The preview night of Christie’s 31-lot Impressionist and Modern art sale was buzzing with jokes poking fun at Basel and positioning the sale to be the ultimate antidote to the Swiss fairs, the Venice Biennale and the start of a strong “London summer season”. Despite all this, the sale on Tuesday night proved to be rather painful to watch.
The sale totalled just £30.5m (£36.4 with fees), under half of its pre-sale low estimate, and a 77% sell-through rate. Last year’s equivalent sale brought in £128m for the auction house with fees and had a 84% sell-through rate. Only one lot carried a house guarantee this year, which was the only work by a woman artist, Hannah Höch’s Er und sein milieu (1919). It proved to be one of few bright spots, making a record for the artist by fetching £520,000.
The first lot of the night was a paper work by Egon Schiele which elicited a five minute bidding war, passing its estimate of £300,000 and landing on a final hammer price of £1.05 million. While the sale seemed to be off to a good start, it quickly nosedived with many of the show’s hopefuls failing to sell. Bidding on what was deemed to be the third-biggest lot, Le Collier D’ambre (1937) by Henri Matisse, stalled at £4.2 million, short of its £5 million low estimate and it ultimately failed to sell.
The main star of the show (also the biggest casualty) was Fernand Léger’s Femme dans un fauteuil (1913). A dramatic composition marked by tumbling array of lines, colours and forms, the work almost veers into abstraction. It is part of a groundbreaking series of five works by Léger where he ventured beyond the Cubist work that he, Picasso and Braque pioneered, stepping into “a new and unprecedented realm of abstraction” according Christie’s Jason Carey. Three works of the series are in major museums while the fourth’s location is unknown. This, along with Léger’s Contraste de forms (1913) selling for $70m at Christie’s New York in 2017, eclipsing the previous world-action record for the artist, set the bar a bit too high. Bidding stalled at £19.5 million, far from its on-request estimate of £25 million, and it, too, failed to sell.
The other major piece of the sale was the large and green Homme et femmes nut (1968) by Picasso. It also fetched close to its low end of its pre-sale estimate of £10-15 million with a final hammer price of £10.8 million, making it by far the biggest lot of the sale.
With Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art looming, as well as its $3.7 billion sale to French telecom tycoon Patrick Drahi this week, Christie’s is in an unenviable position.