Picasso, Monet to Top $518 Million Auctions as Confidence Grows

"Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto" (1903) by Pablo Picasso was offered for sale by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation at Christie's International's June 23 auction of Impressionist and Modern Art, in London, and was expected to fetch between 30 million pounds and 40 million pounds. It sold for 34.8 million pounds. Source: Christie's Images via Bloomberg

Works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Henri Matisse will lead auctions that carry a record estimate of 350 million pounds ($518 million) as the top end of the art market recovers from the biggest slump since 1991.

Two weeks of evening sales of Impressionist and contemporary works at Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Phillips de Pury & Co. -- starting today -- are estimated to raise more than three times last year’s total low estimate.

“Results over the last six months have made private sellers confident about putting high-value works into auction,” Philip Hoffman, founder of the London-based investment company, the Fine Art Fund, said in an interview.

Dealers said the market was picking up after recent auction records such as the $106.5 million paid for a Picasso painting in New York in May and the 43.2 million euros ($53 million) for a Modigliani sculpture in Paris on June 14. Sellers are coming forward even with auction houses no longer guaranteeing prices, and buyers have started to invest after prices dropped.

“The auction houses can assure sellers that there will be five or six bidders lined up for the top lots,” said Hoffman. “I’m amazed by how much money and how many different nationalities are pitching in for the major things. There are bidders from the U.S., Russia, the Middle East and Asia.”

Christie’s sale of 63 Impressionist works tomorrow is expected to fetch at least 163.7 million pounds, making it the most valuable art sale to be held in the U.K., said the London- based auction house. In February, Sotheby’s raised a total of 146.8 million pounds at an Impressionist sale, including the record 65 million pounds paid for Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture, “Walking Man I.”

Absinthe Drinker

Christie’s sale includes Monet’s 1906 painting “Nympheas” and Picasso’s 1903 “Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto,” showing one of the artist’s friends drinking absinthe, both of which are expected to fetch between 30 million pounds and 40 million pounds.

The equivalent sale of 51 lots tonight at Sotheby’s carries a minimum valuation of 101 million pounds, the biggest low estimate the company has ever set for an auction in London. Highlights include Edouard Manet’s 1878 “Self Portrait with a Palette,” entered by Steven A. Cohen, founder of SAC Capital Advisors LP, with a high estimate of 30 million pounds, and Matisse’s never previously auctioned 1928 painting, “Odalisques jouant aux dames,” at 10 million pounds to 15 million pounds.

‘Turning Corner’

“Sellers have been waiting for the market to turn the corner and prices to clear the high estimates,” the London- based dealer Richard Nagy said in an interview. “There’s been a build-up of material that should have been sold last year that’s been held back,” said Nagy, who was one of several underbidders on the 43.2-million-euro Modigliani in Paris.

Nagy was also one of many of the 303 dealers exhibiting at last week’s Art Basel fair in Switzerland who reported improved levels of demand.

Geneva- and New York-based gallery Krugier sold a 1960 white plaster sculpture by Picasso priced at $15 million and there were plentiful sales of contemporary works by established names in the $200,000 to $2 million range, said dealers. The event attracted a record 62,500 visitors, compared with the 61,000 last year, according to Art Basel.

During the financial crisis, the prices of many contemporary artists fell by as much as 50 percent and auction houses slashed estimates to maintain success rates at sales.

Average Prices

Average auction prices at evening sales of contemporary works now stand at 2.9 million pounds, up from 1.4 million pounds last year, the London-based research company ArtTactic said in a report published in May.

Sotheby’s and Christie’s evening contemporary-art auctions next week carry low estimates of 38.3 million pounds for 53 works and 40.9 million pounds for 63 lots respectively, more than double what they were in 2009. Sotheby’s is hoping to raise as much as 6.5 million pounds for a 1961 Yves Klein sponge painting on June 28, while Andy Warhol’s “Silver Liz” (1963) carries a high estimate of 8 million pounds at Christie’s on June 30.

Phillips’s 45-lot auction of contemporary works on June 29 is expected to fetch at least 6.1 million pounds, compared with 5.4 million pounds last June. The most highly valued work in the sale is Roy Lichtenstein’s 8-foot-wide 1969 spot painting, “Prop for a Film,” at 500,000 pounds to 700,000 pounds.

The June 2009 series of London evening sales had a low estimate of 100.9 million pounds. The equivalent auctions in 2008 had a low valuation of 334.7 million pounds.

(Scott Reyburn writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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