Written by Haomin Li
(FIG.1) Henri Matisse, Vase d’Anémones, 1946
Sotheby’s 2019 summer Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale commenced shortly after seven on the evening of the nineteenth of June. Besides the absolute star lots by Claude Monet and Amedeo Modigliani, the sale also features a lot of big names in the history of avant-garde art, including Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Henri Matisse. Amongst the stardom, Matisse’s Vase d’Anémones (FIG.1) painted in 1946 played a particularly important part in the auction. The artwork is an oil-on-canvas painting of medium size bearing a few touches of black crayon. With the price estimate from 4 million to 6 million Pounds Stirling, it sold in the evening at the hammer price of 3.6 million Pounds, 400,000 Pounds lower than the lower estimate; with buyer’s premium included, it barely reached over the lower estimate at around 4.3 million Pounds.(1) With the basic auction details about Matisse’s Vase d’Anémones drawn forth, the review of the lot’s performance at the evening auction, the market analysis of this present oil painting, and the overall market performance analysis of this specific style of paintings will be brought in after a brief introduction of contextual information and formal analysis of the artwork.
This present painting, first of all, is a still-life painting. The English terminology still life was derived from the Dutch word stilleven, and the term did not come into use until the seventeenth century to describe the new genre that emerged and thrived in the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age.(2) Strictly speaking, the term still life refers to “the depiction of objects that lack the capacity for self-governed motion”(3); thus in the Romance languages, still life is worded as “dead nature”. Apart from the term itself, still-life paintings were also not constrained within the borders of the Netherlands; the traditions of Flemish, Spanish, and French still-life paintings have also existed since the seventeenth century into the era of this present work by Henri Matisse.
Henri Matisse, arguably the most important Fauvist pioneer, is a household name most famous for his still-life paintings and depiction of human figures with vivid colors and bold brushstrokes. Along with André Derain in the summer of 1905, Matisse introduced the style characterized by the use of exuberant colors and undisguised brushstrokes. Artists that adhered to the movement all showed immense interest in the functions of colors; this interest in the functions and effects of colors is best summed up by Matisse own statement that “the chief aim of color should be to serve expression as well as possible”(4). The art movement was later called by the art critic Louis Vauxcelles using his coinage: Fauvism.
The present oil-on-canvas painting was painted in 1946 in Villa Le Rêve in a small commune of Vence in Provence, a province in Southern France. The work serves as an exemplar of Matisse’s works during his final stage of his painting career before spending the final years of his life working primarily on paper cut-outs in Nice. The painting (1946) was executed almost half a century after Matisse first experimented with the emotionally expressive Fauvist style (1905). In the painting, Matisse depicts a bouquet of anemones put in a ceramic bowl, probably collected in Algeria or Morocco by the artist himself in the early 1910s, accompanied by pieces of fruits, presumably pomegranates, and two ink bottles on the table set against the violet background. The iconographies of the objects depicted are positive and optimistic, with the anemones meaning anticipation and protection from the evil and the pomegranates symbolizing resurrection and the promise of eternal life. These objects all seem to be floating in the soft atmosphere, where vividly contrasted violet and yellow hues seem to denote the chiaroscuro across the studio rather than different surfaces of different colors. In the oil painting, the artist also demonstrates a certain degree of personal concern for the tones of colors. For this reason, the artwork is described as “mildly fauve”. The later oil paintings of Matisse, including this present work, can be said as a fusion of the techniques and styles of his earlier trials with a rejuvenated sense of artistic perseverance, still picking up the paint brush only a year after an operation for his tumor in 1941 which left him an invalid. There is a thick black contour that outlines the porcelain vase, which is Matisse’s style after 1907; however, the pomegranates, the flowers, and the table are all surrounded by a narrow margin of canvas unpainted, which is his artistic trial before 1907.(5) Aesthetically, the painting is a very desirable picture, and aesthetics almost always lays the groundwork for the market of an artwork, because the investment in the art world is not a transaction consisted of stone-cold numbers, but a trade that involves a lot of emotions and appreciation of beauty.
This present painting is highly valued by Sotheby’s, as we can see from a number of perspectives. Firstly, speaking from a museological and curatorial point of view, the Matisse was placed at a very eye-catching location. When the visitors and potential purchasers walked into West Gallery from the meticulously decorated entrance in the style of Monet’s Nymphéas, the first painting they saw was actually the Matisse’s still-life painting, Vase d’anémones, not even the star of the day, Claude Monet’s Water Lilles. Between the two paintings there was still one Monet’s pleasing work, Printemps à Giverny, so that the Matisse would not be placed too close to the star of the evening and the potential buyers’ attention would not be solely attracted by the Water Lillies, achieving maximized exposure to the market and the public. The overall curation in the room was geometrically pleasing as well, adopting a symmetrical form with a Renoir flower piece right across the gallery, creating a parallelism.
