AO Auction Preview – New York: Impressionist and Modern Sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, May 1-2, 2012

May 1st, 2012

Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1895). Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

Today marks the beginning of a two week flurry of art sales in the New York auction houses. This week is focused entirely on Impressionist and Modern Art, with next week centered on Post War and Contemporary Art. Chances are that you have already been bombarded with the numerous and impressive highlights that both houses have to offer, as the many of the lots from both houses are iconic, impressive, and will quite possibly break world records left and right.

The definitive front runner for the spolight this season is the “ubiquitous,” “highly disseminated,” “talisman of the modern man’s anxiety,” Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The hype surrounding Sotheby’s acquisition and pending sale of this historically rich treasure has been deafening. In the months surrounding the announcement of its sale, it has been covered internationally in the press—and for good reason. It is one of the most recognizable, parodied, and visually significant images of all time. Sotheby’s press release states, “The work stands as both a pivotal piece in the history of art and as an icon of global visual culture”—even those who are not art history scholars are familiar with this work of art.

Information Wall at Sotheby’s for The Scream. Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

The Scream that is being offered on Wednesday is one of four versions Edvard Munch created, and it is the only one in private hands, the other three are housed in Norwegian museums. The present owner is Petter Olsen, whose father Thomas was a friend, neighbor, and patron of Munch, according to Sotheby’s. Additionally, this work is on paper, executed with pastel in 1895, and in its original frame that is replete with an inscription of Munch’s poem, which inspired the series of paintings. It is in perfect condition with exceptionally vibrant colors and energetic linework, and it is expected to fetch upwards of $80 million dollars. With Sotheby’s total Impressionist and Modern Art Sale anticipating a low estimate of $250 million, that puts nearly a third of the total sale value on The Scream. This is the highest presale estimate ever set for an artwork at Sotheby’s, according to the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times published an article saying that the odds are 3 to 2 that it will sell for $150–200 million, and setting odds for which nationality may purchase it—all based Ladbrokes, the British bookmaking chains, bets. If they are right, it will break the world record set in 2010 for the highest price ever paid for an artwork at an auction, which is $106.5 million for Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust. According to Sotheby’s Co-Chairman of Impressionist & Modern Art Worldwide, David C. Norman, a first time buyer is unlikely, and it is the 10–15 collectors at the very top who are likely to acquire this image representing the “collective conscious of human experience.” Regardless of the speculation, the ultimate price for The Scream will be realized in the passion of the moment, which is sure to have an affecting quality on the aggression of the bids.

Sotheby’s will also be offering five additional works by Munch, four of which are from “an important European collection.” The most notable of the group is Woman Looking in the Mirror, which is painted just one year before The Scream, and is thought to achieve between $5–7 million. It seems no mistake on Sotheby’s part to offer a selection of works that compliment, rather than compete with Munch’s masterpiece.

Paul Cezanne, Jouer de cartes (1892–96). Photo By Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

Paul Cezanne, Jouer de cartes, Detail (1892–96). Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

Viewer in Front of Jouer de cartes at Christie’s. Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

The premier highlight from Christie’s is yet another work on paper, which is rather extraordinary in itself, as the top lots are usually paintings on canvas or sculptures. Christie’s will be offering Paul Cezanne’s Jouer de cartes for an estimated $15–20 million. This delicate, vibrant, and airy sketch is from the collection of Dr. Heinz Eichenwald and was painted between 1892–96. It is one of seven known sketches for the five Card Player’s paintings that are paramount in the overall oeuvre of Cezanne’s work. According to Christie’s Head of the Department, Brooke Lampley, it is a “rediscovered masterpiece,” as nobody knew where the work was—other than in a black and white print in textbooks—until now. The Card Players series is seminal in its artistic influence, and according to Ms. Lampley, this petite sketch has “whet the appetite of the collecting community.”

