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Impressionists and Modern auction report: Picasso and Dalí rule the rooms

Russian money behind many sales as records tumble

Russian firepower fuelled a buoyant series of impressionist and modern art auctions in London last month (8-10 February), culminating in a sell-out single-owner sale at Sotheby’s. New records were set for Salvador Dalí (twice), Pierre Bonnard, Julio Gonzáles, Wols and for any surrealist work. A Bacon triptych made a strong £23m and a 1932 Picasso sold for £25.2m.

Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s kicked off on 8 February with “Impressionist and Modern Art”, 42 lots estimated at £55.6m-£79.2m and boasted the week’s highest-priced work, Picasso’s La Lecture (see box). The sale did well, raising £68.8m with 76.2% sold by lot, although almost a third of this result was due to the one painting.

The mood in the saleroom was curiously passive despite the efforts of Sotheby’s excellent auctioneer Henry Wyndham, and unusually for an auction of this type, there were empty seats in the room. But five bidders went after Feininger’s spiky, colourful image of a steamer, Raddampfer am Landungssteg, 1912, which was bought by the firm’s Geneva-based specialist Caroline Lang for £3.1m (est £1m-£1.2m). There was surprise interest in Picasso’s bottle-green Le Peintre et son Modèle from 1963, with three bidders—the Nahmads, Bill Acquavella and a telephone bidder, pushing it to just over £2m, over double the admittedly low estimate; it was bought by Acquavella.

Christie’s

On 9 February Christie’s offered two sales, “Impressionist and Modern Art”, and “Art of the Surreal” with an overall target of £72.5m to £107.1m. It made £84.9m, just above its low estimate and was 79% sold. The most striking aspect of the sale was long bidding battles between Christie’s Zürich-based manager Sandra Nedvetskaia, who looks after Russian clients, and its Parisian specialist Thomas Seydoux, believed to be bidding for a Ukrainian. Nedvetskaia bagged the top lot, Bonnard’s Terrasse à Vernon, 1923, for £7.2m (est £3m-£4m, see box) and Van Dongen’s frothy portrait of the French actress Lili Damita, from about 1923, for £3m (est £1.5m-£2m) for her sluggish client, and bought three surreal works with another paddle, including Magritte’s L’Aimant, 1941, the cover lot of this part of the auction, for £4.7m (est £3.5m-£5.5m). Meanwhile Seydoux bought a £3.9m Goncharova, a £5.9m Derain and Picasso’s Sur l’Impériale traversant la Seine, 1901, at £4.9m for his client.

Four works being deaccessioned by the Art Institute of Chicago, including Braque’s Nature Morte à la Guitare, 1938, found buyers, raising £10m for the institution. But the major, if predictable, failure was of Gauguin’s Nature Morte à “L’Espérance” from 1901, a still-life combining sunflowers with a glimpse of two other art works. Burdened with a £7m to £10m estimate, it was bought in at £5.8m.

Surrealism did well, raising a strong £23m for 25 works of the 31 offered. For a brief 24 hours Dalí’s Etude pour “Le miel est plus doux que le sang”, 1926-27, held the world record after it sold for £4m (est £2m-£3m) to the Spanish Gala-Salvador Dalí Foundation. “Dalí was undervalued compared to other Surrealists such as Tanguy or Magritte,” said Christie’s specialist Olivier Camu after the sale, although most records were smashed again the following night at Sotheby’s single-owner “Looking Closely” sale.

Please note: all auction results include the buyers’ premium whereas pre-sale estimates do not. For example, for US sales Sotheby’s and Christie’s charge buyers 25% of the final bid price for lots up to $50,000 (£25,000 in the UK), 20% for between $50,000 and $1m (UK: £25,000-£500,000) and 12% of the excess above $1m (UK: £500,000).

Picasso, La Lecture, 1932, sold for £25.2m (est £12m-£18m), Sotheby’s

Paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter from 1932 are always highly sought after in the market and are rare. This example was small and painted on panel, which is slightly less desirable than canvas, for conservation reasons, and its heavy impasto did not garner universal praise from dealers. The picture had not always been an easy sell: it was bought in at Christie’s New York in 1996, at an estimate of $6m to $8m. This time around Sotheby’s had offered the vendor a guarantee and then laid it off to an unidentified backer with an “irrevocable bid”. Whoever gave the irrevocable bid probably did well, sharing in the “upside” of the price.

At least six bidders went after it, with Sotheby’s UK chairman Mark Poltimore emerging the victor for his unidentified telephone bidder. The amiable aristocrat would not reveal the nationality of his client but he has extensive contacts with Russia.

Pierre Bonnard, Terrasse à Vernon, 1923, sold for £7.2m, (est £3m-£4m), Christie’s

Depicting the artist’s Normandy home, this pretty landscape came from a private French collection, and triggered the longest battle in the sale. Sandra Nedvetskaia and Thomas Seydoux slugged it out with Seydoux bidding quickly, but Nedvetskaia’s client bidding painfully slowly; a number of dealers in the room criticised auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen for his lack of pace.

André Derain, Bateaux à Collioure, 1905, sold for £5.9m (est £4m-£6m), Christie’s

Derains of boats and water are among the most desirable by him and this, said one dealer, was “not the best, but as good as you are going to get today”. Off market since 1960, it was sold to Seydoux for the same client who bought the Goncharova.