Secondly, the work was placed at a very important lot location critical to the auction. Vase d’Anémones was placed at Lot 6, a position that is strategically vital to the overall bidding tendency in an evening sale with 25 lots. The Matisse still-life painting, along with Magritte’s Le Grand Matin at Lot 5, serves as a “curtain-raiser”, as the overall rising tendency of the designed estimates can be of proof, to the following star lots — Amedeo Modigliani’s portrait of an unidentified boy which has not been seen by the public for roughly a century, and Monet’s signature pastel Water Lillies. The estimate of the Magritte (Lot 5) was from 1.5 million to 2 million Pounds; the estimate for Matisse still life (Lot 6) rose, ranging from 4 million to 6 million. After a brief repose at Lot 7 with the Alfred Sisley’s estimate stretching from 1 million Pounds to 1.5 million Pounds, the estimate for the long unseen Modigliani (Lot 8) rocketed up to the scope of 16 million to 24 million and that for the following Monet (Lot 10) reached 25 million to 35 million.(6) This indirectly reveals the confidence of the auction house in this Matisse masterpiece. With a review of this part of the auction built up, the scene of the rather anti-climax sale on the evening of the nineteenth of June can be now recreated. The star lots following the Matisse would have together created the climax of the evening if the Matisse still life sold in an eye-catching fashion; however, what the auction house had made every effort to avoid still happened on Wednesday — the very important “curtain-raiser” underperformed in the evening. The Magritte signature masterpiece (Lot 5) was actually off to a great start with the hammer price surpassing the higher estimate by 25%. The bidding for Lot 6 started rather confidently and even a little ambitiously considering the disappointing British Modern Art Sale just one evening before. The bidding began from 2.5 million Pounds, but eventually the Matisse only struggled to sell at 3.6 million Pounds set against the lower estimate of 4 million, which is 10% beneath the lower estimate, let alone Sotheby’s high hope for a stunning performance. Vase d’Anémones did not achieve the anticipated effect to push the momentum and build up the energy in the auction room. Following the Matisse, the hammer price of the subsequent Sisley was below the lower estimate; the following Modigliani only struggled to reach the lower estimate of 16 million. The Monet did not even create a single ripple in the auction room, barely succeeded grappling with the reserve, and the hammer price, 21 million Pounds, was 4 million below the lower estimate of 25 million. The chain reaction starting from the unexpected result of the Matisse was horrendously staggering — the entire strategic plan of the auction house was basically ruined by the abrupt outcome of the Matisse.
Boasting Sotheby’s strong confidence and the auction house’s brilliant marketing for the work in the online catalogue note using so many complimentary words and phrases such as “Matisse painted with an intensity and passion which he had endeavored all of his life”(7), “the calmness of the interior space and the energy that is released into our own space are inseparable and interfused”(8), and numerous authoritative quotations, such as the positive comments in the exhibition catalogue published by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York in 1992(9), the work’s performance in the evening was still nothing but underwhelming for the audience and disappointing for the auction house. The provenance of the work shown in the catalogue is clean and prestigious, most recently from a widely recognized Italian-American Surrealist Enrico Donati. There are, indeed, risks of the auction house not showing the complete record of its ownership history(10); nevertheless, this specific Matisse was comparatively young, and it was executed after the problematic World War II, so the risks lying in the provenance are comparatively rather low. What is more, there is photographic proof of the work in Matisse’s studio(11); photos of this painting have appeared in literature, with one of them even printed in color on the cover of a book(12), and the exhibition history is still solid even if there has not been too much public exposure, after all it has been kept by an artist for more than half a century as private property. There is only one exhibition record — an exhibition in Palais des Papes in the tranquil city of Avignon in South-Eastern France — in the details provided by Sotheby’s Auction House.(13) With all these positive factors and Sotheby’s faith in it, the work still did not reach its expectation. With such an unconventional and totally accidental anomaly, there must be more reasons apart from simply the unpredictable nature of auctions.
