Sotheby’s has just announced it will offer a major early work by Marc Chagall at its evening Impressionist auction next month.

Will the rare work, which has never been on the auction block before, break the nearly 30-year-old $14.85 million Chagall auction record?

That benchmark was achieved back in 1990 when frothy Japanese buying and demand helped push art prices to ultimately unsustainable levels. (That buying contingent immediately vanished when the art market crashed.) 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.

The 1928 Chagall painting, Les Amoureux, depicting the artist’s lover and muse Bella Rosenfeld, was acquired shortly after it was painted, through Paris gallery Bernheim Jeune & Cie. It has been in the same (unidentified) family ever since. The painting is estimated at $12 million to $18 million, and if it reaches that territory, it will almost definitely set a new record.

“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.”

Indeed, the artnet Price Database lists over 34,000 auction results for Chagall’s work. Of these, roughly 3,100—about 9 percent—failed to find buyers, and the most inexpensive work, Le piège, a 1962 color lithograph, sold at German auction house Hauswedell & Nolte in June 2000 for DM 7,600 ($3,700).

The $14.85 million record set at Sotheby’s in 1990 was for Anniversaire (1923), an oil on canvas that soared above the $6 million to $8 million estimate. The only price to come near that was achieved much more recently when $14.6 million was paid for Les trois cierges (1939) at Christie’s New York this past May. The third-highest price was paid a decade ago, in 2007, when Le grand cirque (1956) sold for $13.8 million. Read more