Sotheby's London evening sale garnered US$129m, anchored by a Picasso Musketeer portrait

Kicking off the first major auction of the year, Sotheby's Modern and Contemporary Evening Sale featuring The Now brought in £101.4 million (US$129 million) in London on 6 March. 

Ten lots were withdrawn ahead of the auction, including a rare Blue Period Picasso portrait, which carried the second-highest estimate between £5 and 7 million. Ultimately, of the 60 lots on offer, 54 found new homes, generating a sell-through rate of 90 per cent. 

While new auction records were set for three female artists – including Etel Adnan, Takako Yamaguchi, and Rebecca Warren – art-world stalwarts took home the top prices, with the star lot being Picasso's Homme à la pipe (1968), fetching £13.7 million ($17.4 million) with fees.

The saleroom was packed with audience

Lot 34 | Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) | Homme à la pipe, Oil on canvas
Executed in Mougins on 8 November 1968
162.7 x 114.5 cm

  • Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris (acquired from the artist)
  • Galleria Internazionale, Milan (acquired from the above)
  • Galleria Medea, Milan (acquired from the above)
  • Galleria Orler, Venice (acquired from the above)
  • Acquired from the above in the early 1970s by the parents of the present owner

Estimate: £8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: £11,700,000
Sold: £13,723,100 (US$17.4 million)

The most expensive lot of the night, Picasso's Homme à la pipe (1968) prompted a four-minute bidding battle upon an opening bid of £7 million. The two main competitors involved were the clients of Caroline Lang (Chairman, Switzerland & DC Europe) and Alex Branczik (Chairman, Modern & Contemporary Art, Asia), respectively.  

In increments between £100,000 and £500,000, the work was eventually hammered on a final bid of £11.7 million, placed by Lang's client with paddle number 66. With fees, the final price came to £13.7 million (US$17.4 million). 

Caroline Lang (second right) won the lot for her client with paddle number 66

Painted in 1968, when Picasso was in his nineties, Homme à la pipe blends the two major tropes that dominated the artist's late oeuvre – a pipe-smoking musketeer and a romantic torero or bullfighter.

During his late years, Picasso was often gripped by the feeling that he had "less and less time and more and more to say," and the image of the musketeer is evocative of a certain nostalgia for the youthful vigour of his early years. 

The artist’s fascination with this romantic archetype can be traced back to his Spanish childhood and his love of Cervantes’ Don Quixote; the musketeer was a character that embodied the courtly mannerisms of the Renaissance gentleman, resurrected by Picasso for a twentieth-century audience.

The Musketeers of Alexandre Dumas’ novel, which served as another key source of inspiration in his work from this period, were famously known just as much for their good living and loving as for their swordsmanship. Quite often, and as is the case in the present composition, they are depicted smoking a pipe, which afforded him one way of easing his frustration, as he once said, "Age has forced us to abandon [smoking], but the desire remains. It's the same with love." 

Pablo Picasso

In the Musketeers series of paintings, Picasso equally pays tribute to the work of two Golden Age Masters he had adored throughout his life: Diego Velázquez and Rembrandt van Rijn.

Calling to mind traditional Dutch portraiture in its overall composition, the work sees the artist achieve a dramatic visual effect with his stylistic manner by outlining the figure and face of the sitter through the rapidly applied, thick black lines, while the rich crimson and raspberry hues denoting his nose, beard and clothes radiate through their contrast with a more subtle sage-coloured background. 

After its completion, this painting was released on the market through Galerie Louise Leiris – a Parisian gallery that represented Picasso's works – and later changed hands several times in Italy. In the early 1970s, it was acquired by the parents of the present owner, who kept it private ever since. 

