High hopes pay off at New York’s Impressionist and Modern art sales

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Despite complaints about unrealistic estimates, Sotheby’s made $422.1m to trump its rival Christie’s this week

Manet’s Le Printemps, was bought by the Getty for $65.1m at Sotheby’s Tuesday night

Sotheby’s staged the most expensive auction in its history with its $422.1m Impressionist and Modern evening sale on 4 November. The house eclipsed Christie’s more modest $165.6m sale the following evening in a sector that has demonstrated steady growth despite being overshadowed by the post-war and contemporary art market.

This season, Sotheby’s and Christie’s evening sales achieved a combined total of $587.7m. In November 2011, the equivalent result was $340.6m; in autumn 2012, $367.8m; and 12 months ago, $434.5m. According to our calculations, the average New York evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art each season since 2006 has earned $210.9m. Sotheby’s achieved more than double this result in less than three hours this week, although Christie’s fell short.

Sotheby’s success has precedent: the auction house has outperformed its rival in the Impressionist and Modern evening sales for six of the past eight major sessions in New York. (The reverse is true in the post-war and contemporary sector, where Christie’s has outperformed Sotheby’s in six of the past eight major New York sales.)

Some dealers attribute Sotheby’s superior market share to the longevity of its senior team, which has experienced less turnover in recent years than Christie’s. But the two houses also have very different strategies. Sotheby’s packed its sale to the gills with 73 lots—its largest offering since May 2012, when it sold Edward Munch’s The Scream, 1895. This week, 15 works went unsold, resulting in a sell-through rate of 79.4%. Christie’s, on the other hand, offered only 39 lots, achieving a higher sell-through rate of 90%.

Sotheby’s top ten lots alone made almost double Christie’s entire total. These works, including a late still life by Vincent van Gogh and rare sculptures by Giacometti and Modigliani, achieved $326.2m, or 73% of Sotheby’s total. “They had a group of things that were very sought after and very expensive—important works from 20th-century masters are extremely scarce,” says Frances Beatty, the president of Richard Feigen & Co. “There is a global enthusiasm for what is recognisable and what is a brand.”

While these works drove the record total, Sotheby’s is also pushing larger a volume of mid-tier works onto the market than rival Christie’s. On Tuesday evening, Sotheby’s made $95.9m on the remaining 63 lots outside the top ten. At least five works in its evening sale previously appeared in day sales, including the bronze sculpture Héraklès, Archer, conceived in 1909 and cast before 1952, by Émile Antoine Bourdelle, which sold on Tuesday for $365,000 (est $300,000-$350,000). The same work, which depicts Hercules driving away a flock of man-eating birds with a bow and arrow, made $314,500 at Sotheby’s day sale in November 2011. “Perhaps Sotheby’s decided to put a lot of things in the evening sale hoping to capture the attention of people who wouldn’t necessarily look at the day sales”, which can be viewed as less prestigious, Beatty says.

Still, some dealers complained about high estimates. The $101m price achieved by the sculpture Chariot, 1950, by Alberto Giacometti, felt anticlimactic in the room after Sotheby’s had estimated it “in excess of $100m”.

Asked about the houses’ distinct strategies, Brooke Lampley, the head of Impressionist and Modern art at Christie’s, focused on her sale’s sell-through rate and took a veiled swipe at Sotheby’s more optimistic estimates. “I’m not interested in offering a work that won’t sell at the price we suggest,” she says. “It’s incumbent upon us to send a positive message to the marketplace. The market isn’t suffering, it’s just that the pricing can sometimes be too high.”

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