A Malevich and a Bronze by Brancusi Set Auction Highs for the Artists

Posted May 15, 2018 10:40 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Tuesday night, the high end of the art market showed life at Christie’s when Constantin Brancusi’s 1932 polished bronze portrait of the flamboyant shipping heiress Nancy Cunard sold for $71 million with fees, a new high for the artist at auction.

Another work that performed well was Kazimir Malevich’s “Suprematist Composition,” an abstraction that pulled in $85.8 million with fees, the top result of the evening and the highest price ever paid at auction for a piece by the Russian modernist.

Three bidders had battled for the Brancusi, a 2-foot-7-inch-high abstracted head, titled “La Jeune Fille Sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard),” (“The Sophisticated Young Woman”), and set on the artist’s original carved marble base. According to Christie’s, it went to an undisclosed bidder on the phone who had guaranteed a set price for the sculpture before the sale and who earned roughly $190,000 in financing fees as part of the transaction.

Christie’s had estimated the work would sell for at least $70 million.

“It’s an icon, and people chase icons,” said Abigail Asher, a partner at Guggenheim Asher, an art advisory firm based in New York, commenting on the Brancusi. “The dramatic contrast between the polished sculpture and its carved base was breathtaking. And it was rarer than rare.”

The Romanian-born Brancusi, who worked in Paris, is widely recognized as the most innovative and influential sculptor of the early 20th century. In July, the Museum of Modern Art will open an exhibition focused on 11 of his pieces from its own collection.

There is a dwindling number of available sculptures by Brancusi, who did not make works in large editions. Those that rarely appear on the market have an enhanced value. Last May, his circa 1913 bronze head “La Muse Endormie” sold at Christie’s for $57.4 million, the previous auction high for the artist.

Tuesday night's sculpture was being sold by the three children of the American collectors Elizabeth and Frederick Stafford. The couple acquired the sculpture in 1955 directly from the artist in his Paris studio for about $5,000, according to Bloomberg News. For the last 40 years, the Brancusi had been on extended loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Another version of the sculpture, in wood, is in the collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

“It wasn’t his greatest sculpture, but it was a fair price,” Offer Waterman, a dealer based in London, said. “I thought it would make more.”

Cunard was one of the indelible personalities of the Parisian avant-garde. A style pioneer who numbered Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett, Tristan Tzara and the jazz pianist Henry Crowder among her many lovers, she threw her energies into partying, publishing, writing and political activism for causes such as the Spanish Civil War and combating racial discrimination.

Though Cunard knew Brancusi socially, she never posed for the artist. It was only years later that she became aware of the sculpture, initially mistaking it for a torso, rather than a head. “There was one in wood, the other in bronze, both utterly unlike what I take to be my ‘line,’ but exquisite things,” Cunard said, according to the Christie’s catalog.

The Brancusi was one of the stars of an auction of impressionist and modern art at Christie’s that was to have included Picasso’s 1943 painting, “Le Marin” (“The Sailor”), estimated at $70 million. Entered by the casino mogul Steve Wynn, the Picasso was withdrawn from the sale after having been damaged at the preview exhibition.

The Malevich that sold Tuesday was won on a bid within the room by Brett Gorvy, the dealer and former Christie’s executive, on behalf of an undisclosed buyer.

Back in 2008, in a jittery market, this much-exhibited Russian masterwork sold at Sotheby’s to its guarantor for $60 million, then an auction high for Malevich.

“It made a record then, and it made a record now,” said Waterman. “The owner hung onto it for 10 years and got a decent return.”

Christie’s auction raised $415.9 million from 37 lots with just four left unsold. Despite the withdrawal of two high-value works belonging to Wynn, this was an improvement on the $289.2 million achieved last May from a low-energy auction of 55 impressionist and modern works.