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Christie’s New York Art Sale Flops as Buyers Shun Degas Dancer

"Petite danseuse de quatorze ans" by Edgar Degas. The bronze sculpture, with muslin skirt and satin hair ribbon, was part of the impressionist and modern art auction at Christie's on Nov. 1. Source: Christie's via Bloomberg

Nov. 2 (Bloomberg) -- Christie’s International posted its lowest sales total in two years for Impressionist and modern art in New York as buyers shunned works by Degas and Picasso amid tumbling financial markets.

Christie’s sold $140.8 million of works yesterday, with 38 percent of the 82 lots failing to find buyers, including most of the star pieces. The London-based auction house had estimated the evening would fetch between $211.9 million and $304.4 million.

“The quality could not be any worse and the estimates could not be any higher,” said Alberto Mugrabi, a New York-based art dealer and collector. “This is what happens when you have the combination of these things.”

The biggest casualty was Edgar Degas’ bronze sculpture of a teenage ballerina, “Petite danseuse de quatorze ans,” estimated to bring as much as $35 million. A 1935 portrait of Pablo Picasso’s lover Marie-Therese Walter, estimated to fetch $12 million to $18 million, drew no bids.

The Degas figure last changed hands at Sotheby’s London in 2000, when it sold for 7.7 million pounds ($11.6 million at the time), according to The highest price paid for any of the bronze casts of the figure made after Degas’s death was 13.3 million pounds in February 2009.

“The estimates were too aggressive,” said Thomas Seydoux, Christie’s international head of the Impressionist and modern art department. “I wish we could blame it on the financial markets.”

Falling Markets

U.S. stocks sank for a second day yesterday, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index falling 2.8 percent. The index has lost more than 9 percent in the past four months on concern about a sovereign debt crisis in Europe and signs an economic recovery is stalling in the U.S.

Christie’s failure rate was only slightly better than the 44 percent of lots didn’t sell in the category on Nov. 6, 2008, seven weeks after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for bankruptcy.

An Henri Matisse painting of a woman in a purple robe from the estate of Hollywood talent agent Lew Wasserman and his wife Eddie also failed to sell. Its presale estimate was $4 million to $6 million. Another flop was Giacometti’s knobby sculpture of a standing woman, “Femme de Venise VII,” which was expected to reach $10 million to $15 million.

The most expensive sale of the evening was a Surrealist 1941 painting by Max Ernst that fetched $16.3 million, more than double its presale high estimate of $6 million. “The Stolen Mirror,” a phantasmagorical landscape with a central totem-like figure composed of a snake, birds, mice and a nude female torso, set an auction record for the artist. Sale prices include a buyers’ premium; estimates don’t.

Surreal Sale

Surrealist canvases, which have been recently popular with collectors, accounted for four of the top 10 items sold.

A 1941 painting by Belgian Surrealist Paul Delvaux, sold by the Museum of Modern Art to benefit its acquisition fund, fetched $6.6 million, close to the $6 million low estimate. Rene Magritte’s 1958 work depicting a glass of water balancing on top of an open umbrella sold for $10.2 million, compared with a $9 million low estimate.

Another highlight was Picasso’s 1937 deft image of a weeping woman’s distorted face. It sold for $5.1 million, double the high estimate of $2.5 million and an auction record for a print by the artist.

“The market is more conscious about value and prices but it is still willing to stretch for the exceptional works,” said Phyllis Hattis, a New York-based modern art dealer.

Three sculptures by Aristide Maillol consigned by the estate of billionaire John W. Kluge fetched $3.4 million, within their estimate range of $2.5 million to $3.6 million. The proceeds are part of Kluge’s $400 million gift to Columbia University, his alma mater.

Rival Sotheby’s holds its Impressionist and modern art evening sale today.

(Katya Kazakina is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the reporter of this story: Katya Kazakina in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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