There was an unmistakable disconnect at Sotheby’s auction Tuesday evening that reinforced the results at Christie’s the night before: despite a low-energy salesroom and few bidders on each lot, some people spent a lot of money on art.
Marc Chagall was the man of the night, with his “Les Amoureux” — depicting the artist in a loving embrace with his first wife, Bella Rosenfeld — which sold for $28.4 million with fees, a high for the artist, over a top estimate of $18 million. It went to a client bidding on the telephone represented by Irina Stepanova, head of Sotheby’s Moscow office.
The painting had been owned by the same family since it was bought in 1928 “with the paint still wet,” according to Simon Shaw, co-head of Sotheby’s Impressionist & Modern Art Worldwide.
The artist’s 1956 canvas, “Le Grand Cirque,” which features acrobats, trapeze artists and clowns, also outperformed its $15 million high estimate, selling for $16 million, to an Asian telephone bidder.
But there were still moments Tuesday night when it felt as though the auctioneer Helena Newman was pulling teeth. And it was hard for her to conceal her disappointment when she was forced to bring the hammer down on Picasso’s 1939 painting “Buste de femme au chapeau” for $19 million ($21.7million with fees), just over the low estimate of $18 million.
“These Impressionist sales aren’t the events they were, but the prices gave buyers some confidence,” said Alon Zakaim, a London dealer. “The market is international now, and on the telephone,” added Mr. Zakaim, who, with other dealers, noted the strength of Asian bidding.
Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, representing the same client on the telephone, bulk-bought five of the evening’s 10 most expensive lots, including Monet’s 1893 “Les Glacons, Bennecourt” ($23.4 million) and his 1913 “Les Arceaux des Roses, Giverney” ($19.4 million).
To be sure, Impressionist and modern art remains a shrinking, less sexy category, compared to the enduring craze for contemporary art. But as the Sotheby’s sale attests, there is still a market for older art, however diminished the appetite may be. “This category is alive and kicking,” Mr. Shaw said after the sale.
The auction totaled nearly $270 million, and 92 percent of the 64 lots sold. Twenty-six were guaranteed, with all but six covered by third parties.
Missing from the auction were a Henry Moore drawing and a Francis Picabia painting, part of a group of artworks from the financially-strapped Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., to fund its redevelopment program. The sale had been opposed by two groups of plaintiffs and the Massachusetts Attorney General. The Massachusetts Appeals Court on Friday blocked the anticipated auction of art from the museum, and the Moore and the Picabia were withdrawn.