A Look at the London Impressionist and Modern Sales

The Telegraph takes a quick look at the disappointing Impressionist and Modern sales held in London last week. The sales totals are the lowest since 2009 and fell by 35.7%. The article does note the sales totals were about 7% below the low estimates, not great, but not a complete disaster either. Also, quality of work, and the perceived quality of the works can also have much to do with sales figures.

The Telegraph reports
The lowest total for February art sales since the credit crunch signals a return to sanity after years of excessive spending, says Colin Gleadell

The art market experienced a significant correction during London’s Impressionist and Modern art sales last week, though whether it amounted to anything more ominous than that remains to be seen. Sales for the whole week fell by 35.7 per cent from last February to £246.3 million – the lowest for a series of February sales, traditionally the strongest on the London calendar, since the credit crunch hit in 2009.

The overall picture was one of a reduced number of “blockbusters” for sale, and overpriced estimates resulting in a higher than average percentage of lots either not selling or selling below estimates. There was also a tail-off in Russian and Asian bidding. A rare citing was an awkward early portrait by Cezanne that doubled estimates, selling to an Asian buyer.

The total was, however, only about seven per cent below the minimum amount anticipated for the sales, so they weren’t a disaster. Christie’s, which had some exceptional collections for sale last February, described last week’s sales as “normal,”  and Sotheby’s as “solid and functioning”, highlighting five sales for over $10 million and a number of record prices.

At Christie’s all the top lots, apart from an oppressively grey painting by Giacometti, found buyers. But several high profile works, bought within the last 10 years, lost money for the sellers. Max Ernst’s The Stolen Mirror, an homage to his former lover, Leonora Carrington, set a record $16.3 million (£10.3 million) when it sold way over estimate to a private collector in November 2011. Last week it sold for a more reasonable £7.6 million.

Also taking a loss was Christie’s. Magritte’s 1947 painting, Mesdesmoiselles de l’Isle Adam, sold at Christie’s New York in 2014 below estimate for $4.3 million. Because it had been guaranteed by a third party, and the guarantor didn’t pay up, it then became the property of Christie’s. But this time it sold for only £2 million ($2.86 million), with Christie’s having to shoulder the difference.

Generally, though, such losses were the results of previous excessive spending. Other, wiser buys, especially over the longer term, demonstrated that, while the sale totals had gone down, individual prices had not. Egon Schiele’s 1909 self-portrait, which had been bought in 2007 for £4.5 million, sold for £7.2 million. A painting by Leger that fetched £460,000 in 1992 sold for £5.2 million, equivalent to an average gain of 11.1 per cent for each of the intervening years. A romantic painting by Chagall did even better selling for £7 million, the equivalent to a 12.4 per cent average annual gain since it was acquired 24 years ago.

There was a similar, roller-coaster pattern at Sotheby’s. Here, the top lot, a 1930s portrait by Picasso which sold for £16.7 million ($24 million), lost a wedge of money for the seller who had unadvisedly paid well over the estimate for what was an inferior example from a superb series when he bought it just over two years ago for $40 million.

But the majority of works that had been at auction before made more second time around. A Signac bought in Paris in 2008 for €1.1 million sold for £2 million (€2.7 million), and a Magritte, bought in London in 2006 for £400,000 sold for £785,000. In the spotlight was a rare, slightly risqué bronze nude, Messagere des dieux, by Rodin, which sold at auction eight years ago for £4 million. This time round it made a record £11.6 million. Also making a record was a classic surrealist painting by Paul Delvaux, acquired 16 years ago for £3.2 million, which sold for £7.3 million. Other surrealist records were set for a sculpture by Man Ray and a watercolour by Dali.

What was noticeable was a resistance to high estimates, such as the highest ever placed on a Matisse painting that sold well below its £12 million estimate for £10.8 million. The buyer was the opportunistic dealer, David Nahmad, who was so delighted that he posed for a family selfie in front of the painting afterwards.

Where the quality was also mediocre, as with atypical paintings by Monet or Pissarro, there was no interest shown. This was the market working as normal, without the hype, and not part of the vocabulary of recession.    

Another factor was the virtual absence of financial guarantees which act as a stimulus to estimates and prices. From this perspective, therefore, many observers saw these sales as a return to sanity from the excesses of the 2014 peak. They will however, be watching this week’s contemporary art sales with some apprehension.
Source: The Telegraph 

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