Picasso Stunner Buoys Big Night at Sotheby’s

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The New York Sun

Twenty minutes into the auction of Impressionist and Modern art last night at Sotheby’s, the packed salesroom woke up. An epic duel between a phone bidder and an anonymous man in the room pushed Pablo Picasso’s “Dora Maar au chat” (1941) far past its estimate of $50 million, until it finally sold for $95.2 million to the man in the room, whose identity the auction house would not disclose.

“Pictures like this are few and far between,” a co-chairman of Impressionist and Modern art at Sotheby’s, David Norman, said.

The “Dora Maar” price was the second highest ever for any work of art at auction. The highest price also belongs to a Picasso sold at Sotheby’s, “Boy With a Pipe” (1905), which made $104 million two years ago.

The entire sale totaled $207.6 million, the highest total for an Impressionist and Modern sale at Sotheby’s since May 1990. Only seven of 55 works offered failed to find buyers. On Tuesday night, Christie’s earned its second highest total ever in the same category.

“This has been a market for several seasons where great and commercial pictures know no limit,” a private dealer and former co-head of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern department, Christopher Eykyn, said. “Methodical bidding shows that there is not insanity but great strength and depth.”

Solid prices for minor works by Vuillard, Pissarro, Renoir, and Monet early on in the sale, conducted at a rapid pace by auctioneer Tobias Meyer, were a mere prelude to the drama of “Dora Maar.” The wartime painting of Picasso’s flamboyant mistress gripping the arm rests of her chair, a cat perched near her shoulder, was both an inside joke – she hated cats – and a token of respect for a woman with a personality almost as big as his.

The Picasso buyer also picked up Monet’s “Pres Monte-Carlo” (1883) for $5 million and Chagall’s “Le Paradis” (1978) for $2.6 million. The “Dora Maar” coup buoyed the salesroom: one lot later Andre Derain’s loosely painted fauvist “Paysage a l’estaque” (1906) sold to a phone bidder for $6.8 million, well above its high estimate of $5 million.

Another extraordinary price was set for Henri Matisse’s languorous “Nu couche vu de dos” (1927), which sold to a phone bidder for $18.5 million, setting a new auction record for the artist.

“It was the most beautiful painting of the whole sale,” said a London- and New York-based dealer and collector, David Nahmad, who was an underbidder on the Matisse, as well as on works by Monet, Bonnard, and Picasso. At times it felt as if Mr. Nahmad and his family, seated in the front row, were the only competitors for the faceless phone bidders. At the tail end of the sale, Mr. Nahmad did eventually win Picasso’s “Le peintre et son modele” (1963) for $1.7 million.

All told, Picasso accounted for four of the top 10 lots in the sale. The 10 Picassos on offer last night together earned $124.3 million, 60% of the total sale figure.


Pablo Picasso Dora Maar au chat (1941)
Presale estimate: $50 million
Sold for: $95.2 million
This formidable portrait of a formidable woman, Picasso’s mistress and photographer Dora Maar, shows a black cat crawling near Dora’s shoulder – an in-joke between the lovers, since Picasso knew she hated cats.

Henri Matisse Nu couche vu de dos (1927)
Presale estimate: $12 million to $15 million
Sold for: $18.5 million
Matisse painted this ample odalisque during a period in Nice he described as “a happy nostalgia” for Morocco. His fond memories are clear in the richly textured wallpaper and bedding spread around the woman’s naked back.

Pablo Picasso Arlequin au baton (1969)
Presale estimate: $8 million to $10 million
Sold for: $10.1 million
This harlequin is a warrior, painted when the artist was 88. The sword he brandishes over his head hardly requires Freud to decipher it.

Pablo Picasso Femme assise dans un fauteuil (1960)
Presale estimate: $3 million to $5 million
Sold for: $6.7 million
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is selling this late-period Picasso of a seated woman, one of a series the prolific artist executed rapidly in 1960. The sitter is based on his second wife and last significant companion, Jacqueline.

Vincent van Gogh Les Toits (1882)
Presale estimate: $2.5 million to $3.5 million
Sold for: $4.7 million
This watercolor-and-gouache portrays a tranquil Sunday morning view from the budding artist’s window in the Hague. It was commissioned by his uncle, an art dealer.

Pablo Picasso
Sylvette (1954)
Presale estimate: $4.5 million to $6 million
Sold for: $4.6 million
Picasso developed something of a crush on his 20-year-old neighbor, painting her nearly 40 times during two months in 1954. A more representational portrait of Sylvette sold for $8 million at Christie’s last fall.

Marc Chagall Le Bouquet des fermiers (1966)
Presale estimate: $3.5 million to $5 million
Sold for: $3.4 million
A bursting bouquet dominates this late Chagall, but a full upturned world flits by the top of the canvas. A short man and a voluptuous woman at the bottom right of the canvas likely represent Chagall and his second wife, Valentine.

Fernand Leger Nature morte, etat definitif (1920)
Presale estimate: $3 million to $4 million
Sold for: $3.2 million
Leger painted this modest-size still life after his stint with the French army during World War I, and it reflects his new focus on the intersection between ordinary life and technological determinism.

(Final prices include the auction house’s commission, which is 20% of the first $200,000 of sale price, plus 12% of the remaining price.)

The New York Sun

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