(FIG.2) Henri Matisse, Anémones et Grenades, 1946, Courtesy of Sotheby’s London
Firstly, the lot(s) in the same auction depicting the same or similar subject matter(s) should be examined. In this particular sale, there were 2 lots out of 25 that are strictly floral still-life paintings: the present Matisse (Lot 6) and the last lot, Lot 25, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Even though they are of different styles and eras, the fact that they are of the same genre makes them still comparable. Another similarity is that neither of them performed to their expected standards on Wednesday. The hammer price of the Renoir barely reached the lower estimate, making the end of the auction an anticlimactic one; even with the buyer’s premium added, the final price was still approximately 15% lower than the higher estimate. Besides the comparison with the lot in the same auction, comparing Lot 6 with other similar work(s) by Mattise is necessary. There is one oil-on-canvas painting to compare with — Anémones et Grenades (FIG.2) painted in the same year of 1946. Vase d’Anémones and Anémones et Grenades are similar in their subject matter and their sizes. Artnet shows altogether two public auction records of Anémones et Grenades — the first time burnt at Christie’s New York in 2008 and the second time sold unimpressively at Sotheby’s New York in 2015. If the buyer’s premium(14) is taken out of concern and deducted from the final price (converted from U.S. Dollar to proximately 4.83 million Pounds Stirling), the hammer price (calculated to be approximately 3.62 million Pounds) in 2015 was probably even lower than the lower estimate (converted from U.S. Dollar to proximately 3.97 million Pounds).(15) (FIG.3) The 2008 financial crisis taken into consideration, it is unwise to skip to conclusion that the work, or, say, this type of works, was not brilliant enough to invest in, but the underwhelming sale record in 2015 did confirm that this genre by Matisse really is not as attractive marketwise as universally believed from an art historical viewpoint. In fact, there is yet another gargantuan problem regarding Matisse’s works, aesthetically pleasing as they are indeed, the financial outlook of them is not as promising. The price index of Matisse’s oil paintings on Artprice has been fluctuating right from the First of January, 2000 without any formed solid tendency. 100.00 Pounds invested in a Matisse’s painting in 2000 only has a value of 101.61 Pounds in July, 2019, yielding only a mere 1.61% profit added to the value back in 2000.(160 (FIG.4) Over nearly the past two decades, the value of a Matisse painting has remained unstable, let alone in 2004 when the value dived horrendously to a 35.70 Pounds, meaning that 64.30% of his paintings’ value just vanished without any trace.(17) (FIG.5) Compared to the co-founder of Fauvism, André Derain, 100.00 Pounds invested in his paintings in 2000 equals around 136.89 Pounds in July, 2019;(18) (FIG.6) it is certainly not the best investment in the modern art sector, but still much stronger than the investment in Matisse. It is wiser to include the price indexes of a few other contemporary Fauvist artists to be compared to that of Matisse. 100.00 Pounds invested in Maurice de Vlaminck, one of the key figures of Fauvism, in 2000 yield a mere 13.99% profit, reaching 113.99 Pounds in July, 2019;(19) (FIG.7) 100.00 Pounds invested in Kees van Dongen, another leading Fauve, even lose 1.16% of the value in July 2019.(20) (FIG.8) Besides their common underwhelming performances, the tendencies of the price indexes of all these four leading Fauvists’ are unanimously going downwards in July, 2019. (FIG. 4,5,6,7,8) 2019, given the known information, is not that good a year for the owners to sell their Fauvist paintings.
This example of the Matisse still-life painting is actually very instructive. It informs and reminds us that the world of simply appreciating and enjoying art is very different from the business world of art investment. Matisse, being one of the most famous avant-garde flagship artists throughout the modern art history does not guarantee success in the business world at all. The example helps the players in the art market keep alerted that in the art business world that buying names is not safe at all; it might even as well be a disastrous transaction. Analyzing each work specifically with regard to its particular genre, subject matter(s), period of execution, and market performance history is the right and rational way to explore the world of art business.
1 Sotheby’s Auction House, “Auction Results”, Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, 19 June 2019, London, <https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2019/impressionist-modern-art-evening-sale-119006.html?locale=en> [accessed 3 July 2019]
2 Madlyn M. Khar, Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, New York, 1982, p.189
3 Khar 1982, p.189
4 Eric Gustav Carlson, “‘Still Life with Statuette’ by Henri Matisse.” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, vol. 31, no. 2, 1967, p.9
5 Carlson 1967, p.11
6 Sotheby’s Auction House 19 June 2019
7 Sotheby’s Auction House, “Details and Cataloguing”, Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, 2019, London, <https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2019/impressionist-modern-art-evening-sale-l19006/lot.6.html> [accessed 3 July 2019]
8 Sotheby’s Auction House 2019
9 Sotheby’s Auction House 2019
10 Gareth Fletcher, Lecture “Due Diligence and Provenance Research”, 13 June 2019
11 Sotheby’s Auction House 2019
12 Sotheby’s Auction House 2019
13 Sotheby’s Auction House 2019
14 Buyer’s premium is considered by default as 25% of the hammer price
15 Artnet Price Database Fine Art and Design [accessed 3 July 2019]
16 Artprice Database Price Index [accessed 3 July 2019]
17 Artprice Database Price Index
18 Artprice Database Price Index
19 Artprice Database Price Index
20 Artprice Database Price Index
Appendix: Artnet and Artprice Database Indexes
Artnet Price Database Fine Art and Design
Artprice Database Price Index
Carlson, Eric Gustav. “‘Still Life with Statuette’ by Henri Matisse” Yale University Art Gallery Bulletin, vol. 31, no. 2, 1967, pp.4-13
Fletcher, Gareth. Lecture “Due Diligence and Provenance Research”, 13 June 2019
Khar, Madlyn M. Dutch Painting in the Seventeenth Century, New York, 1982, pp.189-203
Sotheby’s Auction House, “Auction Results”, Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, 19 June 2019, London, <https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/2019/impressionist-modern-art-evening-sale-l19006.html?locale=en> [accessed 3 July 2019]
Sotheby’s Auction House, “Details and Cataloguing”, Impressionist & Modern Art Evening Sale, 2019, London, <https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2019/impressionist-modern-art-evening-sale-l19006/lot.6.html> [accessed 3 July 2019]