Ross Buys Magritte for $11.3 Million, Nine Times Estimate

"Les jours gigantesques," an early painting by the Belgian Surrealist Rene Magritte. The 1928 work sold in a 70-lot auction of Impressionist and modern works at Christie's International in London on June 20. Source: Christie's Images Ltd. 2102 via Bloomberg.

U.S. billionaire Wilbur Ross paid $11.3 million for a Rene Magritte painting in London last night as collectors battled for Impressionist and modern art.

Magritte’s 1928 work “Les jours gigantesques” (The Titanic Days), showing a suited man grappling with a naked woman in the silhouette of a single figure, went for a price with fees that was nine times its lower hammer-price estimate of 800,000 pounds ($1.25 million) in a 70-lot sale at Christie’s International.

Investors are testing high-value art as a haven from volatile financial markets. Art collector Ross, seated in the front of the saleroom, was asked by Bloomberg News what he thought of the price, the second highest given for the Belgian Surrealist.

“Well, I paid it,” said Ross, who is chairman of WL Ross & Co., which is known for buying distressed assets in industries from steel to financial services. Ross is also known for his collection of Surrealist works, according to art dealers.

The Magritte at 7.2 million pounds was the second-highest price of an auction that raised 92.6 million pounds against a low estimate of 74.5 million pounds with 80 percent of the lots finding buyers. There was a bigger quota of quality works by prestigious artists than at Sotheby’s the previous evening, where 31 percent of the lots were unsuccessful, said dealers.

Lucky Man

“That painting was seminal for our understanding of Magritte,” said the London-based dealer Daniella Luxembourg, who was one of the underbidders. “There’s a lot more interest in Surrealism and its origins. It’s an early work influenced by Freud, and there’s only one of these compositions in private hands. Whoever bought it is a lucky man.”

The canvas had not been offered at auction before. The only other version is in a Dusseldorf museum, Christie’s said.

The cover lot of the auction catalog was Renoir’s 1888 canvas “Baigneuse.” The painting had been acquired by its seller at Sotheby’s, New York, in November 1997 for $20.9 million, the third highest price paid for the French Impressionist at auction.

Scheduled to be re-offered for 12 million pounds to 18 million pounds, it was sold privately before the event for a price that was within the estimate, Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s European president, said in the post-sale news conference.

Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings were the most expensive artworks in the world during the boom years of the 1980s. Ryoei Saito, the head of the Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Company, paid a record $78.1 million for Renoir’s cafe scene “Au Moulin de la Galette” at Sotheby’s, New York, in May 1990.

Bacon, Giacometti

The value and popularity of Impressionist art has subsequently declined. Billionaire collectors now pay higher prices for trophy works by postwar names such as Francis Bacon and Alberto Giacometti.

With the Renoir out of the sale last night, Picasso generated the evening’s two other most substantial prices. The New York-based dealer William Acquavella gave a top price of 8.6 million pounds for the 1949 canvas “Femme assise,” showing Picasso’s partner Francoise Gilot pregnant with their daughter Paloma.

Entered from a Californian collection, it had been valued at 5 million pounds to 7 million pounds.

Afghan Hound

Picasso’s 1962 canvas “Femme au chien,” depicting his second wife Jacqueline Roque with their favorite Afghan hound, sold to a telephone bidder for 7 million pounds. Making its auction debut, having been in the same family collection since 1974, the painting had been guaranteed to succeed, thanks to a third-party “irrevocable bid.” The estimate was 6 million pounds to 9 million pounds.

A third party also guaranteed the success of a group of 14 Edgar Degas bronzes from an unidentified private collection. The sculptures were from a sought-after series made in 1921 by the A.A. Hebrard foundry from the original plaster models created by the artist. Each figure was cast in an edition of 22.

The group raised 11 million pounds with a top price of 2.8 million pounds for a study derived from the 1879-1881 “Little Dancer.”

Equestrian subjects soared above estimate. At least half a dozen bidders competed for “Cheval au galop sur le pied droit” before it was sold to a telephone bid of 2.6 million pounds. It had been valued at 300,000 pounds to 400,000 pounds and would have yielded the guarantor a handsome share of the “upside” above the estimate, dealers said.

“That was an exceptional collection,” the London-based dealer Offer Waterman said in an interview. “The horse racing crowd must have been behind some of that bidding. Those prices will re-calibrate the market for Degas sculptures.”

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

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