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A Tale of Two Magrittes at Sotheby's Modernités $39.49m Sale

3 min read  · 20 Oct 2023

La valse hésitation by Rene Magritte sold for $11.77m, copyright the artist's estate, courtesy of Sotheby's

A surreal fruit painting by Rene Magritte, was the most expensive work sold at Sotheby's Modernités on October 23, but with a guarantee in place, it reflected below par results on the night.

A second Magritte painting failed to find a buyer, however, and another hammered near its low estimate. Works by other 20th century heavyweights were withdrawn before the sale. Overall, the high-profile sale reflected market uncertainties, with 45% of lots selling for within estimates.

Along with the outperforming works and the underperforming ones, we demystify auction-house jargon and decode the small print. The results below include the fees and premiums added to the price when the auctioneer's hammer fell.

Snapshot of the Sale

  • The 38 works that went under the hammer totalled: $39.49m.

  • Estimates totalled: $46.07m (low) and $68.13m (high), excluding fees.

  • The sell-through rate was 66% of the 47 lots originally listed before withdrawals.

  • 9 works were withdrawn and 7 were bought-in, having failed to find a buyer.

The top lot was Rene Magritte, La valse hésitation (1955), which had a guarantee. It sold for $11.77m, 10% above estimate. It has been traded 3 times in the past.

The outperformer sold for 250% above estimate. Lucio Fontana. Concetto spaziale, Natura (1959) hammered at $2.28m. It has been traded once in the past.

Breakdown of results against estimates

  • 15 works, or 48%, sold above their high estimate.

  • 14 works, or 45%, sold within their estimate.

  • 2 works, or 6%, sold below their low estimate.

Guaranteed Sales

7 works had a guarantee, including Jean Dubuffet, Territoire aux deux promeneurs (1974). It sold for $1.04m, 1% below estimate. It has been traded 3 times in the past.

Works That Didn’t Sell

7 works were bought-in, having failed to find a buyer, including Rene Magritte, La vie secrète (1929), estimated at $743,700 (low) to $1.06m (high). It has been traded 5 times in the past.

Bought-in works had a total estimated value of: $3.08m (low) to $4.36m (high).

Withdrawn Before the Sale

9 works were withdrawn before the sale, including Nicolas de Stael, Sicile (Paysage en Sicile) (1954), estimated at $2.66m (low) to $3.72m (high)

Withdrawn works had a total estimated value of $11.51m (low) to $16.01m (high)

Terms and Definitions

Guarantees: Sometimes an auction house, possibly with a third party or parties, guarantees to pay a seller for a work, regardless of whether the bidding reaches the reserve price, which is typically confidential.

Bought-in: If there are no bids for a work, or if bidding falls short of the reserve price, the lot is unsold or “bought-in”, sometimes described as “closed” in the post-sale results.

Withdrawn: This happens when a seller decides, for whatever reason, to withdraw a work before the bidding begins.


Rene Magritte