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‘My highlight of 2016’ — Meule by Claude Monet

The year’s top auction lot sold produced an extraordinary 14-minute bidding battle at November’s Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale in New York. Head of Department Brooke Lampley describes the experience — and her attachment to a painting she describes as ‘a glowing ember’

‘It’s the kind of picture that we specialists wait a lifetime to sell,’ says Brooke Lampley, Head of the Impressionist & Modern Art department in New York, of Claude Monet’s Meule — or Grainstack. ‘An iconic subject by one of the most popular artists in the world, this was a particularly sumptuous example — the culminating work in a series of 25, and in virtually untouched condition.’

Lampley has known the previous owner for many years and recalls the first time she stood in front of a painting she describes as ‘a glowing ember’. The encounter took place, she says, in a ‘dark library room’ of a home she never dreamed it would leave.

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Meule, 1891. Oil on canvas, 28⅝ x 36¼ in (72.7 x 92.1 cm). Sold for $81,447,500 on 16 November 2016

Claude Monet (1840-1926), Meule, 1891. Oil on canvas, 28⅝ x 36¼ in (72.7 x 92.1 cm). Sold for $81,447,500 on 16 November 2016

The specialist explains how attached she became to the epic oil painting, having toured with it around the world, and even carried it outside the main entrance of Christie’s Rockefeller Center HQ for an interested client to view it in unfiltered daylight. ‘One of the greatest virtues of this painting, and one that I am particularly charmed by, is that it not only withstands but shines in absolutely every environment,’ says Lampley. ‘Monet’s Grainstack  looked as glorious in a dark room under a spotlight or struck by direct sunshine.’

The owner believed in the strength of the picture, and in the magic of auction to deliver an unforeseeable price. ‘I had the pleasure of bidding on the phone with the direct underbidder,’ Lampley reveals, ‘entering the bidding early, then taking a break to watch the action, before re-entering again in the late $60 millions. The penultimate bid of $72 million was delivered with great enthusiasm and determination, but it seemed like the opposing bidder might never stop.’ 

Video: highlights from the 14-minute bidding battle

The five individuals who bid on the Grainstack  fully believed the painting to be one of the best examples by Monet ever to come on the market. ‘I agree,’ says the specialist. ‘Few works so perfectly encapsulate Monet’s position at the forefront of the avant-garde, as a proponent of a radical abstraction of landscape that would dictate the course of 20th-century art.’ 

The final price, with buyer’s premium, was $81,447,500, eclipsing the previous world auction record for the artist — set at Christie’s in June 2008 when Bassin aux Nympheas (1919) sold for $80.4 million. And when auctioneer Andreas Rumbler finally brought down the hammer after a full 14 minutes of bidding, Meule became the most expensive work of art at auction anywhere in the world in 2016.