The London sales of impressionist and modern art this week again demonstrated the importance, for the auction houses, of bagging estates, as well as the progressive depletion of the inventory in this sector. With the New York sessions held barely six weeks before, it was plain that bringing in material for the London sales had been tough. As a result both Christie’s and Sotheby’s had bolstered their offerings by going to the Nahmad family of traders and dealers, who have thousands of works squirrelled away in the Geneva freeport.
Christie’s evening sale on Tuesday was flaccid, with just 44 lots, and while the total of just over £64m fell short of its upper target of £75.8m, the result felt surprisingly solid considering the offerings (pre-sale estimates don’t include fees; results do). The top two lots were from the Nahmads, with a colourful Kandinsky, “Studie zu Improvisation 3” (1909), making £13.5m, while Modigliani’s 1916 portrait of his dealer Paul Guillaume fetched £6.8m. However, thanks to activity from Asian and Russian telephone bidders and an Indian collector in the room, only seven lots were bought in.
The same Indian collector was also bidding at Sotheby’s far bigger and stronger sale the following night. With two estates, one from Switzerland and one from Picasso collector Stanley Seeger, the 71 lots racked up an impressive £105.9m, against upper expectations of £104.9m. Again, the top lot, Monet’s Venetian scene “Le Palais Contarini” (1908), came from the Nahmads and carried an irrevocable bid, meaning it was presold; it went on its mid-estimate, for £19.7m. But there was spirited bidding for other works, including a prize Mondrian composition (£9.3m), a Camille Claudel bronze (“La Valse”, £5.1m), Magritte (“L’idée”, £4.6m) and Henry Moore (“Working Model for draped Reclining Mother and Baby”, £4.6m), all of which went over estimate.
Yet another suspected art forgery ring is currently under police investigation in Wiesbaden in Germany. At issue are about 400 allegedly counterfeit works of art by avant-garde Russian artists such as Wassily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich and Natalia Goncharova, worth some €2m, according to the German Federal Police. Two men have been arrested, after 28 places around Germany were raided – warehouses, homes and offices, say the police.
According to the police, they were tipped off that an international ring with links to Israel had been making the forgeries, which had been sold to Spanish, German and Swiss collectors at prices up to €1m since 2005. Some of the works of art at issue were apparently sold through a Wiesbaden gallery called SMZ, which specialised in the Russian avant-garde; the gallery closed in 2010. The police said the two men arrested were a co-owner of the gallery, Itzhak Z from Israel, and its manager, Moez Ben H, from Germany.
It may be a coincidence, but a conservator who spoke to me under condition of anonymity recalls being called in to examine avant-garde Russian works in 2010. “I saw about 200 in Zurich,” he says: “There were all the big names there, such as Goncharova, Malevich, Kandinsky, Jawlensky and Larionov, and it surprised me to see such a major line-up. There was something similar about the group, the way they had been ‘patched’ [small repairs] and the way they had aged.” He says the client referred to his reports as “certificates”, although he pointed out they were only condition reports; he also strongly recommended a specialist in the period examine the works for authentication. Perhaps more will emerge when the case comes to court – in about six months’ time, say the police.
The 2009 Yves St Laurent sale in Paris set new price highs for the Lalannes, the husband-and-wife team who made quirky “furniture/ sculptures” based on animals and plants. François-Xavier is sadly no longer with us, but Claude is still designing, and this week in London Ben Brown Fine Arts unveiled a show of Lalanne works spanning 30 years, from a giant gorilla (“Gorille de Sûreté II”, 1984, hiding a safe in its chest) to new creations such as “La Femme du Crocodile” (2012, €850,000), a spiny reptile that opens to show shelving. There are also the Lalannes’ signature flocks of sheep, and the cute little “Choupattes” – cabbages with feet. Prices start at €50,000 and go up to over €1m; the show is on until September 21.
Now AAMU is selling some of its holdings at auction in Paris today – in order to boost its holdings. I asked Petitjean if it wasn’t illogical to de-accession when the museum wanted to expand, but he explained that much of the original collection, donated by one of the founders, was a “private” collection. “A museum collection has a different focus,” he says. “We are missing iconic works by major artists and this is why we are selling these works, to be able to acquire them.” Strange but true: the only museum in the world entirely devoted to contemporary Aboriginal art is in the Netherlands. The private, non-profit Museum of Aboriginal Contemporary Art (AAMU) in Utrecht was created in 1999 by a group of collectors and opened its doors in 2001. Links between the Netherlands and Australia go back a long way, points out AAMU curator Georges Petitjean, noting that Australia itself was called “New Holland” until the 1820s.
So coming under the hammer of the French auction house Castor-Hara in Drouot are about 50 objects, 42 of them paintings, at decidedly “come-hither” prices: for example, Yala Yala Gibbs Tjungurrayi’s “Tingari” (1997), is estimated at just €700-€1,000. The whole sale is estimated at just under €60,000.
Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper