Van Gogh masterpiece leads on a stellar night of Impressionist & Modern Art

Packed with major works by the greatest artists of the age, the opening sale of the 20th Century season at Christie’s in New York totals $479.3 million

Packed with masterworks by Monet, Vuillard, Van Gogh, Léger, Picasso and Magritte, to name but a few, Christie’s highly anticipated Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale  in New York realised $479,320,250 / £366,172,842 — the highest total in over a decade and the second-highest ever for an Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale at Christie’s. The auction was 88 per cent sold by lot and 96 per cent by value. You can watch a replay of the sale, which took place on 13 November, via our Facebook Live feed.

The top-priced lot of the night was Vincent van Gogh’s Laboureur dans un champ, executed in the year before his death. This richly painted view from the window of the artist’s room in the asylum at Saint-Rémy was completed in the late summer of 1889. The subject of a prolonged bidding battle, the painting was finally acquired for $81,312,500 / £62,118,029 (including buyer’s premium), the second highest auction price in history for the artist. The record price for a work by Van Gogh still stands at $82,500,000, which was paid for Portrait du Dr. Gachet  (1890) at Christie’s in May 1990.

The Van Gogh was one of a rich and remarkably deep offering of highlights, which began with the first lots in the sale — a museum-quality selection of New York Dada works from the Beyond Boundaries collection. Rarely offered at auction, these 10 pieces were assembled with the guidance of renowned advisor Alain Tarica, who also worked with Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, and Hubertus and Renata Wald. 

Within this group, new world-auction-record prices were set for works by Jean Crotti and Suzanne Duchamp, and there was a world-auction record for a sculpture by Man Ray. The top price among the Beyond Boundaries works, however, was achieved when Wassily Kandinsky’s Improvisation mit Pferden (Studie für Improvisation 20)  (1911) was bought for $12,687,500 / £9,962,513.

The second-highest price on the night was realised when Fernand Léger’s Contraste de formes  from 1913 sold for $70,062,500, easily eclipsing the previous world auction record for the artist — $39,241,000, which was set in 2012. Offered for the first time at auction, this groundbreaking painting of the early 20th century came from the property of the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, with proceeds from its sale going towards the foundation’s philanthropic mission.

Fernand Léger (1881-1955), Contraste de formes, 1913. 36⅜ x 28⅞  in (92.4 x 73.2  cm). Sold for $70,062,500 in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 13 November 2017  at Christie’s in New York

Fernand Léger (1881-1955), Contraste de formes, 1913. 36⅜ x 28⅞ in (92.4 x 73.2 cm). Sold for $70,062,500 in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 13 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York

The Van Gogh masterwork was one of a number of stunning paintings offered from The Collection of Nancy Lee and Percy R. Bass. They included Les régates de Nice, a 1921 painting by Henri Matisse depicting two young women gazing at the sea from their apartment on the French coast, which sold for $16,625,000 / £12,700,535, and Peinture  by Joan Miró, from April 1933, which realised $20,375,000 / £20,035,714. The combined total for the works from the Bass Collection offered across the Impressionist & Modern Art sales was $161,314,750. 

The freshness of stellar collections was one of a number of strong themes in the sale. The selection offered from The Collection of Stanford Z. Rothschild, which included works by Monet, Pissarro, Redon and Delaunay, was led by Claude Monet’s Le Rio de la Salute, which sold for $8,187,500.

The pictures collected by acclaimed Egyptologist William Kelly Simpson also attracted deep bidding. The highest price achieved was for Édouard Vuillard’s superlative Misia et Vallotton  from 1899. Purchased by Professor Simpson and his wife, a granddaughter of John D. Rockefeller, Jr, the painting was described as ‘possibly the finest Vuillard ever to be offered at auction’ and certainly lived up to its billing, selling for $17,750,000 — almost $10 million higher than the previous world-auction record for the artist. The total for the six works from the collection offered on the night was $28,162,500.

René Magritte (1898-1967), L’empire des lumières, painted in 1949. 19⅛ x 23⅛ in (48.5 x 58.7 cm). Sold for $20,562,500 in the Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale on 13 November 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Perhaps the defining feature of the auction, though, was the sheer number of masterpieces, which saw thousands of people visit Christie’s Rockefeller Center galleries to enjoy the pre-sale exhibition. Such widespread interest in the art on offer was reflected in further world-auction records being set for René Magritte, whose iconic L’empire des lumières  sold for $20,562,500 / £15,708,556, drawing the first of numerous bouts of applause from the saleroom, and Emil Nolde’s Indische Tänzerin, which was acquired for $5,262,500.

Other headline prices on the night included Pablo Picasso’s Femme accroupie (Jacqueline)  from 1954, which remained in the artist’s personal collection for many years, has rarely been seen in public, and was being offered at auction for the first time. After another long and intense bidding battle, the portrait of the artist’s muse and lover sold for $36,875,000 / £28,170,359. Matinée sur la Seine  (1897) by Claude Monet, one of a series of 22 canvases the Impressionist master produced of inland water landscapes, realised $23,375,000 / £17,587,143. Later in the sale, Picasso’s 1937 work, Figure (de femme inspirée par la guerre d’Espagne), sold for $16,093,750 / £12,294,691. 

‘It was a great sale, a sale to remember,’ said Christie's CEO Guillaume Cerutti afterwards. Jessie Fertig, Head of the Evening Sale, remarked on the ‘extraordinary interest in collections, which featured many works that had long been held in private hands’, and also underlined the extraordinarily international spread of bidding on the night.

The Impressionist and Modern Art Day Sale  and Works on Paper  sale generated $35,836,125 and $15,116,625 respectively. The group of seven exceptional animal bronzes by Rembrandt Bugatti all sold, led by his depiction of a group of six cart horses, Dix minutes de repos ou Le grand fardier (1906), which realised $1,152,500. The online sale of Picasso Ceramics  was 100 per cent sold, raising $1,418,125.