Evening sales of impressionist and modern art rang up $388.5m in New York this week, boasting good sell-through rates and some new high prices – but offering no big surprises. The real fireworks are expected next week, when contemporary art, now the richest category in the market, hits the block.
Sotheby’s opened the ball on Tuesday with a 71-lot sale that included an attractive estate: 20 fresh-to-market works from New York collectors Alex and Elisabeth Lewyt. It was Alex Lewyt who invented the clip-on bow tie and a bagless vacuum cleaner in the early 20th century, and went on to collect art from the 1950s onwards.
The couple’s Cézanne study of apples, “Les Pommes” (1889-90), set the top price in the sale at $41.6m (est. $25m-$35m – pre-sale estimates don’t include premium; results do). Meanwhile their Modigliani “L’Amazone” (1909), a portrait of a confident horsewoman, sold towards its top estimate at almost $26m.
Much interest also focused on Léger’s “Trois femmes à la table rouge” (1921), consigned by pop diva Madonna, being sold to benefit her girls’ education foundation. It made a within-estimate $7.2m. Overall the sale totalled $230m, near the top end of expectations, with a strong 84.5 per cent finding buyers.
Lacking a major estate, Christie’s sale on the following night was a smaller affair – 47 lots – and slightly less rich, with a high estimate of $190.5m. In the end, its auction racked up $158.5m, with a strong sell-through rate of 94 per cent.
The cover lot, Soutine’s portrait of a sulky pastry chef, “Le Petit Patissier” (c.1927), set a new price high for the artist at just over $18m, towards the low end of its $16m-$22m estimate. Carrying a third-party guarantee, the Soutine was sold via a single bid to Christie’s Asian deputy chairman on the telephone, sparking speculation that the buyer was Chinese. One disappointment was the failure of Derain’s “Madame Matisse au kimono” (1905), estimated at $15m-$20m, which was left unsold despite extensive pre-sale publicity.
There have been a number of cases of looted Egyptian antiquities appearing on the market, and this has certainly been aggravated by the events of the Arab Spring.
In London, six lots of Egyptian material had to be withdrawn shortly before Christie’s May 2 London sale because they were believed to have been stolen from a recently discovered and excavated tomb in Thebes. According to the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiques unit, an unnamed man in his early 60s from northeast London was arrested the day after the sale “on suspicion of handling stolen goods, tax and fraud offences”. The suspect was released on bail until August.
Christie’s said the works “came with a convincing provenance”. The seller apparently said he had inherited the pieces (which included a red granite relief of a Nubian prisoner, dated 1550-1069 BC, and another limestone relief, both from the Theban tomb) from an uncle who had served in Egypt during the second world war.
After the catalogue was printed, the saleroom checked with the Egyptology Department of the British Museum and discovered that there was doubt about the works. “[Christie’s] is working with the police to ensure their speedy return to Egypt,” it said in a statement.
Bonhams also had some problems with its May 1 sale, amid allegations by the Egyptian authorities in the run-up to the session that it included 200 allegedly stolen antiquities. The auction house rejected the claims, saying it had checked their provenance.
The number of contested items was eventually whittled down to just 17. While 12 of these were sold and the session made £2m, most of the other Egyptian material performed very poorly. Julian Roup of Bonhams said that this was for “mundane market reasons” and unconnected with the allegations.
One item that did terribly well in London’s antiquities sales was a fourth-century BC sculpture of a falcon, which soared past its £100,000-£150,000 estimate to make a stunning £1.1m at Christie’s South Kensington, going to the London dealer Danny Katz. The same sale also saw a solid gold Iron Age bracelet, dating from about 1000BC, trounce its £40,000-£60,000 estimate to make £517,875.
Georg Baselitz, the German painter of upside-down figures, is in trouble with the German tax authorities. His home in Bavaria was recently searched by the local tax authorities, as part of an investigation linked to a CD containing a list of clients of Swiss bank UBS.
The disc was bought by North Rhine-Westphalia last year, and since then the most high-profile victim of the crackdown on those allegedly holding Swiss bank accounts has been Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness, who has confessed to tax fraud.
The famously cantankerous painter ranks among Germany’s highest-priced living artists. But earlier this year in an interview with news magazine Der Spiegel, he provoked a storm when he took a sideswipe at female artists, saying that they couldn’t paint.
And on the subject of Germany, Baselitz said: “Despite all the taxes people pay, there supposedly isn’t any money in this country for art. Of course, this makes an artist ask himself: ‘Well then, what are you doing with the 100m I pay each year? What happened to that money?”
Asked about the swoop, Baselitz, through his dealer Thaddaeus Ropac, declined to comment. Nevertheless, his planned exhibition in Ropac’s Pantin gallery in Paris, due to start on June 7, has now been pushed back to September 8. “The artist is currently working, between his studio and the Noack foundry in Berlin on major sculptures he would like to include in the exhibition,” the gallery said in a statement.
According to website Artprice, works by Baselitz sold at auction in 2012 for a total of $8.2m – a figure that does not reflect sales through his numerous galleries, which include White Cube, Ropac, Gagosian, Catherine Putman and Bjerggaard.
Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper