“Frenzied” is probably the best way to describe the scenes at Art Basel on Tuesday. It was packed out with just about everyone from the art world, from Royal Academy chief executive Charles Saumarez Smith to leading collectors (Laurence Graff; Steve Cohen) and auction-house grandees (Sotheby’s new chief Tad Smith; Phillips’ Ed Dolman with the company’s Russian owners, the “two Leonids” Friedland and Strunin).
The visitors were there to buy. Many booths sold out within a few hours of the “first choice” (aka VVIP) opening, including Pace’s presentation of Rauschenberg ($450,000 to $1m); Victoria Miro sold all its freshly painted Yayoi Kusama “Infinity Net” paintings “in the mid-six figures”, according to Glenn Scott Wright of the gallery. Other exhibitors were just as happy, with Bernard Jacobson saying that everything in his solo booth of Robert Motherwell was “spoken for” (prices between $50,000 and $7m); David Zwirner reported 12 sales including Marlene Dumas’s “Helena” (2002) for $3.5m.
What seemed clear from the main fair was that buyers were favouring established artists with strong exhibition records, probably with investment in mind; among the many million-dollar sales were works by Thomas Schütte, Rosemarie Trockel, Louise Bourgeois, Keith Haring and Joan Mitchell.
The coming week in London sees the main Impressionist and Modern auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, with the latter the winner in the money stakes. Christie’s evening sale on Tuesday has a top estimate of just under £88m, while Sotheby’s session the following night could gallop away with a possible £203m.
Sotheby’s sale is strong on trophy works, including Degas’ “Petite danseuse de quatorze ans”, estimated at £10m-£15m. Sotheby’s specialist Philip Hook says Degas’ heirs made 28 casts of the “Little dancer” in bronze but 16 of them are already in museums. Of the commercial desirability of those “not in captivity” he says: “It depends whether another cast has recently been on the market, but the overall price movement is upwards.”
The world record for the work stands at just over £13m, set in 2009, but an over-ambitious estimate of $25m-$35m put paid to the hopes of this example when it was last offered at Christie’s New York in 2011 (it failed to elicit a single bid). This time, Sotheby’s has used a more realistic estimate and is taking no chances — its little dancer is twirling into the saleroom with an irrevocable bid and a guarantee.
Snatched from museum walls and tipped into the saleroom, Manet’s “Le Bar aux Folies-Bergère” (1881) is being offered on the same night at Sotheby’s (£15m-£20m). The first work in the series that culminated in the Courtauld’s famed masterpiece, this was until recently on show in the National Gallery’s Inventing Impressionism: Paul Durand-Ruel and the Modern Art Market — then driven straight to market. Asked what its policy was on such cases, a spokesperson for the National Gallery said it took such decisions “on a case-by-case basis”. “We weigh up the advantage to the exhibition in including a work of art — the benefit to the public in seeing the work and the benefit to the argument and scholarship of the exhibition as a whole,” said the gallery. As in the case of the Degas, the sale is risk-free for the vendor, as the painting is guaranteed and has an irrevocable bid on it.
Also on sale at Sotheby’s on Thursday and attracting particular interest is a group of 126 lots of Picasso ceramics, including hand-painted plates, vases and tiles, as well as figures and sculptural pieces. They are very different from the editioned Picasso ceramics that appear frequently on the market: all are unique, and show the artist almost obsessively working out his ideas by painting, incising and moulding directly on to the clay.
All the pieces come directly from Marina Picasso, who, despite barely knowing her grandfather, inherited a vast chunk of his estate. She has openly talked of her family’s problems — her father’s alcoholism, her brother’s suicide — and of her desire to sell off the hundreds of works she received upon Picasso’s death to fund her charity work. Prices start at £3,000 but rise to more than £200,000. One particularly attractive lot is a jug in the form of a goat from 1947, estimated at £120,000-£180,000.
Did it really belong to Leonardo? This is the possible provenance of a pocket mirror in ivory and silver being sold at Drouot by auctioneers Kapandji Morhange on Wednesday.
The charming, small object, just 12cm tall and catalogued as dating from 16th-century Italy, last appeared at auction in 1966. It supposedly once belonged to a Madame Jubinal de Saint-Albin, who also supposedly once owned Le Clos Lucé, Leonardo’s home close to Amboise in France, where the artist died in 1519. All these hypotheses lead to the belief that it could have belonged to Leonardo, who famously wrote backwards, and so needed a mirror to read his manuscripts.
The estimate of €60,000-€120,000 is curious: it is high for such a piece if the Leonardo connection fails to convince, but probably low if it really did belong to the great master.
Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large for The Art Newspaper
Photographs: Kusama Enterprise/Ota Fine Arts/Victoria Miro/Sotheby’s