Asian Buyers Grab Impressionist Art in Weak Sotheby’s Sale

May 08, 2014 12:22 pm ET

(Updates with Christie’s buyer trend in 13th paragraph.)

May 8 (Bloomberg) -- Asian buyers snapped up works by Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Alberto Giacometti at Sotheby’s mixed $219 million evening sale of Impressionist and modern art in New York yesterday.

Collectors including those from Taiwan, China and Hong Kong accounted for $63.9 million in sales, almost a third of the total, which squeaked past the low estimate of $218.1 million. Of the 71 lots, 21, or 30 percent, failed to find buyers.

While some pieces by Pablo Picasso, August Rodin and Edgar Degas soared past their estimates, other works by the same artists drew no bids. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio briefly observed the auction from a box above the sales floor.

“There’s no reckless bidding anymore,” said Ezra Chowaiki, a private art dealer in New York. “You can tell that people have done their homework.”

The top lot was Picasso’s 1932 painting “Le Sauvetage (Rescue),” depicting female figures inspired by Picasso’s young lover Marie-Therese Walter pulling each other from the water. Estimated at $14 million to $18 million, it was chased by four bidders and sold for $28 million, or $31.5 million with fees, to a telephone client of Charles Moffet, Sotheby’s vice chairman, Americas.

Estimated Range

The consigner acquired the work for $14.8 million at Sotheby’s 10 years ago. The prices include the buyer’s fee; the estimates don’t. Sotheby’s was down 1.88 percent to $40.77 at 12:19 a.m. in New York trading.

A 1924 painting by Henri Matisse, “La Seance du Matin (Morning Session)” sold for $19.2 million, falling short of the estimated range of $20 million to $30 million set by the auction house.

Sotheby’s guaranteed the seller an undisclosed minimum price financed by a third party, assuring that the work would sell. It drew only two bids and was purchased by a private Asian client, Sotheby’s said.

Another Asian buyer won Giacometti’s sculpture “La Place (City Square).” Cast in 1948, it fetched $13 million, within the estimated range of $12 million to $18 million. The piece depicted five miniature stick-figure people, one woman and four men, on a horizontal platform. The anonymous seller purchased the work for $4.5 million in 2000 at Sotheby’s.

Marble Sculpture

Monet’s richly textured “Le Pont Japonais (Japanese Bridge)” sold for $15.8 million to a telephone client of Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia. It had been estimated at $12 million to $18 million.

Rodin’s sensual marble sculpture “Eve” was acquired by a Chinese collector for $4.9 million, within the estimate range. Conceived in 1881 and carved from December 1900 to June 1901, the work was commissioned by German collector Dr. Max Linde, known for his holdings of Edvard Munch, Degas and Monet.

The auction included 14 works by Picasso of which six didn’t sell. On May 6, rival Christie’s offered 13 Picasso lots, selling all but one.

The entire evening sale at Christie’s totaled $286 million, higher than the presale low estimate of $243.5 million but falling short of the high estimate of $358.9 million. The Asian buying trend was visible at Christie’s, where the top lot, a Monet painting of water lilies once owned by reclusive heiress Huguette Clark, went to a private Asian buyer for $27 million. Pierre Auguste Renoir 1887 “Jeunes Files Jouant au Volant,” also from Clark’s collection, also ended up with an Asian collector for $11.4 million.

Board Members

The mixed results at Sotheby’s yesterday came the same day as the company reported a smaller first-quarter loss as art sales increased. The net loss narrowed to $6.1 million, or 9 cents a share, from $22.3 million, or 33 cents a share, a year earlier, the company said.

The auction also took place the same week as Sotheby’s ended a proxy fight with activist investor Daniel Loeb by appointing him to its board. Loeb and his hedge-fund firm Third Point LLC for months criticized Sotheby’s for its expenses and internal operations.

The biggest casualty at the Sotheby’s auction was a 1932-34 portrait by Picasso of his lover Walter with bulbous features evoking sexual organs. Estimated at $15 million to $20 million, it didn’t draw a single bid.

“It looked like a cake,” Chowaiki said, referring to the painting’s dense texture.

Unsold Pieces

Several dealers dismissed a possibility of the market not being able to absorb such a large number of Picassos, saying some unsold pieces had been shopped around while others simply didn’t look good.

“The market is extremely selective,” Loic Malle, a Paris- based curator and art adviser, said in an interview at the auction. “Younger collectors want Picassos that look contemporary.”

As he spoke, Picasso’s large vertical canvas, “Femme Dans un Rocking-Chair” came on the block after a spell of unsold lots. The 1956 painting has a sparse composition with a fragmented female figure outlined by a curvy black line. Dealers exiting the Upper East Side salesroom stopped and took empty seats. Bids flew in from at least seven people, pushing the work past its target of $2 million to $3 million. The final price: $6.3 million.