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Impressionist/Modern Fizzle: Painful Sale Caps Sotheby’s Difficult Week UPDATED

David Norman, Sotheby's Impressionist/Modern co-chairman, with Picasso's "Le Sauvetage," 1932, sold for $31.52 million Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

David Norman, Sotheby’s Impressionist/Modern co-chairman, with Picasso’s “Le Sauvetage,” 1932, sold for $31.52 million
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

“Do we want to bid?…Any more?…Any advance?…Last chance!…Passed.”

Variations on that doleful chant occurred again and again during tonight’s sale at Sotheby’s of Impressionist and modern art. This pulling-of-teeth made an already painful week at Sotheby’s even worse.

Aside from the dogged competition over Picasso‘s colorful, action-packed depiction of the seaside rescue of his mistress, Marie-Thérèse (above), which slowly crept past its presale estimate of $14-18 million and finally settled at a strong $28 million ($31.52 million with buyers premium), this was a deadly dull affair, with the hammer landing with a thud on some 21 unsold works (29.6% of the 71 lots offered).

I sometimes imagined that Henry Wyndham, who occupied the podium left vacant by Tobias Meyer’s unexplained departure, might have been grateful for a trap door opening beneath him, allowing him to escape. Still, he did get a smattering of claps after the final (appropriately titled) lot—“Nature Morte” (by Balthus). I can only guess that the few remaining attendees were applauding the end of this ordeal.

The sale wilted early, when Lot 8, Matisse‘s “La Séance Du Matin,” 1924, sold for a hammer price of $17 million ($19.2 million with buyers premium) considerably below its presale estimate of $20-30 million. The price expected for this work was the highest in the sale.

The cover lot, Giacometti‘s “La Place,” squeaked by with a hammer price of $11.5 million ($13.05 million with buyers premium), against an estimate of $12-18 million.

Of the unsold works, the biggest failure was this one (a work once owned by William Rubin, former head of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art). Like tonight’s top-priced lot, this one also featured Picasso’s young mistress:

Picasso, "Tête de Marie-Thérèse," 1932-34, unsold at $13 million against $15-20 million presale estimate Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Picasso, “Tête de Marie-Thérèse,” 1932-34, unsold at $13 million against $15-20 million presale estimate
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In all, the sale was 70.4% sold by lot, 76.9% sold by value. By contrast, Christie’s figures last night for its Impressionist/Modern sale were 89% sold by lot (6 unsold); a hefty 96% by value. Christie’s hammer total was $245.05 million, just within the presale estimate of $243.5-$358.9 million. Its sale total with buyers premium was $285.9 million.

I have not yet received Sotheby’s hammer total to compare with its $218.1-317.95 million presale estimate. But that total must be less than the low end of the presale estimate, because the grand total for the sale (including both hammer price and buyers premium) was $219.01 million. Presale estimates are of the hammer prices, not of the final prices with fees.

UPDATE: Sotheby’s hammer total was $190.1 million, considerably below the $218.1 low estimate.

While some may see this week’s results as evidence of a faltering market, they may be as much a function of the scarcity of must-have offerings in a field where great works available for sale have become increasingly hard to find.

For complete Sotheby’s results from tonight’s sale, go here. For Christie’s results last night, go here.

an ArtsJournal blog