Picasso Portrait Fetches $52 Million; Monet Leads Auction Flops

"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

The headline-grabbing sale of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pablo Picasso portrait for 34.8 million pounds ($52 million) helped make a London art auction the biggest ever held in the U.K.

Still, 25 percent of the 62 lots of Impressionist and modern art failed to sell -- including a Claude Monet painting, which like the Picasso was forecast to fetch as much as 40 million pounds at hammer prices. Both works had tipped to set records for the artists or even for any work of art at auction. Lloyd Webber’s lot was one of 35 that sold within or below forecast as the top end of the art market had a reality check, said dealers.

“The Monet consignor was greedy,” the New York-based dealer Richard Feigen said in an interview. “It was a sweet painting, not a great Monet. Except for two or three works, this was an average sale.”

Buyers are being selective near the start of two weeks of London sales that are a bellwether for the market. During the last six months, bidding from Russia, the Middle East and Asia has helped push auction prices of trophy-quality artworks to record levels. This time there was less buying from the emerging markets, said Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Last night’s record total of 152.6 million pounds with fees fell short of the low estimate of 163.7 million pounds, based on hammer prices.

Monet’s 1906 “Nympheas” failed to attract any bidding, drawing gasps from a packed saleroom.

“I had four people on phones waiting for the Monet and no one pulled the trigger,” Thomas Seydoux, Christie’s international head of Impressionist and modern art said in an interview after the sale. “We were a bit too bullish. Once an estimate gets to 30 million pounds, it does create caution.”

Manet Cloud

As at Sotheby’s the previous evening, where a Manet self-portrait fell to a lone bid of 22.4 million pounds, within- estimate buying was the norm.

“That disappointing price definitely cast a cloud over the hugely estimated lots,” the London-based dealer Richard Nagy said in an interview. “Everyone expects ever-increasing record prices and the auction houses can’t keep pulling rabbits out of hats. The market is still solid, though, and whatever sold fetched the correct price.”

Picasso’s 1903 “Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto (The Absinthe Drinker),” attracted three bidders before selling to New York-based Christie’s specialist Sheri Farber, representing a client on the telephone, underbid by an Asian collector.

“It was slightly Edwardian in feel,” said Nagy. “What people want now is modernism.”

Gustav Klimt’s recently restituted 1917 to 1918 “Frauenbildnis (Portrait of Ria Munk III),” sold just above the high estimate to a telephone bidder for 18.8 million pounds, despite having been offered privately before the sale.

Guaranteed Picasso

Picasso’s 1969 figure painting “Le baiser” -- sold to a phone bidder represented by Seydoux for 12.1 million pounds, just above the high estimate -- was the third of a trio of works to sell for more than 10 million pounds. It was the only lot to carry a guaranteed minimum price, provided by a third party.

Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 landscape, “Parc de l’hopital Saint-Paul,” estimated at 8 million pounds to 12 million pounds, found a telephone bidder for 9 million pounds. A lifetime cast of Auguste Rodin’s bronze “L’age d’airain” sold for 3.4 million pounds, double the upper estimate.

“People are looking at the works and not just the catalog, and some works just don’t measure up,” Jonathon P. Binstock, a New York-based art adviser at Citi Private Bank, said in an interview. “The market is recovering, but we’re not quite there yet.”

The equivalent sale last year, held during the financial crisis, raised 37.1 million pounds from 44 lots.

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News.)

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