid vigorously against collectors (Christie’s evening sale lots were equally divided between the two groups). Many said they were buying for stock.

Sotheby’s few estate pictures attracted plenty of dealer bidding: Jan Krugier and the Nahmad brothers vied for “Violon et journal” by Juan Gris (estimate $700,000-900,000), which finally sold on the telephone to a third American dealer at $1.2 million (£750,000). A European dealer was the buyer of “Meules, soleil voilé” by Claude Monet (estimate $1-1.5 million) at $1.6 million (£1 million). Non-estate purchases included “Reclining woman: elbow”, a bronze by Henry Moore (estimate $600,000-800,000), bought by New York dealer Jeffrey Loria for $900,000 (£562,500). Dealers Nahmad and Ernst Beyeler bought one, and Jan Krugier bought two of the series, “Le Prodigue ne revient jamais” of 1943 by Yves Tanguy (estimate $175,000-225,000), paying either $140,000 or $150,000 (£87,500/93,750). These were on the block just three years ago when all four brought $247,500 each.

Private buyers carried off the top lot, “Portrait de Jeanne Hebuterne”, a rare Modigliani portrait, within Sotheby’s expectations at $5.4 million (£3.375 million) and “Femme dans la nuit” by Joan Miró at $2.75 million (£1.7 million), up from $2.5 million paid by retail magnate Leslie Wexner in 1986 for the work. Failures included “Canal à Zaandam”, by Claude Monet (estimate $2.5-3.5 million) owned by the widow of dealer Sam Saltz and very familiar to the market; “Le cheval de cirque” by Miró (estimate $600,000-800,000) which had already been offered through Chicago dealer Richard Gray; several weak works by Paul Klee (completely overshadowed by Christie’s next day offerings) and some mediocre late Picassos.

At Christie’s the following evening, buyers had their pick of fresh, long held material including works from the estates of New York philanthropist Alice Tully and St Louis collector Gertrude Bernoudy, an associate of the great dealer Curt Valentin. The Tully material was “guaranteed” and as some prices went below estimate, there is speculation Christie’s made a bad bargain. However, as the house has successfully sold a lot of other Tully material (an entire 100% sold jewellery sale, for example) with more to come, and the amount of the guarantee is unknown, the question remains open.

Tully’s “Nympheas” by Monet (estimate $4.6 million) sold to a private collector at only $3 million (£1.875 million), probably because it is a tondo rather than the more usual format. Her “La chambre d’écoute” on the other hand, is an essential work by Magritte (estimate $300,000-400,000) and sold on the telephone at $850,000 (£531,000). Ernst Beyeler was the buyer of three Paul Klees from the Bernoudy collection, including “Diana” at $1.4 million (£873,000; estimate $1.2-1.6 million), and two others just short of $1 million. The sale’s top lot “Danseuse ajustant son maillot (Le premier maillot)” by Toulouse-Lautrec was not designated as such, but is reportedly from the estate of European collector Jacques Koerfer. Estimated at $1.4-1.8 million, it sold on the phone at $4.35 million (£2.7 million) to, as Christie’s put it, “a very experienced collector”.

Ernst Beyeler was the buyer of another Degas “Danseuse”, from another estate, within estimate at $1.2 million (£750,000), and “La Creuse, soleil couchant” by Monet from yet another estate went to an American collector at $1.1 million (£687,500). Asian purchases included “Le grand vase de fleurs” by Vlaminck (estimate $1.5-2 million) at $1.3 million (£812,500) and “Autour de Vence” by Marc Chagall, which also sold slightly below estimate at $1.2 million (£750,000). Both of these are examples of classic Japanese taste from the late 1980s. The sale’s most underpriced lot was undoubtedly “Composition”, a 1934 pen and ink wash drawing by Picasso (estimate $300,000-400,000) which incited a whirl of bidding and finally sold to an American collector at $900,000 (£562,500).

The sale’s only major failure was predictable: “La Grenouillère” by Renoir was expected to bring as much as $4 million, but has since been described as “over-rated”, “unfinished”, and “known to the market”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'It could have been much worse, but totals are still low'