The Impressionists … Impressed?
by Franck Barthelemy
New York, Rockefeller Plaza, 1st November, 2011, 22.00. The long expected and well attended Christie's Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale is over. 51 lots out of 82 were sold to fetch just over 140 million dollars. Every year, the best and the richest of the collectors gather in New York, physically or virtually, to buy some of the most amazing art works of the 19th and 20th centuries. Moore, Picasso, Magritte, Matisse, Gauguin, Klee, Chagall, Rodin, Renoir, Degas, Ernst, Giacometti are making the show. Most of the works have been seen before; few are shown for the first time. We feel like in a museum bazaar where everything will find a buyer. Imagine a sale at the Louvre or the Metropolitan where everything should go. There are lots of expectations from the sellers, lots of appetites in the buyers' eyes, lots of stress and excitements on the auctioneer's side.
And the stress was justified. Rare pieces could not find buyers. The striking Degas' bronze, Petite Danseuse, was brought in at an unseen level. The same happen to a Matisse, two Picassos, a Vlaminck and a Giacometti. What happened? Probably the estimates were too high. The Christie's auction usually offers rare works of art from the best collections to the best collectors. For instance, the MOMA put up for sale Les Mains, a Delvaux that fetched a few million dollars, just over the lower estimate. No one can question that kind of provenance, can you? But this time, the scarcity and the provenance were not enough. The estimates were quite disconnected from the market. Were the sellers too greedy? Did Christies overestimate the market attraction? Maybe the house should review that sacro-saint policy quietly stating that impressionists should be high priced and fly from one record to another: 3/4 of the works were estimated more than a million dollars. The head of the International Department Impressionist and Modern Paintings, Thomas Seydoux, almost acknowledged his mistake: "we will be more rigorous in the future and we will propose much more attractive estimates". Let's wait and see.
Though the results of the sale was disappointing, one and a half time lower than the lower expected estimates, a Ernst reached a surprising 16 million dollars. Three phone bidders fought for it to establish a new world record for the artist. A Brancusi also doubled its higher estimate to bring in 19 million dollars. At the end of the day, an auction is a gamble.
New York, Sotheby's, 2nd November, about the same time. More smiles on the faces. The sale fetched 199 million dollars, close to the expected high estimates of 229. Out of 70 lots, 57 found buyers, a better result than the competitor the night before. And Simon Shaw, the Head of Sotheby's Impressionist & Modern Art Department in New York to mirror his colleague's statement with irony : "we put the sale together with discipline and rigor, and in some cases walked away from consignments with aggressive estimates".
Sotheby's managed to convince the heir of Viktor Zuckerkandl to put up for sale Klimt's Litzlberg am Attersee. The oil on canvas in mint condition excited 5 bidders to reach just over 40 million dollars and almost broke the 43 million dollars established for the artist in 2010. No doubt the quality of the work and moreover its history are instrumental to the success of the sale. A noticed Caillebotte, Le Pont d'Argenteuil et la Seine, found buyer at a stunning 18 million dollars for a high estimate of 12, establishing a new world record for the artist.
If Sotheby's did better than Christie's for the opening of this autumn sales, the cumulated sales of the two houses, i.e. 340 million dollars, are about a quarter below 2010 level. Though financial crisis strike most of the economies, it seems that millionaires and billionaires can still find funds for good art opportunities. Looking at the art sales over the last 10 years, discerning eyes invested wisely and got in two sales great returns. Will the investment funds rush to the art market and start shopping the well priced works ? Surely they should !