A Monet Water Lilies painting never been publicly shown could sell for US$65m in New York

The peak of a lifetime’s study of nature, Claude Monet’s Nymphéas (Water Lillies) series are among the most important works of not only the artist’s late oeuvre, but of the Impressionist era. 

On 9 November, one version of them, dating towards the end of World War One and measuring two metres in width, will lead Christie's 20th Century Art Evening Sale in New York. Never before publicly seen, the work is expected to sell in the region of US$65 million. 

The most expensive Water Lillies painting ever sold at auction is Nymphéas en feur (circa 1914-1917), which came from the Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller and sold for US$84.6 million in 2018 at Christie's New York. 

As for the artist's auction record, it goes to Meules (1890), a Haystacks painting that fetched US$110.7 million at Sotheby's New York in 2019. 

Lot 35B | Claude Monet (1840-1926) | Le bassin aux nymphéas, Oil on canvas
Painted circa 1917-1919
100.1 x 200.6 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Michel Monet, Giverny (by descent from the above)
  • Katia Granoff, Paris
  • Mme Maillot
  • Collection Michel
  • Master Arts Establishment, Vaduz
  • Acquired from the above by the family of the present owner, 22 March 1972

Estimate on request (Expected to fetch in the region of US$65 million)

Painted circa 1917 to 1919, Le bassin aux nymphéas dates from the latter period of Monet’s life. After his death in 1926, the piece was inherited by his second son and only direct heir Michel Monet. Having changed hands several times, it went to the present owner's family in 1972, who kept the work private ever since. 

Demonstrating strong confidence in this rediscovered piece, Christie's has backed the work with an in-house guarantee, known as a minimum price guarantee, meaning the seller will receive a minimum sale price from Christie's regardless of the sale's outcome. 

Claude Monet in his garden at Giverny

Today's Giverny Garden

In search of a permanent base which he could finally call home after years of upheaval, in the spring of 1883 Monet had moved his family to Giverny. There he purchased an adjacent plot of land near his property, intending to fulfil his passion for gardening, while building something ‘for the pleasure of the eye and also for the purpose of having subjects to paint’.

The result was the now world-renowned ‘Giverny Garden’. He tore the existing kitchen garden up and began cultivating his tranquil retreat, adding a Japanese-style footbridge and a free-form pond. Around the pond was filled with towering weeping willows, iris, trees and other seasonal flowers.

During the last 30 years of his life, Monet immersed himself in his horticultural oasis to depict the water landscapes. These works replaced the varied contemporary subjects he had painted in his early artistic career with two celebrated subjects: Japanese bridge and water lilies.

In more than 250 canvases, the Impressionist master captured the changing images of the water lilies and their reflections on the pond at all hours of morning, day and evening. While the early paintings in the series encompassed a larger scenery of the garden, he gradually moved his focus closer to the water's surface, experimenting with the transitory effects of sunlight on it.

Details of the present lot

Details of the present lot

As the artist himself explained, this environment offered endless inspiration, "I have painted so many of these water lilies, always shifting my vantage point, changing the motif according to the seasons of the year and then according to the different effects of light the seasons create as they change. 

And, of course, the effect does change, constantly, not only from one season to another, but from one minute to the next as well, for the water flowers are far from being the whole spectacle; indeed, they are only its accompaniment. The basic element of the motif is the mirror of water, whose appearance changes at every instant because of the way bits of the sky are reflected in it, giving it life and movement.

The passing cloud, the fresh breeze, the threat or arrival of a rainstorm, the sudden fierce gust of wind, the fading or suddenly refulgent light, all these things, unnoticed by the untutored eye, create changes in color and alter the surface of the water. 

It can be smooth, unruffled, and then, suddenly, there will be a ripple, a movement that breaks up into almost imperceptible wavelets or seems to crease the surface slowly, making it look like a wide piece of watered silk. The same for the colors, for the changes of light and shade, the reflections.

Nymphéas en fleur (Water Lilies in Bloom) (circa 1914-1917), 160.3 x 180 cm | Sold: US$84.7 million, Christie's New York, 2018, from the Rockefeller Collection

Water Lilies (1919), 101 x 200 cm | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met)

The present lot, painted circa 1917-1919, 100.1 x 200.6 cm

Through the above three Water Lillies paintings, we can take a glimpse into the subtle changes in the pond.

In the first one, from the David Rockefeller collection, the pond is veiled with a mysterious violet-blue hue, mirroring the deep blue tones of the sky above – it was probably at dusk, the sun almost having gone down, or a late night with glittering stars. 

Next is the one from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met) in New York and the present lot. Both paintings, date from the same period and are of the same size, share similarities in the composition. The Met one seems to be painted in the late afternoon, the pond delicately hued in soft lilacs and powdery blues, its surface calm and reflection clear. 

