On 14 November, Sotheby's marquee auctions in New York was unveiled with a modern art evening sale which brought in a total of US$253.3 million. 

The 44-lot auction was a rather tepid affair, with many lots falling short of pre-sale estimates. Eight artworks failed to find new owners, leading the sale to a modest sell-through rate of 81%.

Headlining the sale was Piet Mondrian's iconic grid-based painting, Composition No. II, which fetched a record US$51 million after fees to a collector from Asia. 

Record was also set for Elaine de Kooning, who made her first evening auction debut with Charge. Drawing multiple bidders, the large-scale canvas surpassed its high estimate of US$600,000 to sell for an impressive US$1.1 million.

Auctioneer Oliver Barker

Lot 105 | Piet Mondrian | Composition No. II, Oil on canvas in artist's frame (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 1930
51 x 51 cm
Provenance:
Estimate upon request, expected to fetch in excess of US$50 million
Hammer Price: US$48,000,000
Sold: US$51,000,000

The top-selling lot of the sale was Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. II, which came with an irrevocable bid. Bidding started at US$38 million and saw lukewarm reception. Despite auctioneer’s best efforts to call out on higher bids, it attracted only five and eventually hammered at US$48 million, failing to meet its presale expectations of US$50 million and selling to Chairman of Europe Caroline Lang’s telephone bidder with paddle number 103. 

After fees, the work set a new record for the artist at US$51 million, barely smashing its previous record of US$50.5 million, which was achieved by Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black when it sold at Christie's New York in 2015. 

Caroline Lang, Chairman, Europe, won the lot for her client with paddle number 103

Composition No. III, with Red, Blue, Yellow, and Black | Sold: US$50,565,000, Christie's New York, 2015

Born in Amersfoort, Netherlands into a devout Protestant family, Mondrian was fascinated by art since young and aspired to be a painter. When he was 20, he obtained his first degree in education as per his parents' wishes. Yet, instead of looking for a teaching position, that same year he decided to study at Royal Academy of Visual Arts in Amsterdam, which opened the door for his illustrious artistic career.

For Mondrian, the creation of art was a way to achieve a universal truth, as he once reflected, “I believe it is possible that, through horizontal and vertical lines constructed with awareness, but not with calculation, led by high intuition, and brought to harmony and rhythm, these basic forms of beauty, supplemented if necessary by other direct lines or curves, can become a work of art, as strong as it is true.”

It would not be hyperbolic to claim that no other 20th-century artist has had such far-reaching impact on the contemporary cultural sphere. From the fashionable realm of Yves Saint Laurent to the exterior of the Hague’s City Hall, Mondrian’s imagery appears across nearly every kind of visual reference.

Piet Mondrian

Yves Saint Laurent’s appropriation of Mondrian’s work into his designs for the 1965 Autumn-Winter collection

Hague’s City Hall

A quintessential example of the Modernist master’s distinctive style, Composition No. II bears all the hallmarks of his revolutionary, seminal approach to composition – using only vertical and horizontal black lines against planes of primary colours and a white ground.

Composition No. II  comes from a discrete series of square-format canvases, the majority of which are held in museum collections. It is one of only three paintings to feature the dominant red square at upper right; the other two works with this feature, which are smaller in size than the present work, are owned by the Kunsthaus Zürich and the National Museum in Belgrade respectively.

Painted in 1930 at the high point of Mondrian's career, the work has been included in major exhibitions, including National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C;  The Museum of Modern Art in New York. From 2015 to 2016, it was on loan to the Tate Modern in London.

Lot 108 | Pablo Picasso | Guitare sur une table, Oil on canvas
Created in Paris in 1919
100 x 80.7 cm
Provenance:
Estimate upon request, expected to fetch between US$20 million to US$30 million
Hammer Price: US$32,000,000
Sold: US$37,092,500

Guitare sur une table was unseen at auctions for more than seven decades after it was acquired by William S. Paley, who was best known as the chief executive who built the Columbia Broadcasting System from a small radio network into one of the foremost radio and television network operations in the United States. 

