Against gloomy media forecasts for the global art market and Britain’s impending EU referendum, yesterday's (21 June) Impressionist and Modern evening sale at Sotheby’s proved, once again, that the top end of the art market rarely reflects the state of the outside world.
The figures paint a happy picture for the auction house: a £90.7m hammer total (£103.3m with fees) against an estimate of £81.8m-£99m, with an 89% sell-through rate. Out of 27 lots, 11 hammered above the upper estimate and only three were bought in. Nevertheless, in June 2015, there were almost twice as many lots, and the sale fetched £178.6m with fees.
Conducting the auction was Helena Newman, Sotheby’s worldwide co-head of Impressionist and Modern art; this is only the second time ever that a woman has taken an evening auction, the first one being Melanie Clore, also at Sotheby’s, in 1990.
The sale was held together by two star portraits, both of which had been off the market for more than 30 years. Picasso’s portrait of his lover Fernande Olivier, Femme assise (1909), saw lengthy but slow bidding, until it sold for £38.5m (£43.3 with fees), well above its estimate of more than £30m, on the phone to Adam Chinn of Art Agency Partners, the advisory firm recently bought by Sotheby’s. Amedeo Modigliani’s Jeanne Hebuterne (au foulard) (1919) had been initially guaranteed by the house, though this was later changed to an irrevocable bid (a type of third-party guarantee). This proved unnecessary, however, as protracted bidding saw the work sell for £34.3m (£38.5m with fees), again, well above its estimate of more than £28m. These two works accounted for just over 80% of the evening’s total, and in fact are the two highest-selling lots in a London auction in more than five years.
“We were very fortunate to be entrusted with these two works. We had no doubt that they would sell, but the question was how well. Brexit referendum or not, the market understands this kind of quality,” Newman said after the sale. There were no other blockbusters up for sale, but buyers snapped almost everything up.
The only disappointment of the evening was a large, posthumous Rodin bronze, Ève, grand modèle - version sans rocher à la base carrée (conceived in 1881 and cast between 1925-1940), which failed to find a buyer. Bidding stopped at £6.2m, far below its lower estimate of £8m.