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Record paid for Magritte masterpiece as Monet, Manet passed over

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A reporter looks at Georgia O'Keeffe's "A Street" (L) and René Magritte's "Le Principe Du Plaisir" at Sotheby's Auction house in New York. New records for paintings by Rene Magritte and Oskar Kokoschka were the highlights of an otherwise uneven sale of Impressionist and modern art by Sotheby's on Monday night in New York.

[HONG KONG] New records for paintings by Rene Magritte and Oskar Kokoschka were the highlights of an otherwise uneven sale of Impressionist and modern art by Sotheby's on Monday night in New York.

While the total raised was US$315.4 million -- above the low estimate of US$284 million and 17 per cent more than a similar auction a year ago -- 16 of the 65 lots offered failed to find buyers. Left on the shelf were lesser works by Claude Monet, Fernand Leger and Edouard Manet.

Monday evening's sale, which attracted US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, known to collect Magritte and other Surrealist artists, is part of a week of semi-annual auctions in New York that kicked off Sunday with more than US$1.8 billion of art up for grabs. Auction houses and dealers are trying to gauge buyer appetite against the backdrop of slumping equity markets and an escalating trade war between China and the US.

Still, it often comes down to individual lots.

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Market voices on:

"People don't like to buy second-rate Impressionist and modern works, but a record US$26.8 million paid for Magritte shows that collectors want top works," said Pascal de Sarthe, a Hong Kong-based dealer who's in New York for the auctions. "The next few days will be different because of a shift in trend toward collecting post-war and contemporary art."

The Magritte -- Le Principe du Plaisir (Pleasure Principle), painted in 1937 -- carried a pre-sale auction estimate of US$15 million to US$20 million. Its final sale price of almost US$27 million eclipsed the previous record for the artist of US$20.6 million. Estimates exclude the buyer's premium that's applied to the hammer price.

Kokoschka's 1910 portrait of an asylum inmate named Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac sold for US$20.4 million, almost five times the artist's previous record of US$4.1 million. The painting was sold by the heirs of a Jewish art dealer whose artworks were seized by the Nazis in the 1930s, and it was only returned to the family by the Moderna Museet in Stockholm earlier this year.

The biggest casualty of the evening was an abstract painting by American modernist Marsden Hartley. Estimated at around US$30 million and guaranteed by Sotheby's, it went unsold.

On Sunday, Christie's auctioned just US$279.2 million worth of Impressionist and modern art at its evening sale, below its low estimate of US$305 million and 42 per cent down from a similar sale in New York a year ago.

BLOOMBERG