• Impressionist-modern art sale tallies $38 million, down 64%
  • Guaranteed Monet fails to sell as 36% of offered lots flop

It was a tough night for Christie’s. The auction house sold 25.6 million pounds ($37.8 million) of Impressionist and modern art on Wednesday in London, its smallest tally for a major evening sale in the category in more than a decade. 

The event took place on the eve of the U.K. referendum asking voters whether the country should exit the European Union. Less than a mile away from the King Street salesroom, thousands of people filled Trafalgar Square earlier in the day to pay tribute to Jo Cox, the anti-Brexit Member of Parliament who was slain last week. 

Christie’s Impressionist and modern evening auction in London on the eve of the Brexit vote.
Christie’s Impressionist and modern evening auction in London on the eve of the Brexit vote.
Source: Christie’s Images Ltd.

“There’s a lot of guessing about what Brexit might mean for all of us,” Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s global president and the evening’s auctioneer, said after the sale.

Christie’s results fell short of its presale target of 32.8 million pounds to 48.7 million pounds. Twelve of the 33 offered works failed to sell, and the evening’s tally represented a 64 percent decline from a year ago.

It was also about a quarter of Sotheby’s total from the night before, when two works -- one by Pablo Picasso and another by Amedeo Modigliani -- sold for a total of 82 million pounds.

Missing Highlights

“Christie’s was missing such highlights,” said Thomas Seydoux, a private art dealer based in Geneva. “The buzz was that it wasn’t a great sale.” 

Three works, including two Picasso paintings, were withdrawn just before the auction. Two other Picassos, one estimated at 2.8 million pounds to 4.8 million pounds, failed to sell.

The evening’s biggest casualty was Claude Monet’s 1872 view of a winding street in Argenteuil, a suburban town on the Seine. Estimated at 4.5 million pounds to 6.5 million pounds, the subdued painting didn’t draw a bid, leaving Christie’s on the hook because it had guaranteed the seller an undisclosed minimum price regardless of the outcome.

“The market seems to prefer post-1900 Monet,” Seydoux said. “People want big splashy pictures.”

Modigliani Soars

The top lot, Modigliani’s 1917 “Madame Hanka Zborowska,” depicting the wife of the artist’s dealer Leopold Zborowski, drew at least four bidders, one of which was represented by Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia. The piece sold for 8.3 million pounds, surpassing the high estimate. Prices include the buyer’s fee; estimates don’t.

Madame Hanka Zborowska (1917) by Amedeo Modigliani.
Madame Hanka Zborowska (1917) by Amedeo Modigliani.
Source: Christie’s Images Ltd.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1882 landscape “Rochers de l’Estaque” fetched 1.1 million pounds, more than twice its high estimate of 500,000 pounds. 

Pylkkanen said the company gathered material for the auction early in the year when sellers were anxious about turmoil in the financial markets.

Some dealers said currency swings tied to the so-called Brexit contest could affect the London auction season that started this week. The pound climbed toward a five-month high versus the dollar on Wednesday as traders took cues from betting odds that point to the U.K. voting to stay in the European Union, rather than opinion polls showing the referendum is too close to call.

Christie’s executives said they’re looking at the entire series of London auctions as a whole. In addition to regular sales, the season includes a themed auction celebrating the company’s 250th anniversary on June 30. It’s estimated at 97.6 million pounds to 140.1 million pounds. One work in that sale -- a large curvaceous bronze, “Reclining Figure: Festival” by Henry Moore, estimated at 15 million pounds to 20 million pounds -- would normally belong in the Impressionist auction.

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