Picasso's Mousquetaire a la pipe was among the top lots at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Auction in New York last night (November 6), leading the auction house to victory over its chief rival Christie's.
The piece sold for $30.9m, an outstanding 71.6% increase on its $18m high estimate. It was one of four Picasso works to feature in the sale, with Tete de femme excelling at $39.9m.
Picasso's work is an excellent bellwether for the market, generally reflecting the health of global art sales.
The overall top lot of the sale, was Alberto Giacometti's Grande tete de Diego, which sold for $50m to meet its high estimate. The auction totalled $290.2m, with 94.2% of the works reaching their high estimates or more.
The results stand in contrast to Christie's impressionist sales in New York. Three sales, including that of Picasso dealer Jan Krugier's collection, saw listless bidding to realise a combined total of $293.7m. The evening sale of impressionist art saw just 76% of its 35 artworks sold by lot.
"Tonight's results speak for themselves and today's efficient marketplace - collectors have a remarkable understanding not only of quality, but also of value," said Sotheby's head of impressionist and modern art in New York, Simon Shaw.
" The key is matching their discerning taste with the right combination of fresh material and responsible estimates, and we did that this evening."
The results can be also be attributed to a difference in strategies for the auction houses, with Sotheby's management having faced scrutiny from shareholder Dan Loeb, manager of hedge fund Third Point.
The auction house is now directing its attention to consigning works at the very top of the market, focusing on millionaire art buyers, while Christie's is expanding its online presence, catering for those will lesser budgets.
However, Sotheby's victory over Christie's does not give the overall picture, as Christie's posted $6.3bn in art sales in 2012, up 10% on the previous year, while Sotheby's was down 7% at $5.4bn. Figures from the first half of 2013 show that Christie's has retained its lead with $3.6bn sales, with Sotheby's achieved $3.1bn.
"Collecting art is very competitive, it's a blood sport," explained art adviser and former Sotheby's employee Wendy Cromwell to the Wall Street journal. "If one auction house is losing, you'll jump on the winning ship. The threat of losing market share is a reality."
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