Picasso’s Owl Overshadows Monet at $258 Million London Sale

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Picasso’s sculpture of an owl and Seurat’s nude drawing proved bigger surprises than Monet’s lush canvases.

Five paintings by Claude Monet sold for a combined 56 million pounds ($85 million), failing to reach their high estimate of 70 million pounds as collectors showed more interest in modestly-priced artworks over marquee lots at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale on Tuesday.

As two weeks of auctions began in London, Sotheby’s sale totaled 170.3 million pounds, which was at the high end of its estimate of 121.2 million pounds to 169.2 million pounds.

“There were no fireworks,” said Harry Smith, managing director at Gurr Johns, an art advisory. “But there was no picture here that was massively underpriced such that it would cause fireworks.”

The bar has been set high for sales in the category, which is strong but nowhere near its 1989 high. Sotheby’s is coming off a record Impressionist and modern art sale that totaled $422.1 million in November in New York. According to New York researcher Artnet, global auctions of Impressionist art set a record in 2014 at $2.4 billion. By comparison, the group had sales of $1.8 billion in 1989, or about $3.5 billion today when adjusted for inflation.

Sotheby’s, which is based in New York, sold 89 percent of the 52 lots at Tuesday’s evening sale. In general, works by Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro and Alfred Sisley had solid if unspectacular results. Works with estimates below 7 million pounds were vastly more successful.

Charcoal Drawing

Pablo Picasso’s 13 1/2-inch-tall terracotta sculpture of an owl created in 1953 went for 1.3 million pounds against a high estimate of 450,000 pounds. Picasso’s iron and steel maquette -- the model for his sculpture at Chicago’s Civic Center -- sold for 8.9 million pounds against a high estimate of 7 million pounds.

A charcoal drawing by Georges Seurat sold for 7.8 million pounds against a high estimate of 7 million pounds, setting a record for the artist for a work on paper. The artwork is a study for Seurat’s painting, “Une Baignade, Asnieres,” which is in the National Gallery in London.

A 28 1/8-inch-high sculpture by Auguste Rodin of “The Thinker” sold for 6.3 million pounds, above its 4 million pound high estimate.

A self-portrait by the Russian modernist Kazimir Malevich, valued at 1 million pounds to 1.5 million pounds, was bought for 5.8 million pounds after protracted bidding between one phone bidder and two people in the salesroom.

Poplar Trees

Among the five Monets -- four landscapes and one still life -- the artist’s 1908 view of Venice, “Le Grand Canal,” sold for 23.7 million pounds against an estimate range of 20 million pounds to 30 million pounds. It was the top lot of the sale.

“Les Peupliers a Giverny,” an 1887 painting of poplar trees sold by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, found a buyer for 10.8 million pounds, in line with its estimate of 9 million pounds to 12 million pounds.

“Antibes Vue de la Salis,” a morning view of southern France’s Riviera that was on offer for 5 million pounds to 7 million pounds, fetched 8.8 million pounds.

High Estimates

Two of Monet’s canvases surpassed their high estimates. “L’Embarcadere,” an 1871 work of a group of leisure seekers along a canal in Holland that was valued at 7.5 million pounds to 10 million pounds, fetched 10.2 million pounds. A still life of peonies in a vase that was estimated at 1.2 million pounds to 1.8 million pounds sold for 2.3 million pounds.

Among the marquee lots that produced mixed results, Pissarro’s “Maison de Paysans,” depicting a bucolic country house and gardens, sold at 1.9 million pounds, just below its high estimate of 2 million pounds.

At the other end, Henri Matisse’s “Odalisque au Fauteuil Noir,” a colorful 1942 portrait of the great granddaughter of the last Sultan of Turkey, sold for 15.9 million pounds against a high estimate of 12 million pounds.

With a separate sale of Surrealist art on Tuesday, Sotheby’s said it auctions totaled 186.4 million pounds.

“Sotheby’s sale was quite strong,” said Elizabeth von Habsburg, managing director of Winston Art Advisory in New York. “We’ve been spoiled into thinking things should sell above their high estimate, but for the most part the works were accurately priced.”

Christie’s will hold its Impressionist and modern art evening sale on Wednesday.