A 1909 Wassily Kandinsky painting sold for a record $23 million, one of the few bright spots at Christie’s last night as nearly a third of the Impressionist and modern art went unsold.
“It was a big bore,” said New York dealer Asher Edelman as he left the midtown saleroom. Edelman attributed the uneven results of the first of two weeks of major New York auctions to “the storms, the economy, the lack of good material available, the stock market” and disappointment with the U.S. election.
The 69 lots were offered a few hours after the Dow Jones Industrial Index’s biggest drop in a year, following President Barack Obama’s re-election. The sale coincided with a snowstorm moving through New Jersey and New York a week after Hurricane Sandy.
The auction totaled $204.8 million, below the low estimate of $209.3 million, with 21 lots failing to find buyers. The unwanted included a Picasso bronze sculpture, paintings by Fernand Leger and Marc Chagall, and two other Kandinskys, an oil painting and a watercolor.
The Kandinsky watercolor, “Zwei Schwarze Flecke” (1923), was estimated between $1.8 million and $2.4 million. It was consigned to auction as part of the settlement agreement in a restitution case. The work once belonged to a German art historian whose collection was seized by the Nazis after she emigrated to the Soviet Union.
The sale’s top lot was a 1905 Claude Monet painting of waterlilies, which went for $43.8 million. The trophy from Wall Street executive Herbert Allen Sr. was the second-priciest Monet at auction. The French painter’s record was $80.4 million at Christie’s London in 2008.
Proceeds benefit Hackley School, in Tarrytown, New York, where three generations of Allens studied. Allen’s widow, Ethel Strong Allen, who died in July, left to the school the Monet and two Impressionist landscapes, one by Camille Pissarro, another by Alfred Sisley. The three raised $50.9 million.
With striking orange and yellow hues, Kandinsky’s 1909 “Studie fur Improvisation 8” depicts pilgrims in the lower foreground, one leaning on a tall sword, and a walled, onion-domed city in the upper half.
“It’s everything you want from Kandinsky,” said Beverly Schreiber Jacoby, president of New York-based BSJ Fine Art. “It has vivid, rich color and emotional intensity that Kandinsky wanted the color to convey. It has a fairy-tale quality to it as well.”
The work, which had a pre-sale estimate of $20 million to $30 million, was consigned by the Volkart Foundation in Switzerland. It’s been widely exhibited in Europe, including at the Beyeler Foundation in Basel and at London’s Tate Modern.
The artist’s previous auction record, set in 1990 at Sotheby’s, came with the sale of the 1914 abstract canvas “Fugue” for $20.9 million.
The biggest casualty was Picasso’s bronze rooster sculpture, “Coq,” which was conceived in 1932 and cast in the 1950s. Estimated between $10 million and $15 million, it didn’t attract a bid.
“It’s not an easy piece,” said Loic Malle, Paris-based curator and art adviser. “It’s not an appealing animal like a cat or a dog.”
Marc Porter, the auctioneer’s Americas chairman and international head of private sales, said the results were skewed by excessive presale estimates that a seller stipulated for 14 lots.
“If you tease out that collection, you’d see a different result for the whole sale,” he said in an interview.
Portraits of three Picasso lovers all made the sale’s top 10. The winner was a 1937 rendering of Dora Maar with orange eyes and green eyelashes to match the background, which sold for $13.1 million, surpassing the presale high estimate of $12 million.
The 1962 melancholy portrait of Jacqueline Roque sold for $6.4 million. One from 1952 of Francoise Gilot, who replaced Maar and bore the artist two children, Claude and Paloma, sold for $5.2 million.
Christie’s charges buyers 25 percent of the hammer price up to $50,000, plus 20 percent from $50,000 to $1 million, and 12 percent above $1 million. Pre-sale estimates don’t include the buyer’s premium.
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater and Greg Evans on television.