Modigliani the High Point to Otherwise Tepid Auction Season in New York 2015


Amadeo Modigliani, Nu couché, 1917-18, oil on canvas, 23.62 x 36.25 in. Courtesy of Christie's.

There's been some whispering lately about an inevitable leveling off of the art market, and it seems that day has come. Besides the stratospheric result of Amadeo Modigliani's $170 million Nu Couché sold at Christie's on November 9, this season's auction returns have been relatively modest overall--or at least overestimated. Despite the lack of fireworks, the market is still demonstrating strength: Sotheby's looks poised to bring in a total of $1.1 billion this season, and Christie's about the same. So far, the two major auction houses are matching each other stride for stride, a far cry from the trouncing of last season.

Frank Stella, Delaware Crossing, 1961, alkyd on canvas, 77 x 77 in. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sotheby's kicked off the fall season on November 4 with the much-touted sale of the auction house's former chairman, A. Alfred Taubman, who died in April this year. The evening sale comprised 77 lots, the "Masterworks" of Taubman's collection, which numbers over 500 works, to be sold in a series of auctions at Sotheby's, through January 2016. Amid much talk about the unprecedented $500 million guarantee Sotheby's had to ensure, and chattering of internal family strife, it seems something of a dark cloud hung over the proceedings. While Modigliani's Portrait of Paulette Jourdain realized $42.8 million, well above its high estimate of $35 million, and Frank Stella's Delaware Crossing took $13.6 million, over the high estimate of $12 million, setting a record for the artist at auction, most lots fell in the low range of their estimates, with 24 lots not meeting their low estimates at all. Regardless of the rather restrained bidding, Tad Smith, President and CEO of Sotheby's, remarked, "I am comfortable with tonight's results, and with more than 400 works still to be sold over the next several months, we are on track to cover most of the total guarantee." The evening's sale brought in a total of $377 million, at the low end of its presale estimate of between $374.8 million and 526.5 million.

Pablo Picasso, La Gommeuse, 1901, oil on canvas, 31.88 x 21.25 in. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

The following evening, Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale, on November 5, offered a more manageable 47 lots, bringing in a total of $306.7 million, with three quarters of the lots finding buyers. Leading the sale was Picasso's Blue Period La Gommeuse, painted when the artist was only 19 years old. Picasso's insouciant nude fetched $67.5 million, netting a very nice return for the consignor, one William I. Koch, who had initially bought the painting at Sotheby's London for just £1.4 million in 1984. Also on offer from Koch's collection was Monet's Nymphéas, which realized $33.9 million, just clearing the low estimate of $30 million established by the auction house. Again, most lots came in nearer their low estimates than the high, suggesting an aggressive pricing policy. Nevertheless, there were a few surprising results, including a record-setting work on paper by Magritte that achieved $6.7 million over a high estimate of $5 million, a painting by James Ensor with a high estimate of $5 million going for $6.9 million and setting a record for the artist, and a portrait of a pudgy baby by Van Gogh selling for $7.6 million over a high estimate of $5 million after a prolonged bidding war between seven bidders. Counting its day auctions, in three days, Sotheby's reported total sales of $629.1 million worth of Impressionist and Modern art.

Willem de Kooning, Untitled XXVIII, 1977, oil on canvas, 60 x 54 in. Courtesy of Phillips.

Phillips shook up the auction schedule this year, inserting its first 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at the very start of the week, on Sunday, November 8, after learning that Christie's planned to usurp its usual spot on Thursday. With sales totaling $66.9 million, Phillips' foray found mixed reviews, from "weak" to "solid." The top lot of the evening was a 1977 untitled de Kooning painting that achieved $11.3 million, while records were set for works by Le Corbusier and Japanese painter Toshimitsu Imai.

Roy Lichtenstein, Nurse, 1964, oil and Magna on canvas, 48 x 48 in. Courtesy of Christie's.

