Modigliani’s Doomed Lover Portrait Tops $214 Million Sale

A Modigliani painting of his lover topped works by Picasso and Renoir at a $214 million auction that showed increasing demand for big-ticket Impressionist, modern and Surrealist art.

The 1919 Modigliani sold last night for 26.9 million pounds ($42.1 million), the most highly valued of 74 lots at Christie’s International in London.

“The stock market is up,” New York-based dealer Christophe van de Weghe said. “People are more confident and they want to spend money on art. They feel secure with the big names.”

The market for Impressionist and modern art, the biggest earner for the auction houses in the 1980s and 1990s, is now recovering, thanks to more fresh material coming on the market, especially by famous artists. Sellers had been holding back because of a shift of fashion to contemporary art, dealers said.

“Jeanne Hebuterne (au chapeau),” showed the common-law wife of Amedeo Modigliani. The Italian painter died destitute, at the age of 35, in 1920. A grief-stricken Hebuterne committed suicide the following day, killing their unborn child.

The work was estimated at 16 million pounds to 22 million pounds. Its New York-based seller paid 16.4 million pounds at Sotheby’s, London, in June 2006. Last night it was bought by Christie’s Russian-speaking client services representative, Sandra Nedvetskaia, bidding on the telephone on behalf of a client, against opposition from at least three others.

Active Russians

“It looks as though some of the quieter countries have been buying,” the London-based dealer Simon Theobald said. “Russians have been less active during the last 18 months. Everything seems to have come back.”

Ksenia Apukhtina, another Christie’s Russian speaker who represents private clients on the telephone, gave 1.6 million pounds for the 1950 Rene Magritte painting “A la rencontre du plaisir (Towards Pleasure),” showing two bowler-hatted figures in a landscape, and underbid the 1940 Magritte landscape “Le plagiat (Plagiary),” which fetched 5.2 million pounds, more than doubling its low estimate.

The Magrittes were included in a 38-lot Surrealist section that raised 38.2 million pounds. Joan Miro’s 1939 painting “L’Echelle de l’evasion (The Ladder of Escape)” had been estimated at 5 million pounds to 8 million pounds. While it had not been seen in public for more than 50 years, it failed to sell. Potential buyers were not enticed by its agitated figures on a coarse canvas, dealers said.

Women Record

Earlier in the evening, the most intense bidding was reserved for the decorative 1881 Berthe Morisot painting “Apres le dejeuner,” showing a young woman sitting lost in thought at a dining table. The work had last appeared at auction in 1997, when it fetched $3.6 million.

Here it attracted more than six bidders before being bought by Christie’s New York-based specialist David Kleiweg de Zwaan, bidding for a client on the telephone, for 7 million pounds. The price beat an upper estimate of 2.5 million pounds and was an auction record for Morisot and a work by any woman artist at auction, Christie’s said.

De Zwaan, using the same paddle number, also gave 7.3 million pounds for Pablo Picasso’s muscular nude “Nu accroupi,” painted on Valentine’s Day, 1960, estimated at 3 million pounds to 5 million pounds. The painting failed to sell when offered at auction for $2.5 million to $3 million in 1998.

Renoir’s Parasol

Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s 1878 painting of a girl under a parasol, “L’ombrelle,” had been bought at auction for $6.6 million in 1988 at the height of the Impressionist art boom. Even though the tastes of many collectors have now changed, this sold for 9.7 million pounds to another telephone bidder against a high estimate of 7 million pounds.

Henri Matisse’s 1938 gouache “La danse,” related to the famous 1910 painting now in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, was priced at 2.2 million pounds to 3.4 million pounds. This same work on paper sold for 2.3 million pounds at the company’s London salesroom in February 2007. Resold too quickly for the comfort of some bidders, this fetched 2.7 million pounds with fees -- or about the same price it fetched in 2007, minus auction house extras.

In November in New York, sales of works by living and postwar artists raised a record $1.1 billion, almost three times the $401.4 million achieved for Impressionists and moderns. This time, Christie’s raised 136.5 million pounds with fees, beating a high estimate of 132.8 million pounds, based on hammer prices.

This was a record for a sale in this category held by the company in February in the U.K. capital and 89 percent of the lots were successful. The equivalent sale last year raised 135 million pounds.

Like Sotheby’s the previous evening -- where 61 lots raised 121.1 million pounds -- about two-thirds of the works had not appeared in the salesroom before.

“These were better sales,” the London-based dealer Stephen Ongpin said in an interview. “The auction houses have been careful. They’ve left out things that in the past would have been offered in the evening and there were a lot of come-hither estimates.”

(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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