Kluge, Wasserman Trophies Test Art Market in $1.1 Billion Sales

"La robe violette" (1942) by Henri Matisse. The work once belonged to Lew Wasserman. Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

A Matisse painting that once belonged to Lew Wasserman and a trio of Maillol bronzes from the collection of John W. Kluge will be among art offered during the next two weeks as New York auctioneers present works valued at more than $1.1 billion.

“Everyone will be watching these sales very closely,” said Jeff Rabin, co-founder and principal at New York-based Artvest Partners, which provides investment advice for the art market. “Art is a good store of value in uncertain times. On the other hand, art is highly illiquid and if you have financial need, it is not the place to be.”

The season opens on Nov. 1 with the Christie’s International evening sale of Impressionist and modern art. Matisse’s 1942 “Robe orientale violette sur la robe blanche a la fenetre” will lead a group of seven pieces from the collection of Edie and Lew Wasserman, a talent agent and former president of Universal Studios who died in 2002. The painting could bring as much as $6 million.

The proceeds from the sale of the three life-size bronzes by Aristide Maillol, with a combined estimate of $2.5 million to $3.6 million, would benefit Columbia University.

The Museum of Modern Art is selling “Les Mains,” a 1941 painting by Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux, to benefit its acquisition fund. The hand gestures made by nude women and men in dark suits and bowler hats are the focus of the canvas that may bring as much as $9 million.

Sotheby’s Nov. 2 evening sale includes lots consigned by the Israel Museum, the Menil Collection and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Matisse Quartet

Gustav Klimt’s 1915 landscape “Litzlberg am Attersee” leads the sale with a low estimate of $25 million. A life-size bronze of a woman’s back by Henri Matisse, the first of a quartet being sold by the Burnett Foundation in Fort Worth, Texas, could bring $20 million to $30 million. Picasso’s large 1967 canvas of nude lovers, “L’Aubade,” is valued at $18 million to $25 million.

Postwar and contemporary sales will start on Nov. 7 at Phillips de Pury, with 22 lots benefiting the Guggenheim Museum. Estimated to tally between $66.6 million and $97.9 million, it’s the smallest evening sale of the week. The priciest lot is an untitled 2006 canvas by Cy Twombly featuring dripping red loops that could sell for as much as $12 million.

Christie’s evening sale on Nov. 8 will offer 92 lots that include a group from the collection of software pioneer Peter Norton.

The auction house has the priciest lot of the season: Roy Lichtenstein’s 1961 square black canvas depicting a man peering through a peephole, with an estimate of $35 million to $45 million. Courtney Ross, the widow of former Time Warner Chief Executive Officer Steven J. Ross, was guaranteed an undisclosed minimum price that has been fully financed by third parties.

Still Quartet

Sotheby’s has an estimated $200 million of art on offer, including four Clyfford Still canvases consigned by the City of Denver to raise money for the Clyfford Still Museum, opening next month. Estimated to bring more than $70 million, these guaranteed lots will star in its Nov. 9 auction.

The estimates are more aggressive across the board than a year ago, according to Sergey Skaterschikov, founder of Skate’s Art Market Research. The low estimates are up 17.6 percent; the high estimates are up 15.9 percent from November 2010.

To win major consignments the auction houses have increased their guarantees to sellers. Christie’s guaranteed 16 lots in its contemporary art sale, up from 7 a year ago; 10 of them have been backed by third parties. At Sotheby’s contemporary sale there are 10 guaranteed lots, up from 3 last year. All have been financed by third parties.

For these lots, “satisfactory results are baked into the sales,” said Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, art valuation expert. “But whether things fly, that’s where we see if the market is hungry enough.”

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