Auctioneer opened the bidding for the lot at US$18 million and two telephone bidders raised the hammer price up to US$32 million, well past its presale low expectation of US$20 million. The piece sold for US$37 million after fees, going to the client with paddle number 160 represented by Brad Bentoff, Business Development, New York. The proceeds of the lot will benefit the Museum of Modern Art and other charitable organizations.

Brad Bentoff, Business Development, New York won the lot for his client with paddle number 160

Pablo Picasso

The inspiration for the scene in the present lot, a still life in front of an open window, was born out of a vacation on the French Riviera. After spending much of 1919 in London, Picasso and his first wife Olga Khokhlova returned to Paris and made their way to the small southern town of Saint-Raphaël.

Situated in their opulent suites overlooking the Mediterranean, Picasso soon alighted on his newest subject, the gueridon. The paintings and works on paper that resulted were variants on the still life, most notably those with a guitar on a table in front of a balcony.

The Old Guitarist, 1903-04 | Art Institute of Chicago

Man with a Guitar, 1912 | Philadelphia Museum of Art

Guitar had been a favored motif of Picasso as early as 1903, but it was not until he began experimenting with Cubism that he transformed this everyday object into flattened forms. 

Linked to his Spanish ancestry and endowed with an inherent sensuality, the guitar offers a versatile subject for Picasso’s interpretations from his Blue Period to the end of his impressive career — and throughout the guitar paintings, one could witness the master's artistic changes over the years. 

Painted in 1919, Guitare sur une table exemplifies the Cubist pioneer's daring stylistic evolution in the years following the First World War. Here, space is compressed in two-dimensional expanses of color, juxtaposed as if sheets of cut-and-pasted paper. Set against a dramatic halo at center, the guitar comes to the fore, constructed with pink, blue, brown and red, while the teal table upon which it rests is echoed by the expansive blue sky in the intersecting window.

Still life in front of a window at Saint-Raphael, 1919 | The Berlin State Museums

The Guitarist, 1965 | Dallas Museum of Art

Lot 128 | Henry Moore | Reclining Figure: Festival, Bronze
Conceived in 1951 and cast by the Gaskin foundry in an editioncof 5+1 artist's proof
Length: 238.8 cm
Provenance:
Estimate upon request, expected to fetch between US$30 million to US$40 million
Hammer Price: US$27,500,000
Sold: US$31,000,000

Also backed by an irrevocable bid, Henry Moore's Reclining Figure: Festival was the second sale's third most expensive lot. Starting with an opening bid of US$25 million, the star lot drew only five bids amid a silent room and was hammered at a below-expectation US$27.5 million, going to the client with paddle number 132 represented by Alex Branczik, Chairman, Modern and Contemporary Art. 

Ahead of the sale, the present lot was expected to set a new auction for the artist as well as the most expensive sculpture ever made by a British artist. In the end, with a final price of US$31 million, it failed to surpass Moore's previous auction record, which stands at £24.7 million (US$32.7 million), when another edition of Reclining Figure: Festival was sold at Christie's London in 2015.
 

Alex Branczik, Chairman, Modern and Contemporary Art, won the lot for his client with paddle number 132
 

Another edition of Reclining Figure: Festival | Sold: £24.7 million, Christie's London

Henry Moore with Reclining Figure: Festival
 
Commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the 1951 Festival of Britain, Reclining Figure: Festival represented the masterful culmination of the artist's constant investigation of the human form from the 1920s, as well as his pioneering approach to create a sense of balance between the body and the landscape. 

In the wake of fascist-wrought destruction after World War II, the event of 1951 was envisioned as a large-scale propaganda campaign, aiming at uplifting the national mood by embodying the spirit of British resilience and creativity. 

What Moore decided to present there was a wholly new and radical conception — a sort of fantastical biomorphic reclining figure which played on the topographical recesses and abstracted attenuation of the human body.

With the Festival’s millions of visitors, however, came countless opinions of Moore’s masterpiece. While some equate the sculpture to war-torn skeletons or bodies, others see it as a celebration of humanity's survival. For Moore, it was, in his words, "the first sculpture in which I succeeded in making form and space sculpturally inseparable", and one of the most important piece that he singled out from his ouevre. 

