Art worth $42 million that you can’t see

Melvyn Teillol-Foo

“The true cost of luxury is the choice that it affords.”

21st June 2017, London

Helena Newman of Sotheby’s fielding bids

On the longest day of the year (and hottest so far), Sotheby’s totted up £127.9 million (about $161.3 million) from this Impressionist & Modern Art sale, exceeding its conservative estimate of $141.2 million despite a disappointing sell-through rate of 74 percent. It was both expected and yet, surprising. Bidding was rarely exciting and few lots sold above estimate.

It was expected that the total sale estimate would be achieved because more than 65% of the low estimate was already guaranteed with “irrevocable bids”. These were mainly for just four lots.


Joan Miró’s ‘Femme et Oiseau’

Miró: Femme et Oiseaux

The first of the Big-4 lots was Joan Miró’s ‘Femme et Oiseau’ / ‘Woman and Birds’, the 1940 work on paper from his rare “Constellation” series. We are asked to see the united cosmic vision, beauty and poetry of a world that still prevailed in 1940 rather than the political situation in Spain and France.

Femme et Oiseaux, Miro (1940)

I tried but really couldn’t and had little interest except “for the pretty colours”….call me tasteless.

Indeed, there seemed to be only one guarantor bidder and it sold for £24.6 million ($31 million)  – a record in GBP due to the weak currency. The work last sold at auction (by a different owner) in 1984 for £407,000.


Two other works sold for more than $20 million that evening and both were by Wassily Kandinsky.


Kandinsky’s Murnau – Landschaft mit grünem Haus

Lot 47 Wassily Kandinsky: Murnau – Landschaft mit grünem Haus (1909) est £15-25 million

The first, Lot 47: ‘Murnau – Landschaft mit grünem Haus’/’Murnau – Landscape with Green House’ (1909), was won by a bidder on the phone in contact with Sotheby’s Munich office for £18.5 million, which after fees made it £21 million ($26.6 million)  – a new auction record for the artist.

I could actually make out the house in the painting, so lets leave it at that!


Kandinsky’s Bild mit weissen Linien 

Kandinsky: Bild mit weissen Linien (1913)

The new auction record did not last long. Lot 53: ‘Bild mit weissen Linien’ (1913), was actually contested in a bidding war between clients represented by Sotheby’s Asia, Sotheby’s London Impressionists Department, and an “unidentified” bidder in the room. That “unidentified” bidder won ‘Painting with White Lines’ for £29.2 million. After fees, that was £33 million ($41.6 million), obliterating the record set just six lots before. A painting that the Russian government exchanged in return for political papers during the Cold War had broken a capitalist record.

Lot 53 Wassily Kandinsky: Bild mit weissen Linien (October 1913)

Created by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky in 1913, ‘Painting with White Lines’ is considered part of the vital development of abstract painting. When the exchange took place between The State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and German collector William Hack in 1974, it was considered worthless by the Russian authorities because it did not conform to state approved socialist realism. The painting was bought by another German collector based in London.

I could create offense by my lack of appreciation but is something really art because it costs $41 million? I just don’t see “It”. As advertised, there are quite a few white lines, some even squiggly but the sum of the whole is really like the “Emperor’s new clothes”….


The Final Straw — Ruscha’s Blue Scream

Finally, as an aside, there was a themed mini-sale that evening: ‘Actual Size” where the paintings are no larger than the images depicted on the catalogue pages.

Lot 13 Ed Ruscha: Blue Scream est. £700,000-1,000,000

The themed sale’s best return was for Ruscha’s Blue Scream (1964), bought four years ago for $554,500 and sold for £1.6 million ($2 million).

I can only scream: “WHY?”……



Author’s Biography: Melvyn Teillol-Foo (MTF)

Dr Melvyn Teillol-Foo is a contributor on AlphaLuxe web-zine.
He is also a moderator on horology discussion fora. He blends his scientific medical objectivity from the pharmaceutical industry with purist passion, in his musings about watches, travel, wine, food and other epicurean delights.
His travelogue ‘Lazing’ and feasting ‘Grazing’ series of articles have now passed into “mythic legend” on the original ‘’ website. Those were the halcyon days when he was “rich and famous” that he remembers with bittersweet fondness.

Dr Teillol-Foo is a quoted enthusiast on the watch industry, appearing in feature articles and interviews by Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Sunday Times (London), Chronos (Japan), Citizen Hedonist (France) and other publications. He has authored articles for magazines like International Watch (iW) – both U.S. & Chinese editions, ICON (Singapore), August Man (Singapore), Comfort (China) and The Watch (Hong Kong).

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