By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Some see the glass as half empty; others see it as half full. The sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art that Sotheby’s and Christie’s held in London in February contained fodder for the arguments of both camps.
The half-empty crowd can cite the collective total for the four evening sales at the two houses—$175.2 million—and bemoan the falloff from 2008’s collective take of roughly $860 million. They can fault Christie’s postwar and contemporary auction on Feb. 11 and fret over Francis Bacon’s 1954 Man in Blue VI, which was estimated at £4–6 million ($5.6–8.5 million), and Mark Rothko’s 1968 Green, Blue, Green on Blue, estimated at £2.5–3.5 million ($3.5–4.9 million). Neither painting sold. Christie’s
Feb. 4 Impressionist and modern sale had a less obvious weakness. Monet’s 1876 Dans la prairie garnered £11.2 million ($16.2 million), but its unpublished estimate was in the region of £15 million ($21.3 million). Sotheby’s Feb. 3 Impressionist and modern auction included Amedeo Modigliani’s 1913 Cariatide, which was estimated at £6–8 million ($8.5–11.3 million) and went unclaimed. Despite being the top-selling lot at Sotheby’s Feb. 5 contemporary sale, Lucio Fontana’s 1961 Concetto Spaziale collected £4.4 million ($6.2 million), below its £5–7 million ($7–9.9 million) estimate.
Half-full advocates can champion the Edgar Degas bronze Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, which set a record for a Degas sculpture at auction when it earned £13.2 million ($19.2 million) at Sotheby’s on Feb. 3. Several Kees van Dongen paintings in Christie’s Feb. 4 sale beat their estimates, and one, Femme aux deux colliers (circa 1910), an image of a woman clad only in necklaces, drew £1.3 million ($1.9 million) on an estimate of £300,000–600,000 ($427,500–855,000).
All four auctions posted sold-by-lot numbers above 75 percent. The Feb. 5 outing at Sotheby’s did best, reaching 92.6 percent sold with the help of works such as Anish Kapoor’s 1996 stainless steel sculpture Untitled, which garnered £982,050 ($1.4 million) on an estimate of £500,000–700,000 ($710,000–994,000). Finally, there’s the fact that Christie’s and Sotheby’s each assembled two auctions that moved most of their lots in one of the most nerve-wracking economic climates ever.
So however you see that proverbial glass, consider raising it in toast to the modest performances in London. “As a whole, I wouldn’t say it was a rousing success, but it was better than most people expected,” says Morgan Long, head of art services at The Fine Art Fund Group, a London-based investment firm. “There are still buyers.”