A Tame Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale Generates $224 M.

Sotheby’s sale of 20th century art netted $224 million over a brisk hour-and-a-half on Monday at the house’s York Avenue headquarters. The grouping of 31 lots generated a collective hammer price of $190 million, falling below the house’s pre-sale low estimate of $200 million.

Six lots were withdrawn, while nearly half of the lots were backed by financial guarantees.

Monday’s sale marked the second week in New York’s marquee fall auction season, so far highlighted by a white-glove sale of 31 works from the Emily Fisher Landau Collection last Tuesday at Sotheby’s that brought in $406 million and a $640 million sale of 20th century art at Christie’s that set several artist records last Thursday.

Despite that success, Monday’s sale was a compartively more subdued performance. Led by Sotheby’s auctioneer Michael Macaulay, a contemporary art specialist, the sale saw works by Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Alberto Giacometti and Rufino Tamayo, among others, hammer at prices below their low estimate.

A work by Hedda Sterne, who died in 2011 and whose affiliation with the New York School is lesser known in the market, however, set a new record for the artist.

One of the highest performers of the night was Le Moulin de Limetz, a 1888 painting by Claude Monet sold by the descendants of Chicago industrialist Potter Palmer. After a deep competition by bidders on the phone with specialists and in the room, it hammered at $21.5 million, well above its $18 million high estimate, or $25.6 million with fees. It sold with applause to a bidder on the phone with Simon Shaw, Sotheby’s vice chairman of global fine arts.

Around the same point in the sale, Sotheby’s Deputy Chairman of Asia Jen Hua won the bid for a 1924 painting by Marc Chagall titled Au-dessus de la ville after a bidding war with Scott Niichel, Sotheby’s Americas senior vice president of modern & contemporary art, that lasted for several minutes. The work hammered for $13.3 million, above its $12 million low estimate, going for $15.6 million with fees.

Another high point was La Patience, a 1948 painting by Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, more commonly known as Balthus, that was being deaccessioned from the Art Institute of Chicago. Estimated to sell between $12 million and $18 million, the work depicts the young model Jeanette Aldry hunched over an antique game table. It hammered just above its low estimate at $12.5 million and went for a final price of $14.7 million— marking the third highest price achieved for the French artist at auction.

Following the Balthus sale, a 1968 untitled work on paper by Mark Rothko brought one of the night’s unexpected moments of excitement for attendees. The work, sold from the holdings of Tennessee philanthropist Pitt Hyde, hammered at $20.5 million, far surpassing its $7 million low estimate. Proceeds from the sale, which came to $23.9 million with fees, went to benefit the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, which the Hyde family funds through a foundation.

Sotheby’s New York sale room, November 13, 2023.

Notably, Philip Guston’s 1952 canvas The Bell was among the six works withdrawn prior to sale. Slated with an estimate of $6 million to $8 million, the work appeared in the “Phillip Guston Now” exhibition when it traveled to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Its owner, Met trustee and Miami-based collector Aaron Fleischman, who has owned the work since 1990, had told ARTnews of his plans to sell the work after deciding not to donate it to a museum.

The sale of Hedda Sterne’s canvas Roads #7 from 1956, featured as the opening lot of the night, brought attention to one of the sale’s lesser-known artists. Sterne, an active member of the New York School painters and a subject in the Centre Pompidou’s 2021 exhibition “Women in Abstraction,” is not a widely recognized name in the auction circuit. This sale marked the first appearance of a Sterne’s work in an evening sale. The winning bid for the painting, pursued by four phone bidders, ultimately went to a woman seated in the room. The work was hammered at a price of $650,000, surpassing the $600,000 high estimate. The final result of $818,000 set a record for the artist.

The hype around mid-century female painters, which had been evident in previous seasons, has notably cooled lately. However, towards the sale’s end, Julian Dawes, an Impressionist and modern art specialist based in Sotheby’s New York, secured the bid for a Remedios Varo oil painting titled Astro errante (1961). The painting, depicting an anthropomorphized star appearing as a female figure emitting rays of light, surpassed its $1.2 million estimate, hammering at $1.7 million with fees. Varo’s current record of $6.2 million was set in 2020.