“Les Amoureux” by Marc Chagall was the top lot at November sales Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern art auction in New York. 

The painting was sold to a Russian buyer for $25 million, or $28.4 million after fees, beating out an Asian collector on the phone with Patti Wong, chair of Sotheby’s Asia. The result is nearly double the artist’s previous auction record of $14.8 million (with fees) and well above the work’s $12 million to $18 million pre-sale estimate.

Considered one of the greatest works by the Jewish painter Marc Chagall to come onto the open market, “Les Amoureux” had previously remained in the same family for nearly 90 years since the owner’s family bought it from the artist’s Paris gallery in 1928 - the same year it was painted.


Courtesy of Sotheby’s. Photo: Artsy.net

Chagall’s Les Amoureux (1928) was one of the few lots to garner an extended bidding war. The painting was chased by three determined bidders, with interest from Asia and Russia, in a more than 10-minute bidding war that soared well above its pre-sale estimate of $12 to 18 million.

It shows the artist with his childhood sweetheart and first wife Bella Rosenfeld, surrounded by verdant foliage and flowers. It was painted during his time in France, where he lived from 1923 to 1941, at which point the family fled to the U.S. to escape World War II.


Marc Chagall. Les Amoureux
Les Amoureux
Marc Chagall
1928

Chagall’s blue-tinged "Le Grand Cirque" (1956) shows a collection of circus performers and musicians, a depiction of what Chagall called “the performance that seems to me the most tragic,” but a theme to which he returned again and again. Estimated at $10 million to $15 million, it sold for $14 million, or $16 million with fees. It’s now the second most expensive Chagall sold at auction.
Marc Chagall. Le Grand Cirque
Le Grand Cirque
Marc Chagall
1956, 159.5×308.5 cm

With the sale of Le Grand Cirque, measuring 10ft (3.05m) across, and Les Amoureux, Sotheby’s said it now holds the top three auction prices for Chagall. Chagall’s previous auction record was set in 1990, when Sotheby’s sold Anniversaire (1923) in New York for $14.9m. That benchmark was achieved when frothy Japanese buying and demand helped push art prices to ultimately unsustainable levels. (That buying contingent immediately vanished when the art market crashed.)
Hardly not reached this amount, the painting "Three candles", bought in 2016 at Christie's auction in New York for $ 14.6 million.

The activity for Chagall has an interesting parallel in the Van Gogh auction market, also the target of speculative late-’80s Japanese buying. The $82.5 million auction record for "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" set in 1990—albeit far more expensive than the Chagall—has also never been broken to date.
Marc Chagall. L'Anniversaire
L'Anniversaire
Marc Chagall
1915, 80.8×100.3 cm

“It’s very rare that we see major Chagall works from the teens, 20s, and 30s,” says Simon Shaw, co-head of Sotheby’s worldwide Impressionist and modern art department. The artist was nearly 100 years old when he died in 1985 and “was very prolific, so we see a lot of material on the market. But most of that is from the later years.”


Marc Chagall. Three candles
Three candles
Marc Chagall
1940, 127.5×96.5 cm

From roughly 2003 to 2007, there was intense competition for works by Chagall, according to Shaw, “but the really good early pictures are few and far between.” Currently, he says, there is robust demand in the US, throughout Europe, and growing interest in Asia once again. Sotheby’s just brought Les Amoureux to Hong Kong and exhibited it there during the recent auction series where it was seen by thousands of viewers.

“This is a moment in the 1920s when Chagall settled back in France for a second time after the Russian Revolution,” Shaw explains. “Not only was he very happy on a personal level, but this is really where he makes his career. He signs an exclusive gallery arrangement and has solo shows for the first time. He’s really successful for the first time in his career.”

Title illustration: Marc Chagall, Les Amoureux, 1928, oil on canvas.

Based on materials from Artsy.net, ArtNews.com, Sotheby's.