Pablo Picasso, Femme assise dans un fauteuil (1941). Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

Pablo Picasso, Deux nus couches (1968). Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Pablo Picasso, Le Repos (Marie-Therese Walter) (1932). Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

Aside from the two major highlights, Picassos are replete in both houses with a total of fourteen artworks being auctioned, six at Christie’s and eight at Sotheby’s. There is a distinct theme among the works being offered from Picasso—nearly all of them are portraits of his muses and lovers. As of late, there has been a renewed interest in Picasso’s females, namely at the recent exhibition at Gagosian. Sotheby’s holds the highest estimate for a Picasso at $20–30 million for Femme assise dans un fauteuil, a chartreuse and citrus hued angular abstraction of his lover Dora Maar, the Surrealist photographer. Painted on October 23, 1941, this is a quintessential example of his wartime portraiture, where he “distorts her figure beyond logical comprehension,” according to Sotheby’s. In tandem with this portrait, Sotheby’s is offering two additional female portraits: Tete De Femme (Portrait De Francoise) and Femme Assise Sur Fond Bleu-Rouge, both estimated at $4–6 million dollars. At Christie’s, Picasso’s Deux nus couches holds the highest estimate at $8–12 milion. It is a large painting depicting two reclining female nudes in a gestural, pastural, and pastel hued setting, which he painted in a single day, March 2, 1968. However, the real show stopper is at Christie’s, Picasso’s Le Repos (Marie – Therese Walter), despite its lower estimate of $5–7 million. At a fraction of the size of the Deux nus couches, this vividly colored and lovingly rendered portrait is among the most romantic in Picasso’s body of work and is a prime example of his muse’s influence on his prolific brush.

Salvador Dali, Printemps necrophilique (1936). Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

Salvador Dali, Sans titre: New Accessories (Apparitions et equilibres en perspectives) (1943). Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

There are two notable Salvador Dali paintings being offered, one at each house. Sotheby’s is auctioning Dali’s Printemps necrophilique from 1936 for an estimated $8–12 million, which has not appeared on the market in almost 15 years. This painting is an excellent representation of Dali’s oeuvre at the height of his artistic career. It is rendered with an exacting quality, yet has an airy and open composition that still manages to appropriate the dense imagery that is specific to Dali’s style. At Christie’s, Dali’s Sans titre: New Accessories (Apparitions et equilibres en perspectives) is thought to bring in an estimated $3–4 million. This warm-toned, petite painting is filled with the Surrealist imagery that defines Dali’s body of work.

Henri Matisse, Les Pivoines (1907). Image courtesy of Christie’s.

Alberto Giacometti, Buste de Diego (1958). Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

Among Christie’s other highlights is the cover lot: Matisse’s Les Pivoines, painted in 1907, is estimated to achieve $8–12 million. It is a crucible of the Fauve movement, as well as a rare market item, as 2008 was the last time that there was a Fauve Matisse up for grabs. This brightly colored still life of flowers was hand chosen by Matisse himself for a retrospective in 1910, and is sure to entice collectors. Additionally, there is an exceptional bust by Alberto Giacometti, Buste de Diego, which is expected to make between $8–12 million at Christie’s. According to Christie’s Brooke Lampley, this is the best other example of a bust of Diego that they have had to offer, and that mid-century sculpture is “all the rage” among collectors in a market that is “very discerning.”

Chaim Soutine, Le Chasseur De Chez Maxim’s (1925). Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

At Sotheby’s additional highlights include Chaim Soutine’s Le Chasseur De Chez Maxim’s at an estimated $10–15 million and Le Chasseur, which is expected to fetch between $4–6 million. Dubbed by Sotheby’s as “a masterwork of Expressionism,” Le Chasseur De Chez Maxim’s  is a painting of a restaurant worker that is at once a striking and evocative portrait, with the figure standing defiantly in his red uniform, his eyes cast away from the viewer. Le Chasseur is a smaller and more subtle painting of a boy, whose face is rendered in a bold warm-hued palette that pops against the dark blue-black of the rest of the painting.

Chaim Soutine,Le Chasseur (1928). Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

With excellent and iconic artworks on the block, like The Scream and Jouer des cartes, it is likely to be a definitive week at the auction houses. Coupled with collector’s flight to high quality masterpieces and the constant boom of the art market, the next two evenings will be exciting to watch unfold and Art Observed will be on site covering live as the events transpire.

Edvard Munch’s The Scream, Detail (1895). Photo by Aubrey Roemer for Art Observed.

—A. Roemer

Related Links:

Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale [Sotheby's]
Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale [Christie's]
Sure Bets [The New York Times]
Selling ‘The Scream’ [Wall Street Journal]