A Claude Monet water lily work from 1919 led last night’s average Impressionist and Modern sale at Christie’s, where the hammer total of $121.9m fell short of the estimated $138.3m to $203.4m it was meant to take in. But just seven of the 51 lots on offer failed to find buyers resulting in a healthy sell-through rate of 86 percent.
The figure is especially robust for the category, which is considered harder to sell than more trendy contemporary art (Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern sale earlier in the week had a sell-through rate of just 66%). Only one of the lots was guaranteed and the night saw a new record for Frida Kahlo, whose Dos desnudos en el bosque (La tierra misma) (1939) sold for $8m with premium.
The Monet, Le bassin aux nympheas, sold under estimate for $24m ($27m with premium) to a sole bidder, a representative of London’s Gladwell & Patterson who was buying on behalf of a client. The second-highest selling lot of the evening was a darker portrait by Amedeo Modigliani, Jeune femme a la rose (Margherita) (1916). After fending off another bidder in the room, the adviser Michael Altman bought the work for $11.25m on behalf of a client ($12.8m with premium). The most hotly-contested item of the evening was a naturalistic stone sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, Sculpture with Colour (Eos) (1946), which hammered at $4.7m, well over double its high estimate of $1.8m ($5.4m with premium). The work attracted five bidders on the phone and three in the room.
Altman also picked up a Henri Matisse painting, Portrait aux cheveux boucles, pull marin (Allan Stein) (1907) for $1.45m. "Listen, that’s a lot of money, but not compared to a [Andreas] Gursky from an edition of 12 that’s $4m," he said, exiting the room.
"There are paradigm shifts in taste," he said. "It's not the excitement of the contemporary world, and the lesser-quality works are suffering more than they are in contemporary art."
The sale’s low total may have simply been the result of over-ambitious estimates, since reserves on most works seemed quite low. As reflected by the total, most lots sold for below estimate including an early gouache by Fernand Léger, which sold for a hammer price of $350,000, well under its $500,000 low estimate.
Asian bidding seemed strong on the phones, especially for the Hepworth and another Monet. At the press conference after the sale Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie's global president, put Asian buying at around "20% by lot", the same as the auction house's earlier sales in the week. In total, Christie's took in $620.7m this week. Now there are just a few more day sales left before things begin again in New York in November.