Spring auctions began on Tuesday with a $170 million sale of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's, but the top lot, a 1934 Picasso, fell well short of the low estimate.
"Femmes lisant (deux personnages)" sold for $21.36 million including commission, but had been expected to fetch as much as $35 million. Estimates do not include commission, which is more than 12 percent of the hammer price.
Several other works, including Paul Delvaux’s "Les Cariatides" which soared to $9 million, nearly twice its high estimate and a record for the artist, drew strong prices as bidders competed in the salesroom and via telephone.
The sale totaled $170.5 million, against a pre-sale estimate of $159 million to $230 million. Of the 59 works on offer 15, or 25 percent went unsold.
Sotheby’s <BID.N> officials said they were pleased with the result, especially given the difficulty of assembling the sale in a market in which collectors are increasingly opting to hold onto top works as prices rise.
But they indicated, however indirectly, that it was something less than robust. Last year both Sotheby’s and rival Christie’s had among their best years ever, after a dismal 2009 amid the global financial crisis.
Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s senior vice president and specialist in charge of the sale, described the salesroom as "nice" and "solid." He added that bidding, "while not euphoric, in most cases saw solid activity."
Several works, notably sculpture, performed well. Giacometti’s "Femme debout" sold for $7.36 million, while Rodin’s "Le Penseur" fetched $4 million, each more than double the high estimate.
Gauguin’s "Jeune tahitienne," the artist’s only known fully worked bust, sold for $11.28 million — like most of the highest-priced works, either below or near the low end of their estimates.
David Norman, co-chair of Impressionist and modern art, said the sale indicated "we need to try to keep the estimates as appealing and as based on recent precedence as we can."
He said the sale was marked by strong Russian and U.S. bidding, despite the weakness of the American dollar.
The auctions continue on Wednesday with Christie’s sale of Impressionist and modern art.