$479 Million-Van Gogh’s

Van Gogh’s Moody Ploughman Pulls Christie’s to a $479 Million Imp-Mod Sale, Flying Past Expectations

Vincent van Gogh’s Laboruer dans un champ (1889). Courtesy Christie’s Images Ltd.

In what sometimes felt like an endless marathon of bidding, Christie’s evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art at Rockefeller Center on Monday managed to rake in $479.3 million, a total that far exceeded the overall presale estimate of $360 million.

All 12 of the guaranteed lots, which had a combined low estimate of $63 million, were sold. Of the 68 lots on offer, 60—or 88 percent—were sold.

In what is perhaps a reflection of the number of newly wealthy buyers popping up in Asia, Christie’s specialists for the region were particularly active throughout the sale, and were frequently successful in winning pricey lots for their respective clients. This included the star painting of the night, Vincent van Gogh‘s Laboureur dans un champ, St Remy (1889), which carried an unpublished estimate of $45–65 million.

Auctioneer Adrian Meyer, head of private sales for Impressionist and Modern art, took the podium for the first time at a New York Impressionist evening sale and opened the bidding at $42 million on the Van Gogh.

Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s Americas, who was on the phone with a client, wasted no time in making a soaring leap in the bidding by calling out $55 million. (At this price level, bids usually move in increments of $1–2 million.) Bidding lingered in the high $50 millions as Porter competed against specialist Rebecca Wei, president of Christie’s Asia. After several smaller leaps in bidding, Wei won the work for her client with a final hammer bid of $72 million. With premium, the final price was $81.3 million, the second-highest auction price on record for Van Gogh. (Final prices include the buyer’s premium; presale estimates do not.)

Though Wei successfully secured the prize lot of the evening for her client, the collector clearly wasn’t finished. At other points, Wei used the same paddle number for the phone buyer to secure an 1884 Renoir portrait for $8.2 million and a 1969–1970 Marc Chagall painting for $1.6 million. In all, her client dropped $91 million on three works in tonight’s sale.

The Van Gogh was one of a dozen lots from the collection of Texas collectors and philanthropists Nancy Lee and Perry Bass. These lots were collectively estimated to bring between $101.5 million and $146.7 million. All were sold for a total of $143 million, well near the high end of the estimate. (Because of tonight’s performance, the Bass collection has already exceeded expectations. Three more major works will be auctioned in Wednesday evening’s postwar and contemporary sale, and another 20 or so works from the collection will be included in Christie’s day sales this week.)

Van Gogh painted the work sold tonight in August 1889 during his institutionalization in St. Remy. The picture—of a ploughman tilling a plot of land—was the view he saw through his window each morning. The work represented a significant development for the painter, who had not handled his brushes since being removed from his studio by the doctors at the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole following a devastating breakdown.

Though the sale was marked by several bidding contests, the competition for the Van Gogh was by far the most spirited. Bidders set the tone by knowing what they wanted—and what they didn’t—and pursuing lots accordingly.


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