Sotheby’s is announcing the auction of Piet Mondrian’s Composition No. II from 1930 with the spectacular estimate of $50 million for its November auctions. Mondrian is an artist of central significance, a point made by the influential Fondation Beyeler mounting a show this Summer in honor of the artist’s 150th birthday. But few of his works are in private hands and some of the paintings have not withstood the effects of age well.
As objects, they are impressive to collectors who appreciate their art historical significance; but they do lack wallpower. That’s another way to say that they’re not very big. Art history and the market both prize the works made in the 1920s and early 1930s. These are the classic grids of white and black with panels in primary colors.
Composition No. II features a large panel in red. Sotheby’s points out there are only 120 works executed by the artist between 1921 and 1933 that “focus” on the color red. Sotheby’s says only three of these remain in private hands. (Though it is worth pointing out that seven of the grid paintings sold in the last 15 years had red panels, however small. So maybe those are not works where red is a “focus” or Sotheby’s believes they’ve been donated.)
Since 2009, eight paintings from this period have been auctioned. One sold in 2009 made $27.4 million; another that was just black and white also sold in 2009 made $9.2 million. It wasn’t until 2013 that another came to market. It was smaller than many of the others and made $14.3 million. The next year, one the same size as Sotheby’s with blue and yellow panels made $20.25 million. And another with a bit of red made $25.8 million later in the year.
In 2015, a 1926 painting of the same size as Sotheby’s that was almost entirely black and white save for a sliver of a red panel, it made $9.35 million. A few days later in the same season, another work from 1929 that was slightly larger and in remarkably good condition was offered with a $15 million low estimate. This was, in part, a response to the fact that the painting had been offered privately at higher price. The auction strategy worked. Bidders drove the work to $50.5 million (which is some of the basis for Sotheby’s estimate on the current work.)
That was seven years ago. Last May, a work from 1927 that was smaller than Composition No. II (it is roughly the same height but only ⅔ of the width) sold for $26 million. It featured large yellow and red panels.
The price trajectory makes sense. A work slightly smaller than the one that made $50 million but seven years later; same colors and composition, maybe even a little stronger. The only question is whether a person with $50 million to spend on a Mondrian is still in the mood to spend $50 million by the time we get to November. That’s the question that hovers over the entire season.