Prices High, Yet Impressionism Lags

LONDON -- There’s no secret formula to determine why one Monet sells for $35 million and the next for $23 million.

Instead, the valuation of art generally falls under the domain of three broad factors: provenance, the market for similar artworks, and finally, some nebulous combination of taste, fashion, and a perception of art-historical significance.

Art collectors of ArtKabinett social media network recognize other factors too: condition, quality of the painting vs. others by the artist, etc.

A handy case study is No. 6 on the list of the top 10 sales from this week’s Impressionist and Modern art evening sales at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London.

L’Embarcadère, shown here, was painted by Claude Monet in 1871. It is considered one of his fairly staid early works. The women have faces, the grass and the trees are solid colors, and there’s little of the painterly, layered strokes that characterize his late work.

In 1989, L’Embarcadère sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $11 million. ($21 million adjusted for inflation.)

This past Tuesday night at Sotheby’s in London, however, it sold for 10.2 million pounds ($15.4 million), which means that over the past two and a half decades, it has actually declined in value.

Using the parameters of ourcriteria and the massive crutch provided by hindsight, we can justify why and how this decline in price occurred:


The Impressionist market peaked the same year that this last sold at auction, in 1989.

A year later, however, the Japanese economy, which had been fueling much of the Impressionist market, crashed, and the boom in Monets, Renoirs, and Sisleys came to an abrupt end.

Since then, Impressionist art has languished (as much as you can call an oil painting on canvas that still sells for 71,000 percent more than the average U.S. income “languishing”). And that means it shouldn’t be a surprise that a Monet would sell for far less now than when it was arguably one of the most sought-after paintings on the planet.


In 1989, early Monets like this one were generally considered more desirable than late Monets.

Now that preference seems to have flipped—later is now considered “better”—which means that demand for this painting in particular is going to be weaker than other major Monet paintings.

Still, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s said they saw intense interest (and bids) from Asian markets for just this kind of Impressionist work, which means the painting was probably going to sell within (or above) its estimate.


This is trickier, because much of the time, quality of provenance is in the eye of the beholder.

Many collectors covet works that have been in the same family for hundreds of years. Works like L’Embarcadère, which have had a decent but not outrageous number of owners, aren’t necessarily less valuable; it’s just that their history isn’t much cause for excitement.

In conclusion, hindsight is handy for justifying why a painting sold, but so is context.

Here are the top 10 lots from this week's London’s Impressionist and modern sales, the prices at which they sold, and some factoids that might explain why:

1. Monet, Le Grand Canal — $35,567,406

One of a famous group of Venice tableaus by Monet, this was the biggest sale of the week. Painted in 1908, the work had been on loan to the National Gallery in London for the past eight years.

2. Matisse, Odalisque au fauteuil noir — $23,786,238

Matisse’s portrait of the granddaughter of the last sultan of Turkey, Princess Nézy-Hamidé Chawkat. (She went by “Princess Nézy,” apparently.) It sold for $6 million more than its high estimate of $18 million.

3. Cézanne, Vue Sur L'Estaque et Le Château d'if — $20,297,273

This Cézanne landscape depicting the French Riviera has been in the family of Samuel Courtauld (founder of the Courtauld Institute of Art) since 1936. Impeccable provenance, excellent condition, and of course, a work by one of the most sought-after Modernist painters on the planet.

4. Toulouse-Lautrec, Au lit: le baiser — $16,212,630

One of four paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec that depict two women locked in a romantic embrace. Executed in 1863, this was the first time the painting had ever appeared at auction.

5. Monet, Les Peupliers à Giverny — $16,212,630

This was the painting that caused a minor uproar: Part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, it was deaccessioned (a nice way of saying sold) and the money put toward new acquisitions.

6. Monet, L'embarcadère — $15,371,118

And now, our case study. It was one of five Monets that went to auction at Sotheby’s this week --all sold. (Every Monet put up for sale by Sotheby’s since 2011 has sold.)

7. Picasso, Tête (Maquette Pour la Sculpture en Plein Air du Chicago Civic Center) — $13,351,490

This is a maquette (or model) for the 20-meter-high sculpture Picasso made for the Chicago Civic Center (later renamed the Richard J. Daley Center). This maquette was in his own collection until his death in 1973.

8. Monet, Antibes Vue de la Salis — $13,183,187

One of a series of views Monet painted of Antibes. The last time it appeared at auction was in 1999, at Christie’s in New York, when it sold for $5,282,500 ($7 million adjusted for inflation). Fourteen years before that, it sold for $1,375,000 ($3 million today) at Sotheby’s New York.

9. Seurat, Étude pour 'Une Baignade, Asnières' — $11,668,466

This superb drawing is what one dealer called “the only museum-quality work” in the Sotheby’s sale. (Take that as a burn to Les Peupliers.) It set a record for a work on paper by Seurat.

10. Modigliani, Les Deux Filles — $11,387,337

Expectations were high for this painting, but it ended up selling solidly within its estimate of $9 million to $12 million. The record for a Modigliani painting was set in 2010 at Sotheby’s in New York, when his painting of a nude woman, Nu assis sur un divan (La belle Romaine) sold for an enormous $69,962,500 at Sotheby’s in New York.

Today's homepage Featured Art Video recaps this week's Impressionism auction at Sotheby's London.