La Fée Culturelle shopping at Sotheby’s

Mr BB and I are regulars of Sotheby’s, not regular buyers (we wish) but this is the opportunity to see art that we may not see again: chances are high that it goes from and to private hands, and it may never see public exhibitions. The star of the February Impressionist and modern art sale was no doubt Picasso’s Femme assise près d’une fenêtre (sold for £28.6m, the low-end of its £25-35m estimate range). We can recognise his young wife Marie-Thérèse by her profile with her nose characteristically depicted in a straight line from her forehead. Picasso used somewhat atypical colours in his portrait: purple, green and yellow (see my comment on Picasso’s use of restrained colours like black & white). A less high-profile Picasso in the sale was Tête de mort et livre, a vanitas still life painted in 1946. Picasso painted several vanitas in the war years, which are still lifes representing time passing and death (see my comment in French on l’art en guerre, currently shown in Paris). The day sale (which sells less prestigious art works than the evening sale) had a doodle from Picasso estimated at £50k, which I thought was a lot for a doodle on a piece of paper – well, it didn’t sell…

Monet’s Nymphéas avec reflets de hautes herbes was the other star of the sale, despite selling for £9m shy of its £15m mid-estimate. It is quite rare to see nympheas on sale; this mature work has pink and purple tones and depicts reflections of grass in water, as indicated by its title – it would be otherwise difficult to distinguish reflections from the actual grass. Another beautiful Monet is Le givre a Giverny (sold for £8.8m, above its £5m mid-estimate), which shows the Impressionist’s representation of snow, which becomes, if you look close, blue, pink and grey. I think the impressionist master of the snow is Sisley, albeit Monet and Sisley are very close in style. Speaking of which, Sisley as well as Pissaro are present in the sale: Sisley’s movement of water is exemplary in the Tamise avec Hampton church and so is Pissarro and his superb water reflection in the Seine à Port Marly. My coup de coeur was Gustave Caillebotte’s Parc Monceau. I love the bushes he creates with quick touches of the brush à la Monet, and the sunlight through the trees. I am always amazed by the value implied by estimates given for Caillebotte – I guess I was not the only one thinking that as this painting sold for £2.6m vs. its initial estimate of £900k. I also liked Chagall’s La famille, painted in blue tones, which went for £493k vs. a £250k estimate.

Degas had classical art works presented, showing his favourite theme of women in motion: Femme s’essuyant après le bain and a Danseuse réajustant son chausson, barely sketched (£4.5m vs. its 4.0m estimate). Three works by Egon Schiele were sold from the Leopold museum in Vienna: two self-portraits including an intense portrait of himself, eyes closed and wearing a green shirt, sold for £5.1m well above its £1.8-2.5m estimate range and an erotic painting of a girl lying on her back with crossed arms and legs. There are pieces which are not instantly recognisable as belonging to the artist which makes them less suitable as an investment – like Monet’s Moulin à Zaandam and Gauguin’s Maison blanche.

The Surrealist art sale included a beautiful Paul Delvaux, les Courtisanes, estimated at£1.25m but not sold. The Belgian surrealist typically depicts naked women in surrealist landscapes. I am always surprised to see so many small formats by Magritte in these sales; this may explain his lesser market value than Dali. His small/medium-size paintings are typically valued at £300-400k, suggesting similar valuations to works by Max Ernst. Dali, who is more infrequent in auction sales, has a portrait of Mrs Harrisson Williams, belonging to the Mona Bismarck Centre, earmarked for £1.75m and sold at £2.3m.

The Contemporary art sale (Feb 12) has price tags comparable to the impressionist sale: my highlights of the sale are Andy Warhol’s Lenine, estimated at £1.75m, Gerhard Richter’s Cloud, a photography-like painting, £8m – some of you may have discovered Richter at the Tate’s retrospective late 2011 or at Beaubourg last year – and Bacon’s Three studies for a self-portrait valued at £12.5m. The Bacon Tate Britain show was one of the few exhibitions that have made me change my mind about an artist.

See Sotheby’s website for pictures of the art works, selling prices and estimates.

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