Picasso, Miro Start $500 Million Test of Auction Market

Joan Miro
"Peinture (Etoile Bleue)," a 1927 painting by Joan Miro. The canvas was one of 48 works on offer at Sotheby's auction of Impressionist and modern art in London on June 19. It sold for 23.6 million pounds with fees, an auction record for the artist. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

A painting by Joan Miro sold for a record $37 million last night as billionaire buyers fought over the most desirable works and passed on lesser Impressionist and modern pieces.

Miro’s museum-quality 1927 abstract “Peinture (Etoile Bleue)” had been estimated to fetch a hammer price of as much as 20 million pounds ($31.4 million). It sold for 23.6 million pounds with fees, a record for the artist at auction. It was the most expensive of 48 offered lots at Sotheby’s in London.

The event was the first of a two-week series, estimated at more than $500 million, that tests the desirability of high-value art as a haven from volatile traditional investments.

“The good stuff is getting rarer,” said Olivier Malingue, a Paris-based dealer who bought a 1924 Wassily Kandinsky watercolor for 713,250 pounds. “People remember what happened in the early 1990s when the market collapsed. The prices of the best things recovered and those of the middle quality didn’t. Now the economy is low, buyers don’t want to take risks.”

Guaranteed to sell, thanks to a third-party “irrevocable” bid, the Miro was bought by a telephone bidder represented by Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s worldwide head of contemporary art, underbid by the New York-based art adviser Stephane Cosman Connery in the room.

The painting had been acquired by its unidentified seller for 11.6 million euros at a Paris auction in 2007. Since then, the market for the Spanish surrealist’s work has been boosted by museum exhibitions and the record 16.8 million pounds paid for his 1925 “Painting-Poem” at Christie’s International in February.

Dix Fails

Other less-stellar works struggled to attract bidders. The most conspicuous casualty was Otto Dix’s 1931 panel painting “Seated nude with blond hair.” This uncompromising depiction of an ageing woman in a wooden armchair, influenced by German Old Masters such as Cranach, was estimated at 4 million pounds to 6 million pounds and failed to attract a bid.

The painting had recently been offered for sale in the trade and this had put off prospective bidders, according to the London-based dealer Richard Nagy.

The evening’s other most substantial prices were achieved by Pierre Bonnard’s similarly dated, more sensuous “Nu debout,” and Pablo Picasso’s 1972 “Homme assis,” both of which sold for hammer prices that were below estimate.

Rockefeller Family

The Bonnard, provenanced to the family of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd, was bought for 4.5 million pounds with fees by the New York-based dealer William Acquavella. The decorative quality of this Post-Impressionist’s work had previously attracted Russian buyers, said dealers.

Picasso’s large-scale canvas of a male seated figure wearing a tricorn hat was one of 201 paintings by the artist exhibited at the Palais des Papes, Avignon, in 1973. Offered, like the Bonnard, for the first time at auction, it was bought on behalf of a client by Helena Newman, Sotheby’s European chairman of Impressionist and modern art, for 6.2 million pounds.

“I had some strange memories of the late 1980s at this sale,” said the Paris-based dealer Christian Ogier. “The prices being asked are too high and the connoisseurs are sitting on the sidelines. You can stay disconnected from the rest of the world for only so long.”

Sotheby’s sale raised 74.9 million pounds with fees against a low estimate of 72.9 million pounds, based on hammer prices, with 69 percent of lots finding buyers. The equivalent auction last year raised 97 million pounds with a 91 percent success rate.

Tonight's Sale

Christie's equivalent sale this evening includes Pierre-Auguste Renoir's 1888 “Baigneuse,” which sold for a record $20.9 million at auction in 1997. It will be reoffered with a value of 12 million pounds to 18 million pounds.

Paul Gauguin's recently rediscovered 1892 Tahitian landscape “Paysage aux troncs bleus,” entered from a Norwegian collection, is priced at 3 million pounds to 5 million pounds.

Picasso's 1962 painting “Femme au chien,” showing the artist's second wife Jacqueline Roque seated with an Afghan hound, is also making its auction debut, having been in the same family collection since 1974. Also subject to a third-party guarantee, this is estimated at 6 million pounds to 9 million pounds. The auction is valued at 86.5 million pounds to 126.7 million pounds.

Impressionist and modern works achieved annual returns of 5.75 percent over the last 25 years, compared with 10.4 percent for contemporary, according to the New York-based Mei Moses Index, which tracks successful repeat sales of works at Sotheby's and Christie's. The S&P 500 yielded 9.3 percent during the same period, Mei Moses said.

More recently, quality works have been in shorter supply and new collectors have preferred more fashionable contemporary names, which are up for sale next week.

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

Muse highlights include Richard Vines on London restaurants, Scott Reyburn on the art market, James Pressley on business books and Ryan Sutton on New York restaurants.

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