A Slow Start to Spring's Art Auction Season

Picasso, Lot 21
Source: Sotheby's
Picasso, Lot 21

There were no outright yawns at this spring's Modern and Impressionist evening sales at Christie's and Sotheby's, but sales totals from this week's auctions came up short of both houses' presale expectations.

Christie's took in $156 million for its Wednesday evening sale, $6 million below its presale estimate, while Sotheby's $170.5 million on Tuesday night was at the low end of its estimated sales range.

"The atmosphere was flat," says art consultant Abigail Asher, co-founder of art advisory firm Guggenheim Asher Associates. "Most of it wasn't anything anyone was going to stretch for."

Picasso's "Femmes Lisant” sold for $21.4 million at Sotheby's on Tuesday night, but the portrait of his lover Marie-Therese Walter and another woman reading fell well short of the low estimate of $25 million.

Christie's marquee offering was a colorful 1905 fauvist landscape by Maurice de Vlamnick, called ''Paysage de Banlieue.''

Vlaminck, Lot 25
Source: Christie's
Vlaminck, Lot 25

The bidding became more hesitant Wednesday night as the price neared the low end of the estimated $18 million to $25 million. This prompted auctioneer Christopher Burrage to pause to give bidders time to consider, remarking, "This could take a while."

In the end, the Vlamnick piece sold for $22.48 million, including commission. It's a record for the artist, known as a master of the Fauve moment, but hardly a blowout sale for the auction house.

Monet's "Les Peupliers" sold for $22.4 million, also near the low presale estimate, but another painting by the Impressionist master, "Iris Mauves" with a presale estimate of $15 million to $20 million, failed to garner minimum bid levels.

While the sales totals were disappointing, the strength of prices overall at this week's auctions show the market remains, strong says Suzanne Gyorgy, Citi Private Bank's director of Art Advisory and Finance.

Monet, Lot 16
Source: Christie's
Monet, Lot 16

"When you look at the prices paid, they were solid prices," she says, adding that the offerings for the Modern sales this year were lackluster compared to a year ago when the auction houses benefitted from a number of pieces from collectors' estates that had not been on the market for years.

"Both Sotheby’s and Christie's had respectable sales of the material they had to sell," she says.

Consultant Abigail Asher says there is still a feeding frenzy for premier works, but the auction houses are having a hard time coaxing collectors to sell.

"People right now don't want to be letting go of hard assets, " Asher believes, in much the same way investors have taken an interest in gold as an alternative investment vehicle.

Rather than selling and having to contend with capital gains taxes, Citi Private Bank's Gyorgy say many of her clients are monetizing their high-priced collections by using them as collateral for loans — a way to have their cake and eat it, too.

"They're getting liquidity out a traditionally illiquid asset," she says. "And the art still hangs on the wall."

Gyorgy and Asher say the offerings for next week's Contemporary and Post War auctions should be stronger, with a number of highly coveted Warhol paintings among the offerings.

"That's a very different game," say Asher of Contemporary art collectors. "People are creating and support a market. It's in their interest to keep things coming out."