Monday, November 9 gave the art world some real headlines. Christie's hosted a curated collection of 34 lots of modern and contemporary works under the theme of "The Artist's Muse," rolling out premiere examples of the male gaze and pulling in $491 million for the auction house. The sale (and the entire season) was undeniably led by Modigliani, whose Nu Couché sold for $170.4 million, setting a new record for the artist. Widely considered Modigliani's finest nude, perhaps even the best painting of his entire oeuvre, after a prolonged session bidding between anonymous phone bidders, it was won by Chinese collector Liu Yiqian, Artnet reports. Liu was also reportedly the buyer of the Modigliani portrait of Paulette Jourdain at Sotheby's Taubman sale. "The Artist's Muse" resulted in a number of new highs: with a record-setting Lichtenstein selling for $95.3 million, a wood sculpture by Gauguin setting a record for a sculpture by the artist at $30.9 million, and a nude by Courbet winning a new auction record for the artist with $15.2 million. Despite these wins for Christie's, a surprising number of major lots valued above $10 million went unsold, including the psychological Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa of Lucian Freud's daughter, an energetic de Kooning nude, a late Picasso portrait of a woman, and a Fernand Léger. As the evening wore on, more and more works went unsold, including the last lot of the evening, a 1990 work by perennial auction favorite Christopher Wool, subtitled The Show Is Over, showing that despite decades of professional expertise and market knowledge, it's still anybody's guess if those paddles will go up for any given work.

Louise Bourgeois, Spider, conceived 1996, cast 1997, bronze, 128.5 x 298 x 278 in. Courtesy of Christie's.

Christie's Post War and Contemporary Evening Sale followed on Tuesday, November 10, opening with vigorous bidding for a string of mobiles by Alexander Calder and a couple of sculptures by David Smith, all quickly exceeding their high estimates. Louise Bourgeois's spectacular Spider, which has been perched outside Christie's since Halloween, went on the block next, achieving $28.1 million and setting an auction record for the artist. The evening progressed at a steady pace following that, bringing in high results for Lucian Freud's The Brigadier at $34.8 million, Lucio Fontana's Concetto spaziale, La fine di Dio at $29.1 million, and an untitled 1971 painting by Cy Twombly at $17.5 million. The top lot of the evening was Andy Warhol's Four Marilyns, selling for $36 million, which, considering the exact same work went on the block at Phillips two years ago and sold for $38.4 million, was hardly a result worth applause. Overall, Christie's brought in a total of $331.8 million for its Contemporary Evening Sale, solid, but somewhat conservative--and downright dull when compared with last year's one-night-only $852 million stunner--bringing its total haul with day sales this season to $911.9 million so far. Christie's Impressionist and Modern sales are still to come, of course, but with its evening sale's top two lots--a still life by Cézanne and a small sculpture by Henry Moore--estimated at just $7-$10 million, the totals won't come close to the stratospheric levels achieved last season.

Cy Twombly, Untitled (New York City), 1968, oil based house paint and wax crayon on canvas, 68 x 90 in. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sotheby's kicked into gear again for its Contemporary Art Evening Sale on Wednesday November 11, leading with Cy Twombly's blackboard painting Untitled (New York City), which sold to a round of applause for a record-setting $70.5 million, with proceeds going to benefit The Audrey Irmas Foundation for Social Justice. The top price for Warhol this season was achieved with a $47.5 million Mao, and a new record was set for a work by Mike Kelley at $3 million. "We brought together the right works at the right prices for today's market," said Alexander Rotter, Worldwide Co- Head of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's. Sales that night were strong overall, totaling $294.8 million, well over the low estimate of $254 million, and bringing Sotheby's total sales in the Contemporary category to $434.1 million--its best year ever.

Mike Kelley, Memory Ware Flat #29, 2001, mixed media on board, 70.25 x 46.5 in. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sotheby's continues with its Contemporary Art Day Auction today, Thursday November 12, expecting to bring in $103.8 million. And Christie's has the last word this week, with its Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Auction taking place tonight, where it is estimated to achieve $172.9 million, and its Day Sale (valued at $42.6 million) and Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper Sale (valued at $18.6 million) finishing off the week tomorrow, Friday, November 13.

--Natalie Hegert