The $11 Million Goncharova

Christie’s had a blow-out sale last night, selling $284.5 million of art in its Impressionist and Modern sale in London. That’s an eye-popping figure, since Impressionist and Modern sales have been a little bit out of favor of late (the buzz tends to surround contemporary art much more), and also because the huge auction totals have most often been seen in New York rather than London. If there was any doubt, let it be dispelled: the art market is still in rude health.

The headlines have concentrated on the $80.5 million Monet, and well they might, seeing as how the artist’s previous auction record – set only last month – was $41.5 million. The thing which surprises me most about this lot, however, isn’t the hammer price so much as the pre-sale estimate of just £18-24 million – only half the £41 million it finally sold for. This painting had everything going for it: it’s huge (79 inches wide), it’s beautiful, it’s extremely important, and it’s pretty much the last major water-lily canvas still in private hands. (There is one other, but that’s almost certainly going to a museum.)

In a world where a stainless steel bunny is worth $80 million, spending that much on these water-lilies is almost a no-brainer: call it the Jeff Koons arbitrage. The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones says that the water-lily paintings are "in many ways the greatest paintings of the twentieth century": they are certain to hold their art-historical value, even if their mark-to-market price falls, and there isn’t an art museum in the world which wouldn’t be proud to own this painting.

So when it comes to gauging the strength of the art market in general, it’s elsewhere in last night’s sale we should look. A Degas work on paper for $26.5 million? That’s huge. And how about this: Henry Moore’s Draped Reclining Woman, an edition of six, sold for $8.4 million, a new auction record for the artist, who will never be considered particularly important. Nice to look at, sure. A lovely addition to any English-style park, definitely. But $8.4 million? I’m impressed.

But most impressive of all, for me, is the fact that a canvas from around 1912 by Nathalia Goncharova sold for $10.9 million: a record not only for Goncharova but also for any female artist ever sold at auction. This is what happens when new Russian money enters the market: artists you’ve barely heard of start selling for eight-figure sums.

This might be the first time that a female artist has sold for more than $10 million at auction; it won’t be the last. But even though it was bound to happen eventually, I doubt many people would have put much money on Goncharova being the artist to break that barrier.

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