Lot 25 | Paul Signac (1863-1935) | Saint-Tropez. Le rayon vert, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1906
73 x 92 cm

  • Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (acquired from the artist on 22 January 1907)
  • Gaston Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (acquired from the above on 25 January 1907)
  • Bernheim-Jeune Fils, Paris (acquired from the above)
  • Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (acquired from the above on 18 May 1907)
  • Jean Laroche, Villa Sauge Pourprée, Deauville (acquired from the above on 5 January 1922)
  • Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 8 December 1928, lot 68 (consigned by the above)
  • Collection Noël, Paris (acquired by 1932)
  • Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 11 December 1957, lot 136
  • Collection Sternac, Paris (acquired from the above sale)
  • M. E. Zervudachi
  • Sotheby’s, London, 3 December 1958, lot 155 (consigned by the above)
  • Private Collection, United Kingdom (acquired from the above sale)
  • Acquired by descent from the above by the present owner

Estimate: £5,000,000 - 7,000,000
Hammer Price: £6,500,000
Sold: £7,748,300 (US$9.9 million)

Coinciding with the 150th anniversary of the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris, last night's sale was further highlighted by two Impressionist trailblazers – Claude Monet and Paul Signac, whose works fetched the same final price with fees of £7.7 million (US$9.9 million), the second-highest prices achieved. 

Having been heavily struck by the untimely death of his close friend and Pointillist peer Georges Seurat at age 31 in 1891, Signac decided to leave Paris and sailed his boat Olympia through the Bay of Biscay, making the South of France his destination. 

As he docked at the port of Saint-Tropez, he found a world seemingly untouched by industrialization and urban sprawl – “Happiness – that is what I have just discovered,” he wrote. The small fishing village made a lasting impression, inspiring numerous compositions that focus on both the town itself and the surrounding landscape. 

Dating from 1906, Saint-Tropez. Le rayon vert shows the artist returning to this much-loved subject, depicting the bay from the land looking out to sea in an unusually cropped composition. 

Paul Signac aboard the Olympia 

Paul Signac | L’Arc-en-ciel (Venise) (1905) | Private collection

Particularly remarkable about the painting is Signac’s experimental approach to colour, where varying hues of reds and pinks dominate the palette and offset the green; the broader brushstrokes give the work the allure of vividly coloured mosaics. 

The focal point is the presentation of a rare meteorological phenomenon: the titular rayon vert, a green ray that sometimes occurs around sunset or sunrise due to a distinct refraction of sunlight. 

For Signac, an artist so deeply influenced by colour, such natural phenomena provided an ideal opportunity to explore new or unusual colour combinations, a technique also practised in the previous year in his Venetian painting L’Arc-en-ciel (Venise).

Henri Matisse | Luxe, Calme et Volupté (1904) | The collection of Musée D'Orsay, Paris

His use of rich and expressive colours would have a lasting impact on his contemporaries and especially the Fauves. Henri Matisse, the leader of the Fauvist movement, visited Signac in Saint-Tropez in the summer of 1904, painting his seminal work Luxe, Calme et Volupté shortly after.

This composition – which is often considered the starting point of Fauvism – was purchased by Signac in 1905 and provides an interesting counterpoint to the present work.

The warm pink tones and the patches of bright yellow that imbue Matisse’s work with its tangible warmth, are used to similar effect by Signac in a way that conjures the unique qualities of the French Mediterranean.

Lot 55 | Claude Monet (1840-1926) | Arbres au bord de l'eau, printemps à Giverny, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1885
81 x 100 cm

  • (possibly) Galeries Georges Petit, Paris, Galerie Bernheim-Jeune et Cie., Paris and Isidore Montaignac, Paris (acquired from the artist in 1898)
  • Roger G. Gompel (1885-1976), Paris (acquired by 1952)
  • Estate of Roger G. Gompel
  • Drouot-Montaigne, Paris, 22 November 1987, no. 384 (consigned by the above)
  • Private Collection, Japan (acquired by 1991)
  • Sotheby’s, London, 5 February 2002, lot 6
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: £5,000,000 - 7,000,000
Hammer Price: £6,500,000
Sold: £7,748,300 (US$9.9 million)

Dating from 1885, Arbres au bord de l'eau, printemps à Giverny was painted at the height of Monet’s engagement with Impressionism. Painted en plein air, it shows a stretch of the river Epte just outside the small French hamlet of Giverny.

