A Wassily Kandinsky painting sold last night for $21.2 million at a London auction where demand, especially from Asian buyers, outstripped supply for Impressionist and modern art.
Kandinsky’s 1909 Expressionist oil-on-card, “Studie zu Improvisation 3,” led Christie’s International slimline 44-lot auction, down from 70 lots in the equivalent sale last year.
“There is a supply problem,” the London-based dealer Alan Hobart said in an interview. “So many of the top things have gone into foundations and museums. There are eight sales a year in London and New York, and Christie’s and Sotheby’s are struggling to fill them.”
Impressionist and modern art has for decades been the biggest-selling category of art at auction, resulting in a shortage of market-fresh masterworks.
The Kandinsky, showing a horseman on a bridge, had last been auctioned in New York in 2008, when it fetched $16.9 million. This time, it was estimated to fetch between 12 million pounds (18.8 million) and 18 million pounds at hammer prices. The final figure was 13.5 million pounds with fees.
The work was one of a group of critically-admired “Improvisations” the Russian-born artist painted as he edged toward abstraction. Certain to sell, thanks to a third-party guarantor, it was bought by the Zurich-based dealer Beda Jedlicka, bidding for a collector.
The painting, like Claude Monet’s similarly-guaranteed 1908 “Palais Contarini” that heads Sotheby’s auction this evening with an estimate of 15 million pounds to 20 million pounds, had been entered by the Swiss-based Nahmad family of dealers, said persons with knowledge of the matter.
The New York-based scion, Helly Nahmad, has been charged with racketeering and money laundering. His co-counsel says Nahmad denies wrongdoing and anticipates being exonerated.
Christie’s auction raised 64.1 million pounds with fees against a low estimate of 52.8 million pounds, based on hammer prices. The total was 30.8 percent below that of June 2012.
“This was a weak sale, yet it achieved good results,” the London-based dealer Offer Waterman said in an interview. “The estimates were sensible, and people still want to park their money in this area.”
Despite a shortage of trophy quality works, 84 percent of the lots found buyers, helped by bidders from emerging economies buying secondary pieces by major names.
An Asian woman in the room paid 2.9 million pounds for an 1873 Monet beach scene at Sant-Adresse, estimated 1 million pounds to 1.5 million pounds, and an Asian telephone bidder gave an upper-estimate 3 million pounds for Picasso’s 1964 painting “Tete d’homme.”
Amedeo Modigliani’s 1916 portrait of the art dealer Paul Guillaume was appearing at a public sale for the fourth time in 20 years. Another Nahmad entry, it sold here for 6.8 million pounds to an unidentified bidder sitting at the front of the room. It had been bought for $4.8 million at Sotheby’s New York in 2006.
Picasso continues to dominate Impressionist and modern sales. He captured four out of the 10 top lots with a quartet of telephone bidders battling over the 1960 painting, “Femme assise dans un fauteuil,” to 6.1 million pounds.
Earlier in the day, a Christie’s sale of Picasso ceramics raised 2.8 million pounds with 100 percent of the 171 lots sold.
Eugene Boudin’s 1864 canvas “Scene de plage,” painted on a beach in Normandy, was fresh to the auction market. Desirable for its early date and large size, this precursor of Impressionist painting sold to the London-based dealer Ivor Braka in the room for a record 1.2 million pounds, more than double the low estimate.
Sales of Impressionist and modern art in 2012 raised 3.2 billion euros ($4.3 billion), or 30 percent of the market, according to a report published by the European Fine Art Foundation in March. It has now been overtaken by contemporary, which racked up 4.5 billion euros, or 43 percent, in 2012.
(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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