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Fewer and Smaller: A New Normal for London’s Summer Auctions

“The digital space is the Christie’s South Ken of the 21st century,” said Mr. Cerutti, adding that he envisaged the auction house as a global operation with fewer auction rooms and more online sales. But with more than 75 percent of clients concentrating on 20th-century and contemporary artworks, he emphasized the growing importance of specially promoted, curated auctions in more traditional collecting fields, such as the decorative arts. “We need to reinvigorate these categories and find new collectors,” he said.


Guillaume Cerutti, the chief executive of Christie’s.

Christie’s Images Ltd 2017

The Sotheby’s evening sale on Wednesday did manage to attract some exceptional works, helped by eight-figure guarantees.

A third party “irrevocable bid” ensured that Wassily Kandinsky’s 1913 painting “Bild mit Weissen Linien” (“Painting With White Lines”) would sell for at least 27 million pounds, or about $34 million. From a European collection and never before offered at auction, the work was one of a series of revolutionary Kandinsky paintings from 1913 that pushed Western art to the edge of pure abstraction. It inspired the most sustained bidding war of the evening, with two telephone bidders nudging a buyer in the room, represented by the London-based art adviser Hugo Nathan, to £33 million with fees. The price was an auction high for the artist.

“Femme et Oiseaux,” one of the 23 intricate “Constellation” paintings on paper that Joan Miró made from January 1940 to September 1941 in response to the horrors of World War II, had been guaranteed to sell for at least £23 million.

“Constellation” paintings are widely acclaimed and exhibited — most recently in April at Acquavella Galleries in New York, which managed to reunite 22 of the 23 — but they rarely appear on the auction market.

In 2001, a Sotheby’s auction of the Stanley J. Seeger collection included “Nocturne” from the series, which sold for $5.6 million.

The Sotheby’s leap in valuation to at least $30 million for “Femme et Oiseaux” was deemed too ambitious, and it sold unopposed to the guarantor for £24.6 million with fees.

“They’re incredibly rare and desirable, the zenith of what he did,” Stephane Cosman Connery, an art adviser based in New York, said of Miró’s Constellation paintings. “But Sotheby’s was only able to get it with an insurance policy that was onerous to everyone else,” Mr. Connery added, alluding to the intimidating scale of the guarantee.

On the night, sellers with the nerve to offer high-value works “naked” — without guarantees — were rewarded with competitive bidding.

Kandinsky’s sumptuously Expressionistic painting “Murnau — Landschaft mit Grünen Haus” (“Murnau — Landscape With Green House”), dating from 1909, was also new to the market. It attracted two determined telephone bidders who pushed the price to £21 million against a low estimate of £15 million.

As Mr. Cerutti of Christie’s intimated, the major auction houses are increasingly looking at alternative ways to bolster demand for works that are not obvious trophies.

This time, the Sotheby’s sale curators Allan Schwartzman and Thomas Bompard came up with the idea of Actual Size, a 35-lot auction devoted to smaller-scale works.

The theme, and its marketing, placed Paul Cézanne’s 1902-6 watercolor “Baigneuses, la Montagne Ste.-Victoire au Fond,” as the cover lot of the catalog. Sotheby’s and its seller hoped to capitalize on the interest currently being generated by an exhibition called the Hidden Cézanne, at the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland.

But with a low estimate of £4 million, the 8-inch-wide drawing did not attract any bids, prompting murmurs in the room.

“Five million dollars was too expensive,” Hugh Gibson, a dealer based in London, said. “You can dress these sales up any way that you like, but the normal rules of the market still apply. The estimates were high for certain things.”

But wider exposure can bolster the prices of old masters: A jewel-like flower still life on copper by the Flemish painter Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder (1573-1621) sold, for an upper estimate of £3 million to a telephone bid taken by Patti Wong, chairwoman of Sotheby’s Asia.

And the 1970 Picasso pastel “Buste de Femme Couchée” attracted at least four bidders before climbing to £2.4 million, against a high estimate of £900,000.

Over all, the Actual Size auction raised a low-estimate £20.9 million from the 35 lots. Just over a third of the lots were unsuccessful — a relatively high failure rate for a heavily marketed, “curated” sale.

Bidding was also selective at the Sotheby’s Imps and Mods sale. The auction raised £127.9 million, also toward the low end of the estimate, from 23 works, 26 percent of which were left unsold.

The total from the two sales was certainly an improvement on the £103.3 million that Sotheby’s took in from its equivalent sale last June, which took place in a nervous market just two days before Britain’s referendum on European Union membership. In June 2015, Sotheby’s grossed £178.6 million for its 50-lot evening sale of Impressionists and moderns.

“The sales are concentrated on a few blockbuster lots,” said James Roundell, director of Impressionist and modern art at the London dealer Dickinson. “It’s feast or famine these days,” he added.

Fewer live sales and newly devised “curated auctions” — that succeed only if the estimates are not too high — supported by online sales to keep demand bubbling at a lower level seem to be the trend.

These might feel like strange times for London’s storied auction houses, but they could be the new normal for the city’s summer sales.

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