Early in his forties, Monet moved to Giverny, the village he called home from 1883 until his death in 1926. While located at the confluence of the River Seine and the Epte, it was unlike scores of other settlements dotted along the Seine, having remained untouched by encroaching modernization. 

Before getting fully immersed in the "Giverny Garden" – the horticultural oasis Monet carefully cultivated and the birthplace of his renowned Water Lillies series – in his first years in the village, Monet would set out with his canvases at dawn almost daily, walking over hills and through valleys, constantly seeking and painting fresh subjects. 

As writer Guy de Maupassant described, Monet was "not a painter actually, but a hunter"; he would stalk his landscape scenes, "lying in wait for the sun and shadows", only starting a canvas once the visual effects were to his liking.

Claude Monet 

Claude Monet | Le Saule (1885) | Sold: US$6.5 million, Sotheby's New York, 2010

During this period, as throughout his career, Monet often returned to the same scene, painting it at different times of day and in different weather, allowing him to experiment with different approaches to light and colour.

The present work belongs to a group of four works painted in the Spring of 1885 along the Epte. Depicting the riverbank in spring, just as the trees begin to blossom, Monet uses a combination of rich pinks and blues applied in typically Impressionist brushstrokes to create a particularly vivid composition that perfectly captures the clarity of this spring day.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 18 | Francis Bacon (1909-1992) | Study of George Dyer, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1970
35.5 x 30.5 cm

  • Marlborough Fine Art Ltd., London
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above in April 1970)
  • Thence by descent to the present owners

Estimate: £5,000,000 - 7,000,000
Hammer Price: £6,000,000
Sold: £6,829,100

Lot 21 | Joan Miró (1893-1983) | Sans titre (Soirée snob chez la princesse), Gouache and pastel on paper
Executed circa 1946
31.5 x 51.4 cm

  • Louis Clayeux, Paris (acquired as a gift from the artist in March 1949)
  • Carlo Bilotti, Palm Beach
  • Thomas Amman Fine Art, Zurich
  • Acquavella Galleries, Inc., New York
  • Donald B. Marron, New York (acquired from the above in June 2002)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2008

Estimate: £5,000,000 - 7,000,000
Hammer Price: £5,000,000
Sold: £5,570,144

Lot 1 | Takako Yamaguchi (b. 1952) | Catherine and Midnight, Oil, acrylic and metal leaf on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Executed in 1994
121.9 x 203.2 cm

  • Ramiken, New York
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: £400,000 - 600,000
Hammer Price: £700,000
Sold: £889,000

Lot 16 | Françoise Gilot (1921-2023) | Portrait de Geneviève avec un collier de colombes, Oil on canvas
Executed in 1944
65 x 54 cm

  • Acquired as a gift from the artist by the present owner in 1986

Estimate: £150,000 - 200,000
Hammer Price: £570,000
Sold: £723,900

Lot 7 | Rebecca Warren (b. 1965) | Fascia, Bronze on painted MDF plinth (Auction record for the artist)
Executed in 2009; number 1 from an edition of 5 plus two artist's proofs
Bronze: 142 x 29 x 51 cm; Plinth: 50.1 x 35 x 35 cm

  • Maureen Paley, London
  • Acquired from the above in April 2009 by the present owner 

Estimate: £250,000 - 350,000
Hammer Price: £450,000
Sold: £571,500

Lot 13 | Etel Adnan (1925-2021) | Untitled, Oil on canvas (Auction record for the artist)
Executed circa 1970
76 x 83 cm

  • Kress Family, San Rafael (a gift from the artist)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner 

Estimate: £150,000 - 200,000
Hammer Price: £350,000
Sold: £444,500

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's London
Sale: Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction featuring The Now
Date: 6 March 2024
Number of Lots: 60
Sold: 54
Unsold: 6
Sale Rate: 90
Sale Total: £101,473,294 (US$129 million)