Picasso, Modigliani Lift Sotheby’s Sale Ahead of Brexit Vote

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'Femme Assise' by Pablo Picasso.

Photographer: Kin Cheung/AP Photo
  • Two key works tally $120 million, or 80% of the auction total
  • U.K.’s season has solid start as political referendum looms

Paintings by Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani gave the auction market a much-needed boost on Tuesday when they fetched the highest prices for Sotheby’s in London since 2010.

Picasso’s 1909 Cubist painting “Femme Assise” sold for 43.3 million pounds ($63.5 million), surpassing the estimated target of 30 million pounds. Moments later, Modigliani’s “Jeanne Hebuterne (au Foulard)” took 38.5 million pounds, exceeding the targeted estimate of more than 28 million pounds. (Prices include buyer’s fees; the estimates don’t.)

Picasso’s Femme Assise (1909).
Picasso’s Femme Assise (1909).
Source: Sotheby’s

The two paintings accounted for 80 percent of the 103.3 million pound tally at Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art, a better-then-expected result as interest remains keen for top works even as the auction market scales back. The event launched the two-week London season amid uncertainty over Britain’s June 23 referendum on whether to exit the European Union. The salesroom was full of dealers and advisers, including Guy Bennett, director of collections and acquisitions at Qatar Museums.

Loud applause erupted at the end of the 27-lot auction, where all but three pieces found buyers, though the results represented a 42 percent decline from the similar event a year ago, when more lots were offered. The down trend was a continuation from May in New York, where sales contracted by more than 50 percent as the art market was still reeling from a slump in oil and stock prices at the start of the year. This week’s so-called Brexit referendum deterred some sellers, according to dealers and auction-house executives.

“Brexit was a factor with some consignors,” said Helena Newman, Sotheby’s global co-head of Impressionist and modern art, who made her debut as the evening sale auctioneer. “Our volume is down but I would anticipate that a sale like this will give the market confidence for future consignments.”

Deep Bidding

Newman said the depth of bidding was also encouraging as many works drew several hopefuls and surpassed high estimates. Paul Gauguin’s 1890 still life fetched 3.4 million pounds, above the high estimate of 2.8 million pounds.

The seller of the Picasso was New York real estate developer Sheldon Solow, according to people with knowledge of the matter. The painting, last sold for 340,000 pounds in 1973 at Sotheby’s, realized the highest price for any Cubist work at auction.

Solow didn’t immediately return a call seeking comment. Sotheby’s declined to comment. Last year, Solow sold Alberto Giacometti’s bronze sculpture of a pointing man for $141. 3 million at Christie’s in New York, reaping a similar windfall after decades of ownership.

The Picasso canvas depicts the Spanish artist’s then-lover Fernande Olivier as a compilation of geometric shapes. Painted during the period when Picasso was revolutionizing art by experimenting with Cubism, it has been in the same collection for more than 40 years, Sotheby’s said. 

The work attracted two bidders: Amy Cappellazzo, Sotheby’s co-chairman of fine art, and Adam Chinn, its head of worldwide transaction support. Both have been at Sotheby’s since it acquired their Art Agency Partners advisory firm in January. Chinn, who kept looking up at the electronic board that displayed bids in several major currencies, won the work for his client.

Modigliani Competition

At least four Sotheby’s staffers competed for Modigliani’s 1919 portrait of his lover, which, according to people familiar with the matter, was sold by Syrian-born billionaire philanthropist Wafic Said. The work last appeared at auction in 1986, when it went for 1.9 million pounds at Christie’s. Officials for Sotheby’s and Said declined to comment.

Modigliani’s "Jeanne Hébuterne" 1919.
Modigliani’s "Jeanne Hébuterne" 1919.
Source: Sotheby’s

The painting has remained in the same collection for 30 years, according to Sotheby’s, which provided the seller an undisclosed guaranteed price. Before bidding began, Newman announced the company secured an irrevocable bid for the work, ensuring it would sell.

The auction capped the day that saw the pound shifting between gains and losses after a YouGovpoll for the Times newspaper showed the pro-EU side leading by two percentage points, while a survey by ORB for the Daily Telegraph had “Remain” at 53 percent and “Leave” at 46 percent among those certain to vote.

The pound fell 0.5 percent as of 9:35 p.m. in London, and earlier reached the highest level since Jan. 4. The currency gained 3.5 percent in the previous two days, the biggest back-to-back increase in more than seven years.

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