As for the piece going under the hammer this time, the pond and lily pads are much brighter, rendering brilliant shades of green, yellow, and blue, while the water surface drifted gentle ripples. It could have been a moment of sunshine after the rain, or a beautiful day with slight breaths of wind. 

Another Water Lillies painting (below) with the same size and dates exactly the same period as the present lot was offered at Sotheby's New York in 2021, selling for a staggering US$70.3 million against an estimated US$40 million.

Le Bassin aux nymphéas (circa 1917-19), 100 x 200 cm | Sold: US$70.4 million, Sotheby's New York, 2021

Lot 12B | Francis Bacon | Figure in Movement, Oil and dye transfer lettering on canvas
Executed in 1976
198.9 x 147.3 cm

  • Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris
  • Galerie Alice Pauli, Lausanne
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1977

Estimate on request (Expected to fetch in the region of US $50 million)

One of the major British painters of the post-World War II period, Francis Bacon is widely recognized for his iconic, violently distorted portraits of scathed and traumatized humanity. At auctions, his personal record stands at a staggering US$142 million. 

While recent years have seen a declining market for the artist, the present work, Figure in Movement, has already been secured by a third-party guarantee and will surely sell. 

Executed in 1976, the work takes its place within the canon of masterworks that followed the tragic death of his beloved George Dyer in 1971 – a turning point in Bacon's career, one that would change the direction of his art for the rest of his life.

Francis Bacon (right) and his lover George Dyer (left)

In the Autumn of 1963, when Bacon was almost 54 and Dyer was around 30, the two met in a pub in Soho. At first glance, Bacon was instantly attracted to the handsome young man with the build of a Michelangelo figure and an air of latent violence. 

An intense friendship immediately sprung up between the two very different men, with Dyer becoming Bacon’s lover, muse and dependent for nearly a decade. Their deeply passionate relationship, however, would turn out to be a stormy and tempestuous one, fueled by alcohol and endless conflicts. 

On that fateful night in 1971 – less than thirty-six hours before the opening of Bacon's career-defining retrospective at the Grand Palais in Paris – Dyer decided to put a halt to all those sufferings: he took his life in the bathroom of the hotel. 

Trapped in the abyss of guilt and grief, Bacon created a series of his posthumous paintings known as the Black Triptychs, which replayed in harrowing detail the tragic events of his lover's last, lonely hours.

Francis Bacon | Triptych May-Jun 1973 (1973) | Private Collection

Francis Bacon | In Memory of George Dyer (1971) | Foundation Beyeler, Basel 

Bacon later said, “After all, I’ve had a very unfortunate life, because all the people I’ve been really fond of have died. And you don’t stop thinking about them; time doesn’t heal. But you concentrate on something which was an obsession, and what you would have put into your obsession with the physical act you put into your work."

Here, in Figure of Movements, a circle magnifies the figure’s face, fusing hints of Dyer’s likeness with fleeting echoes of Bacon’s own. The figure is depicted in a state of contortion, as though wrestling with his own life force, his form engulfed by darkness.

At the corner of the work is a "fury", a device Bacon uses to reference themes of guilt. Also known as "Eumenides", these furies appear in the great tragedian Aeschylus’ three-part saga, the Oresteia. Born of drops of blood, they haunt Orestes after he kills his mother, Clytemnestra.

Modelled on an image of a diving bird, they are especially common in his work throughout the era following Dyer’s death. In addition to Dyer, his former lover Peter Lacy also died on the eve of one of his major gallery openings, and the presence of these furies suggests that perhaps Bacon saw himself as similar to Orestes: unable to escape fate.

The figure is depicted in a state of contortion

The "fury" is modelled on an image of a diving bird

Lot 19B | Mark Rothko (1903-1970) | Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), Oil on canvas
Created in 1955
207 x 152.5 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Marlborough A.G., Liechtenstein/Marlborough Gallery, Inc., New York, 1970
  • Paul and Bunny Mellon, Virginia, 1970
  • Their sale; Sotheby's, New York, 10 November 2014, lot 14
  • Helly Nahmad Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate upon request (Expected to fetch in the region of US$45 million)

Coinciding with the major Mark Rothko retrospective at Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, Christie's presents an early abstract work from the artist, Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange), which is guaranteed by the auction house and expected to fetch in the region of US$45 million.

The work was last sold at Sotheby's New York in 2014, when it fetched US$36.5 million with fees against a pre-sale estimate of US$20 million. 

A leader of postwar modern art, Rothko was born in Latvia in 1903 and immigrated to the US with his family in 1913. In 1921, he entered Yale University with a scholarship but dropped out two years later. Like his peers, he found his direction and place in New York. It was there, in 1925, that he began to study at Parsons School of Design, receiving his first kind of formal artistic training. 