Reclining Figure: Festival, Plaster and String on a wood base | Tate, London

Reclining Figure: Festival, Bronze | National Galleries Scotland, Edinburg

After Reclining Figure: Festival made its debut in 1951, the primary plaster was gifted by the artist to Tate in 1978. In addition to the original one, there are six editions of the sculpture: one plaster housed in the Art Gallery of Ontario, five other bronze casts executed by the Gaskin foundary in an edition size. 

Two of these casts include the bronze originally displayed at the 1951 Festival of Britain, now at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and another in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris. The present lot is one of the only casts in private hands never before offered at auction, and largely remained private except on loan to the artist’s significant exhibitions such as the Dallas Museum of Art’s 2001 Henry Moore Sculpting the 20th Century show.

Lot 101 | Elaine de Kooning | Charge, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Created in 1960 
152.4 x 121.9 cm
Provenance:
Estimate: US$400,000 – 600,000 
Hammer Price: US$850,000
Sold: US$1,071,000

Elaine de Kooning was a prominent American painter known for her experimentation with abstract and figurative expressionism. Actively engaged in the post-war New York art scene, she was also a prolific teacher who held teaching positions at many prestigious instituitions of higher education, including Yale University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Parsons School of Design.

In 1938, she met renowned Dutch-American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning when she was 20 and he 34. The two married in 1943 and remained married, despite a nearly 20-year period of separation, until Elaine’s death in 1989. 

While she spared no efforts in supporting Willem's career, Elain was fully aware that she as an artist was often overshadowed by her husband's fame. She once said, "It seemed like a good idea at the time, but later I came to think that it was a bit of a put-down of the women. There was something about the show that sort of attached women-wives- to the real artists."

Elaine de Kooning

In the Abstract Expressionist movement, women were frequently sidelined, serving as objects and accessories to reinforce the masculinity of their male counterparts. Therefore, Elaine would sign her artworks with her initials so as not to have her paintings labeled as feminine and being mistaken for her husband. 

During her lifetime, Elaine, as an established artist on her own, was included in several notable exhibitions, including the 1956 Young American Painters at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, as well as solo exhibitions at the Stable Gallery, New York. Today, her work graced the walls of many museums, such as the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., among others.

Her previous record was set by Red Bison/Blue Horse, when it went for US$562,500 at Christie's New York last year. With the present lot fetching at US$1.1 million, her auction record has increased by almost twofold.

Lot 125 | Alberto Giacometti | Caroline, Oil on canvas
Created in 1962
91.4 x 71.1 cm
Provenance:
Estimate: US$15,000,000 – 20,000,000
Hammer Price: US$14,000,000
Sold: US$15,985,500 

Lot 115 | Tamara de Lempicka | Portrait de Romana de la Salle, Oil on canvas
Created in 1928
116.5 x 73 cm
Provenance:
Estimate: US$10,000,000 – 15,000,000
Hammer Price: US$12,000,000
Sold: US$14,112,500

 

Lot 133 | Paul Gauguin | Drame au village, Pont-Aven, Oil on canvas
Created in 1894
73.4 x 93 cm
Provenance:
Estimate: US$8,000,000 – 12,000,000
Hammer Price: US$8,250,000
Sold: US$9,068,125

Lot 119 | René Magritte | Shéhérazade, Oil on canvas
Created in 1950
40 x 30 cm
Provenance:
Estimate: US$8,000,000 – 12,000,000
Hammer Price: US$7,500,000
Sold: US$8,422,000

Lot 104 | Constantin Brancusi | L'Oiseau d'or, Bronze with marble base
Conceived in 1919 and cast by Susse Fondeur from the Istrati-Dumitresco plaster in 1971
Height: 127.7 cm
Provenance:
Estimate: US$5,000,000 – 7,000,000
Hammer Price: US$5,200,000
Sold: US$6,299,300 

Lot 130 | Mark Rothko | Untitled, Acrylic on paper laid on panel
Created in 1968
85 x 65.5 cm
Provenance:
Estimate: US$5,000,000 – 7,000,000
Hammer Price: US$5,100,000
Sold: US$6,241,850

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's New York
Date: 14 November 2022
Sale: Modern Evening Auction
Number of Lots: 44
Sold: 36
Unsold: 8
Sale Rate: 81%
Sale Total: US$253,300,675

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