There’s no doubt about it: at the June and December auctions in Paris, where the most beautiful lots of the season are all concentrated, the trophy works tend to be snapped up by foreign buyers.
In fact, some of the leader auction houses Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Artcurial estimate that on average two-thirds of the works leave the country. According to Bruno Jaubert from Artcurial, the budget for collectors inside the Hexagon is on average just 100,000 euros.
Paris has become an international platform for noteworthy sales of 20th century items but at lower prices than New York or London, those that don’t reach into the tens of millions of euros.
This season, however, one important painting will be remaining in the country. ‘Nu sur nu’ (Nude on Nude), a rare Marcel Duchamp painting dated from 1910-1911, which is going under the hammer at Artcurial on 6 June, has been classified as a national treasure. In other words, the State has 30 months to buy back this canvas that must stay on French soil. It is estimated to fetch 500,000 euros and according to the Artcurial expert would command triple that figure if it could be exported. You’d be hard pushed to call it beautiful but there’s no doubt that it has historical significance. Seeing as he stopped painting in 1912, Duchamp could not be called prolific. In this work, he was clearly trying to find himself, making explicit reference to the symbolism of Odilon Redon; the naked woman is pictured in a cloud, lit up by an artificial light.
Another item in the ‘historic’ category being sold be Artcurial is a Max Ernst collage from 1920. For Werner Spies, an authority on this leading surrealist, the collage is nothing less than ‘the instrument of a cultural putsch’ for Ernst. The work takes the format of a postcard and is subtitled ‘In certain progressive countries, children learn Dada with great success’.
On 8 and 9 June Christie’s is auctioning off a part of the collection of Zeineb and Jean-Pierre Marcie-Riviere, a couple of seasoned art lovers who recently passed away. They donated no fewer than 50 paintings and 91 drawings by post-impressionists Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard to the Musée d’Orsay. The contemporary portion of works hitting the auction block is worth 9 million euros.
The list of artists is remarkable, from Francis Bacon (a 1954 very dark canvas estimated a 5 million euros, bought in 2002 for 1.1 million euros) to Anselm Kiefer (a lead sheet and photography work from 1991 with a 150,000-euro estimate) via Pierre Soulages (a gouache from 1952 estimated at 150,000 euros). The collection on sale is being offered without reserve, in other words there will be no minimum price. The Christie’s expert Paul Nyzam explains, ‘It’s the latest marketing strategy. The market has shrunk since the beginning of 2015. Terms like these should draw in the buyers even more.’
And he adds: ‘Paris gives real visibility to two kind of works: those whose history is linked to the French capital – those of Calder, the sculptor or Joan Mitchell, the American painter who lived in France – or those whose price level – between 50,000 to 300,00 euros – targets a market for “reasonable” investments.’
At Sotheby’s on 7 June there are are 44 lots of contemporary works on offer, the most talked about being a 2.6m wide canvas carrying the signatures of both Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. This Collaboration between the pope of Pop Art and the former graffiti artist who died at 28 was completed some two years after they first met, in 1982, and it is being sold by the pop star Elton John. ‘This work made by four hands had a true reason for being,’ explains the Sotheby’s expert Stefano Moreni. ‘Warhol found in Basquiat a new energy, a new way of approaching painting.’ Yet the market persists to underestimate, relatively speaking, the ‘collaborations’ between these two art superstars. Having said that, the estimate from Sotheby’s, 700,000 euros, is particularly low for a painting of this size. According to the expert, ‘The seller has complete confidence in us. We have to post estimates that are attractive. Buyers are very well informed these days.’
One of the most stunning works, dated 1954, is by the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. In the form of a homage to the Russian suprematist Malevich, he executed a painting driven by a motor in which white geometric shapes move against a black background.
Another ‘Meta Malevich’ was sold in February 2015 for 652,000 euros. Tinguely is an important artist but he remains underrated like a number of talents being offered in the high-profile Paris sales.
For even more modest budgets, in June the tiny auction houses are offering charming works that belong in the history books. On 15 June at Hôtel Drouot, Beaussant-Lefevre is offering, in addition to ceramics and furniture, some drawings by Maurice Denis, a painter from the Nabi movement. The estimate for the pastel, which would certainly benefit from a handsome frame, is 1,500 euros.
On 6 June the Leclere auction house, which is also based in Marseille, is selling at Drouot an oil painting by the great Edgar Degas completed in around 1856 and that was inspired by a Renaissance ceramic piece. Estimate: 60,000 euros.
The dealers know all too well that you have to stock up in Paris, for one rediscovers items from these auctions in fairs all over the world.