Mark Rothko's major respective, featuring around 115 pieces from important public and private collections, is currently on show until April 2024 at Fondation Louis Vuitton

His early paintings were figurative, depicting intimate scenes and urban landscapes that show the loneliness of persons in drab urban environments.

This gave way in the early 1940s to a repertoire inspired by ancient myths and surrealism, which Rothko uses to express the tragic dimension of the human condition during the War. 

In the 1950s, he had arrived at his mature style of Abstract Expressionism, creating the celebrated "Colour Field paintings", the instantly recognizable works that would define his practice until his suicidal death in 1970. 

Mark Rothko is celebrated for his abstract expressionist art

Rothko once explained, “I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on … And the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures shows that I can communicate those basic human emotions… If you are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point.

Having long been a disciple of the emotional power manifested by many of the European Old Masters, with these colour field paintings Rothko ultimately wanted the viewers of his works to undergo an almost religious experience when stood before them (Rothko himself specified that 18 inches was the optimum distance from which to fully appreciate his work).

In evolving this idea, he was profoundly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche's ground-breaking treatise, The Birth of Tragedy, which introduces the dichotomy and dualism inherent in human nature. Rothko’s works, therefore, often saw two main passages of colour vie with one another for dominance, seeming to both emerge from and recede into the painting's more neutral background, evoking the perpetual struggle of the human condition.

The present lot | Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955), 207 x 152.5 cm

Mark Rothko | The Green Stripe (1955), 170 x 141 cm | The Menil Collection, Texas

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 41B | Paul Cezanne (1839-1906) | Fruits et pot de gingembre, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1890-1893
33.4 x 46.6 cm

  • Ambroise Vollard, Paris (acquired from the artist)
  • (possibly) Galerie Paul Rosenberg, Paris
  • Eugène Blot, Paris (possibly acquired from the above, by 1926)
  • Galerie M. Goldschmidt & Co., Frankfurt and Berlin, and L' Art Moderne S.A., Lucerne (jointly owned, September 1929)
  • Sidney and Jenny Brown, Baden (acquired from L’Art Moderne S.A., 5 November 1933, then by descent)
  • Stiftung Langmatt Sidney und Jenny Brown, Baden (bequest from the above, 1987)

Estimate: US$35,000,000 - 55,000,000

Lot 14B | Joan Mitchell (1925-1992) | Untitled, Oil on canvas
Painted circa 1959
247.7 x 219.7 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Joan Mitchell Foundation, 2004
  • Cheim & Read, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 2005

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000

Lot 16B | René Magritte (1898-1967) | L’empire des lumières, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1949
48.5 x 58.8 cm

  • Alexander Iolas Gallery, New York (acquired from the artist, August 1949)
  • Hugo Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
  • Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York (acquired from the above, 30 March 1950)
  • Louise Auchincloss Boyer, New York (gift from the above, December 1950)
  • Gordon Auchincloss Robbins, New York (by descent from the above, July 1974)
  • Louis K. Meisel Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
  • Daniel Filipacchi, Paris (acquired from the above, 1974)
  • Byron Gallery, New York (by 1978)
  • Private collection (acquired from the above, 1981); sale, Christie's, New York, 13 November 2017, lot 12A (world auction record for the artist at the time of sale)
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000

Lot 22B | Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) | Femme endormie, Oil on canvas
Painted in Boisgeloup on 17 July 1934
72.4 x 54 cm

  • Estate of the artist
  • Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, Paris (by descent from the above)
  • The Pace Gallery, New York (acquired from the above, 30 October 1991)
  • Acquired from the above by the late owner, 14 December 1992

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000

Lot 31B | Andy Warhol (1928-1987) | Sixteen Jackies, Silkscreen ink on linen, in sixteen parts
Painted in 1964
203.2 x 162.6 cm

  • Leo Castelli Gallery, New York
  • Dunkelman Gallery, Toronto
  • Anon. sale; Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc, New York, 3 May 1974, lot 548
  • Sperone Westwater Fischer, New York
  • Saatchi Collection, London, 1984
  • Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 6 May 1992, lot 26
  • Samuel and Ronnie Heyman, New York
  • Anon. sale; Sotheby's, New York, 17 November 1998, lot 44
  • Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: US$25,000,000 - 35,000,000

Lot 4B | Richard Diebenkorn (1922-1993) | Recollections of a Visit to Leningrad, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1965
181.3 x 211.1 cm

  • Poindexter Gallery, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner, 1969

Estimate upon request (Expected to fetch in the region of US$25,000,000)

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's New York
Sale: 20th Century Evening Sale
Date: 9 November 2023
Number of Lots: 65