Picasso $41.5 Million Canvas Fails to Lift Sotheby’s Sale

'Nature morte aux tulipes'
"Nature morte aux tulipes," signed and dated 2 Mars XXXII (March 2, 1932), by Pablo Picasso. The oil-on-canvas painting is estimated at $35 million to $50 million. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

The art market stayed in the doldrums last night as Sotheby’s New York recorded its smallest tally for an evening sale of Impressionist and modern art sale since May 2009.

As with Wednesday night’s Christie’s auction, almost a third of the lots found no buyers. The $163 million total fell short of the low presale estimate of $169 million.

While the stock market again dropped, with a 3.6 percent decline over two days in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index, signs of balky buyers also recalled the tepid action at Christie’s. Only a few perceived trophies seemed to excite bidders.

“There isn’t that exuberance,” New York dealer David Nash said. “Collectors are more careful with their money.”

Simon Shaw, a Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of the Impressionist and modern art department in New York, referred to a “pushback against high estimates” in the post-sale press conference. Casualties included Picasso and Degas paintings, a Matisse drawing and a Rodin sculpture.

“It’s a smart market today,” said New York dealer Christoph van de Weghe. “If things are priced right, they sell. If they are priced even a tad higher, they don’t.”

The top lot was Picasso’s “Nature Morte aux Tulipes,” a painting of his young mistress Marie-Therese Walter that fetched $41.5 million. It last sold at auction for $28.6 million in 2000 at Christie’s in New York and later changed hands privately through Acquavella Galleries.

Another Walter portrait, the 1936 “Femme a la Fenetre (Marie-Therese),” sold for $17.2 million, exceeding its presale low estimate of $15 million.

‘Le Viol’

Picasso’s 1940 drawing “Le Viol,” consigned by the estate of Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos, sparked active bidding in the room and on the phones. It sold for $12.1 million, twice the presale high estimate.

The evening’s other big success was an 1881 landscape by Claude Monet sold by the Cleveland Museum of Art to raise funds for future acquisitions. Estimated between $5 million and $7 million, it went for $12.1 million after prolonged bidding.

Dealers said they perceived more energy in the salesroom than at Christie’s. Dealer Asher Edelman said the evening was Ferrari-like compared with the night before.

“But it wasn’t a very fast Ferrari,” he said.

‘Come On’

The bidding for “Nature Morte aux Tulipes” didn’t burn up the road. Philip Hook, senior specialist at Sotheby’s London, bought it for a client on the phone. The underbidder, art dealer David Nahmad, was urged on by auctioneer Tobias Meyer.

“Come on, it’s beautiful!” Meyer implored.

At once a portrait and a still life, the work depicts Walter’s sculpted white head on a pedestal next to a bouquet of tulips and sexually suggestive fruit. It was estimated at $35 million to $50 million.

The seller was guaranteed a minimum undisclosed price, provided by Sotheby’s, a third party or combination thereof, according to the catalog. A third party also provided Sotheby’s with an irrevocable bid on the lot, ensuring that the work would sell.

Picasso’s paintings of Walter have been popular with collectors; his “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust” went for $106.5 million at Christie’s in New York in 2010.

Sotheby’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 Greg Evans and Craig Seligman on movies, Patrick Cole on philanthropy.

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