Modern Masters Lead to Records at Christie’s

The global taste for modern masters helped the market for Impressionist and modern art continue its upward climb at Christie’son Wednesday night, where record prices were reached for artists like Matisse and Gris.


The evening’s auction, the second of the week, illustrated how — with supplies dwindling and the number of new collectors growing — many buyers are finding the marketplace particularly competitive, even for works that are not considered top flight.

The evening sale was overstuffed with paintings, drawings and sculptures of varying quality, and considerably larger and longer (way too long, many in the audience were grumbling) than the one at Sotheby’s the night before. From the start, the Sotheby’s auction had a clear winner, a 1917 Modigliani nude, which brought $68.9 million, a record for the artist at auction.

Christie’s had one too, it turned out, though the professionals weren’t so sure before the sale began. But five bidders jumped in to bring home Matisse’s monumental bronze sculpture of a woman’s back — “Nu de Dos, 4 État (Back IV)” — conceived in 1930 but not cast until 1978. The superdealer Larry Gagosian won the sculpture for $48.8 million, a record for the artist and well above its $35 million high estimate. After the sale Mr. Gagosian said he had bid on behalf of a client whom he declined to name. (Mr. Gagosian has bid in the past for Steven A. Cohen, the hedge fund billionaire, who was seen in a skybox above the salesroom at last night’s auction.)

The Matisse was the last of a series of four sculptures on the same subject that the artist worked on between 1908 and 1931, and that progressed from classical to abstracted forms. It was sold by Jürgen Pierburg, a German collector based in Switzerland.

(Final prices include the buyer’s commission to Christie’s: 25 percent of the first $50,000; 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1 million; and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)

Altogether the Christie’s sale brought $231.4 million, against an estimate of $199 million to $287 million. Of the 84 works on offer, 67 sold. Sotheby’s auction, although a smaller affair (it sold 46 of its 61 works) made nearly as much on Tuesday — $227.5 million, also in the middle of its estimate of $195 million to $266 million. On both evenings, buyers were clearly aware of prices, and only really stretched for works they considered to be the very best.

Besides the Matisse, this category included several works being sold by the financier Henry Kravis and his wife, Marie-Josée Kravis, president of the Museum of Modern Art. Although their property was marked only “Property from a Distinguished Collection: Four Modern Masterpieces” in the catalog, other collectors and art dealers familiar with the Kravises’ art were able to identify them as the sellers. (See our slideshow on the best selling artists.)

Top among the works was a 1913 painting by Gris, “Violin and Guitar.” The colorful Cubist painting, which was expected to bring $18 million to $25 million, sold to an unidentified telephone bidder for $28.6 million, a record auction price. And Miró’s “Air,” a 1938 abstract landscape, was bought by Alan Hobart, a London dealer, for $10.3 million, under its low estimate of $12 million.

There has been a lot of activity in the market for Giacometti sculptures ever since Lily Safra, the widow of the banker Edmond J. Safra, paid a record $104.3 million for the artist’s “Walking Man I” at Sotheby’s in London in February. On Wednesday night, Christie’s had several lesser works by the artist for sale. By far the best was his “Femme de Venise V,” a nearly 4-foot-tall sculpture of an elongated woman. Three bidders went for the figure, which ended up selling for $9.1 million or $10.2 million with Christie’s fees, right in the middle of its $8 million to $12 million estimate.

Several works-on-paper brought particularly high prices. “Man and Woman,” a 1917 gouache of an embracing, naked couple by Schiele, was estimated to bring $4 million to $6 million. Robert Mnuchin of L& M Arts outbid six people, buying the drawing for $7.3 million, a hefty price considering that when it had last been on the market, at Sotheby’s in London nine years ago, it brought $2.5 million.

And “The Promenade,” an 1882 drawing by Seurat depicting the silhouette of a woman from the back that was expected to sell for $1.5 million to $2 million, was snapped up by a telephone bidder for $3.3 million.

But throughout the evening many works sold for well under their estimates, and some average examples of paintings by Renoir, Bonnard and Picasso failed to sell at all.

Still, the results managed to send a clear signal of confidence, even to the pros. “It’s now a truly global market,” Mark Fisch, a real estate developer and collector, said after the sale. “The new wealth from India and China, Japan and Brazil are all buying art, which made these sales sane, solid and deep.”