Photo: Courtesy of Christie’s
As Christie’s prepares to raise an estimated £100 million in one evening, Alice Vincent visits the auction house to find out how the rich buy art.Christie’s has all the hallmarks of one of London’s smartest establishments: doormen in tails, a St. James’s postcode and a whiff of French polish in the air. It also has an open door policy. “We love children coming here!” enthuses Jay Vincze, the auction house’s International Director of Impressionist and Modern Art.
On Wednesday, Christie’s expects to make up to £145 million at its bi-annual Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale which includes The Art of the Surreal Evening Sale each February.
Many of the pieces haven’t been on public display for decades, but during the five days before the auction the artwork is on show to the public for free.
The star of the sale is Amadeo Modigliani’s 1919 portrait of his wife Jeanne Hébuterne (au chapeau), which is listed for £16-22 million. A pensive painting, Hébuterne’s graceful demeanor belies the trauma in the couple’s relationship: just six months after it was created, Modigliani’s premature death from tuberculosis led Hébuterne to commit suicide the next day. She was pregnant with their second child. Vincze, who is in charge of Wednesday’s sale, explains the painting’s appeal: “It’s very elegant and yet there’s a power to it. There’s often this power in Modigliani’s portraits of Jean which you don’t get from the other portraits he did. You can really sense this passionate relationship they had.”
While the Modigliani went on sale to its current owner in 2006, it hasn’t been on display in a museum since 1953. It’s not the only one: the majority of work coming from private collections, 60 per cent of the art up for sale on Wednesday has never appeared at auction, and others haven’t gone under the hammer for three generations. Vincze explains that it makes them all the more appealing: “There’s an incredible freshness to the sale – it tends to cause quite a bit of excitement when works come up that are so fresh.”
Another highlight of the evening sale is a mysterious Wassily Kandinsky painting, Balancement. Created in 1942, it dates from Kandinsky’s post-Bauhaus period when the artist was living in Paris, perfecting his influential Abstraction and struggling to find large enough canvasses in the midst of war. Most from this era hang in New York’s Guggenheim gallery or the Pompidou Centre in Paris, leaving very few in private hands. “It’s a pretty exciting piece, they’re very rare to the auction market”, says Vincze. He won’t let on who the anonymous seller is, but Balancement is valued between £5-8 million.
Another exciting prospect is a portrait of Picasso’s last great muse, and later wife, Jacqueline Roque, which was completed on Valentines Day 1960. Displayed just once in New York in 1962, the figure ripples with femininity.
There’s also a Renoir up for grabs. Last auctioned 25 years ago, L’ombrelle is a painting Vincze reckons will be at the centre of a bidding war on Wednesday; it’s estimated to reach between £4-7 million. The 1878 painting is quintessentially Impressionist – Renoir’s rich impasto celebrates a fashionable Parisienne, and the use of colour in shadow is one of the earliest examples of the influential technique. L’ombrelle was originally owned by one of the earliest American collectors of Impressionism, Erwin Davis, who donated two Manet pictures to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1889.
Of course, it’s not by chance that these 76 exclusive works are on sale all at once. “This auction has probably taken 30 years to compile”, Vincze says, “we try and edit the sale. You want to keep the quality high and offer good pieces to buyers.” Christie’s manage it by nurturing good relationships with valued collectors. Sales of this size have a gathering period of six months. But before that begins, some potential sellers have been involved in a process of discussing the best time to sell for many decades.
Vincze says there’s a sense of stability in the market for Impressionist and modern art. However, the demand for it is increasing. Last year 20 per cent of all buyers at Christie’s were first-time purchasers, and that number doubled to 40 per cent in 2012’s online auctions, which started in 2006, with online-only auctions launching in December 2011. There are over 30 online only auctions planned for 2013. While recent art sale news has focused on Chinese buyers bailing on agreed sales and a struggling market in India, Christie’s seems to be bucking the trend. “Partly it’s accessibility, partly it’s that art and people’s interest in art is really burgeoning”, Vincze explains. “There seems to be growth in the whole art market, the museum side too. The interest and passion for it translates very well into our sales.”
If you’re one of the few who has a couple of million to spend on art, then the process is surprisingly transparent and simple – regardless of if you’re spending £200 or £22 million. Buyers must register before they bid to show they have the funds, but Christie’s doesn’t take deposits. Once the auction catalogue has been unveiled to people a few weeks before the sale, buyers can bid online or over the phone well in advance. Meanwhile, these valuable works are on a complex shipping schedule to exhibitions in New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo, as well as to prospective buyers who can’t make it to London.
At 7pm on Wednesday night, 600 aspiring buyers will cram inside Christie’s two main salerooms to bid for works, and an increasingly global audience will participate through commission and telephone bids. “It’s a refreshing sign of the market”, says Vincze, “our buyers aren’t confined to one area of the globe.” He says there’s been a great deal of Russian and Asian collecting over the past few years, which shows “no sign of abating.”
Over 100 members of Christie’s staff will join auctioneer Jussi Pylkkanen, the Christie’s President EMERI. Once the hammer comes down, the auction house then takes its buyer’s premium, which is charged on top of the amount bid. For lots up to £25,000, this is 25%. But at an auction like this, an additional 20% is charged on the amount over £25,000. For items over £500,000, an additional 12% is charged.
And then, from Thursday, the auction house will start the process all over again. Christie’s next big sale is in just a week’s time when work by Francis Bacon, David Hockney and Damien Hirst and others are estimated to generate between £50-70 million. Another Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale follows in June. While few people will be able to indulge in a Paula Rego painting the price of a family home, the opportunity to see it on display for the first time ever, and for free, is something art fans can genuinely get excited about.
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