Monday night marked the start of Christie’s New York auction week and leads so far with a $289.2 million Impressionist & Modern Evening sale, exceeding last year’s spring auction result of $141.5 million. With 53 lots on offer, of which 78 per cent sold, the much-anticipated 1913 Constantin Brancusi sculpture La muse endormie led the evening sale and far surpassed its estimate. Going for $57 million following what has been described as a flurry of aggressive bidding, the patinated bronze head sculpture went to advisor and former Sotheby’s contemporary head Tobias Meyer. “It’s the best Impressionist & Modern sale in New York in seven years,” said Guillaume Cerutti, who has been Christie’s CEO since January, despite adding that over the last few months, or even years, “we were somewhat struggling because the market is not so easy. People are selective with what they buy.”
The evening’s second-highest lot, Picasso’s Femme assise, robe bleue (1939), a portrait of his lover Dora Maar, was a bidding contest between Christie’s contemporary art chairman of Europe, Francis Outred, and Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia. Wei acquired the work for a client for $40 million, a 55 per cent increase in value from its previous appearance at Christie’s London in 2011. The work has a colourful backstory; it was confiscated by the Nazis from Picasso’s art dealer Paul Rosenberg, who later intercepted and recaptured it with the aid of the French government.
The sale also heavily featured sculpture, an unusual occurrence, with 12 works by the likes of Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, Marino Marini, Alberto Giacometti and Edgar Degas. Ten sold, with Moore’s Large Four Piece Reclining Figure (1972-3) achieving the highest price at $7.1 million.
The New York Impressionist & Modern Art Evening sale on Tuesday brought in a total of $173.8 million, bypassing the $144 million total from its spring 2016 sale. Suprematist Composition With Plane In Projection (1915), a work by Russian Suprematist Kazimir Malevich, took the top lot at $21.2 million – marking the fourth highest price at auction for a Malevich work, all achieved by Sotheby’s – a work that experts indicate most likely was hung in Malevich’s 1915 Petrograd exhibition 0.10: Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings. It was that exhibition which saw the birth of the term ‘Suprematism’, an art movement focused on pure geometric forms in order to favour and elicit pure feeling. The work went to Grégoire Billault, head of contemporary art, New York, following a five minute bidding contest.
“When you offer something so rare, that hasn’t been seen at auction before, and is represented in the greatest museums, it ticks all the boxes,” said co-head of Sotheby’s Worldwide Impressionist & Modern Art Department Simon Shaw, “And today’s collectors are ready to go the extra mile to secure those special pieces – the excitement we saw around the Malevich and the Ernst reflects that.” He added that these Impressionist & Modern Art sales in New York, combined with those in London this past March, are up nearly 50 per cent this year to date.
Several new artist records were also set. Max Ernst achieved $16 million with his bronze sculpture Le Roi jouant avec la reine (1944). The 10 bidders raised the final amount to over 6 times higher than the last time an Ernst sculpture was on the market in 2002. Diego Giacometti’s Buste de Diego (1957) sold for $10.9 million after decades in a single private collection, Jean Arp’s bronze Torse des Pyrénées (1959) brought $4.9 million, and Germaine Richier fetched $3 million with Don Quichotte (1955). In total, 74 per cent of the lots on offer were sold.
Post-War and Contemporary sales continue at Christie’s and Sotheby’s on Wednesday and Thursday evening, respectively.