Halfway through what would be a nine-minute bidding war for a patinated bronze female head by Constantin Brancusi, paddle 281 shot above a standing-room-only crowd at Christie’s in midtown Manhattan.
The slow, steady auction for the ovoid sculpture of a sleeping woman’s face turned aggressive when, minutes in, Tobias Meyer, the former chief auctioneer for Sotheby’s, entered a $34m bid with a phone clutched to his ear. By the time the gavel came down, competition from five clients had sent the price of “La Muse endormie” to $51m — a record for the artist. With fees for Christie’s services, lot 32 fetched a cool $57.4m.
It marked a successful start to New York’s biannual contemporary and modern art auctions, after several years marred by thin supply and lacklustre bidding.
In total, the art broker tallied $258m of sales before premiums were added, well above the low end of its $207m-$307m presale estimate. With fees, Christie’s raised $289m with 78 per cent of the 55 lots sold — its most successful auction since 2010 and more than double the corresponding Impressionist and Modern Art sale last spring.
Guillaume Cerutti, the auctioneer’s chief executive, said it was a “fantastic start for the major collections that will be sold this week”.
“This will give confidence to the market,” he told the Financial Times after the auction. “Last year the consignors . . . were more cautious. They were waiting because of the economic conditions, the political conditions. This year we found the sellers were more confident . . . That’s what we witnessed tonight and it is what we hope will happen on Wednesday with our Contemporary sale.”
Amount raised by Christie’s including fees at its Modern Art auction in New York
The solid showing by privately held Christie’s, which is controlled by French billionaire François Pinault, will calm nerves of collectors worried about the art market’s health after several trying years. To weather the market fragility, brokers have cut the guarantees offered to encourage consignors to put works up for sale, and have reduced staff.
Sotheby’s last week reported a narrower-than-expected first-quarter loss, and noted that the art market “is starting to show signs of strengthening”. Mr Cerutti of Christie’s added that it was “still a selective market”, with the group failing to sell 12 works on Monday.
Four works by Pablo Picasso sold throughout the night for a total of $82.5m with fees, including the oil on canvas “Femme assise, robe bleue” for $45m. The presale estimate, which excludes fees, was $35m-$50m. A Marc Chagall oil on canvas titled “Les trois cierges” realised a price of $14.6m, above the top end of its presale estimate, while a work from Fernand Léger sold for $11.4m with fees.
Mr Cerutti, who took the helm at the start of this year, joined Christie’s colleagues standing by a bank of phones during the night, taking bids from clients outside the room and engaging in lively bidding for an oil on board by Wassily Kandinsky. The piece — “Oben und links” — carried a presale estimate of $5m-$7m and sold for $7.2m at hammer price. With fees, it cost its buyer $8.3m.