In spite of orange alerts, bad exchange rates for Americans buying European goods, freezing temperatures and the generally dim view that non-Americans take of the U.S. and its government, an impressive number of top European Old Master dealers made their way to New York to mount special exhibitions coinciding with the January Old Master auctions. And they seem to have done quite well. While caution prevailed, as it usually does in this traditionally conservative segment of the art business, several dealers even ventured to suggest that if their sales this time are anything to go by, the art market slump may -- just may -- be coming to an end.
The moderately upbeat mood among the dealers may have had something to do with the paucity of great material (apart from a few day-saving lots) at both Sotheby's and Christie's, which would naturally send clients to private vendors. (Sotheby's, in fact, withdrew at the last minute some 140 Italian Old Master drawings from the collection of Juan de Besteigui that it had been hoping to auction in three sales starting this January).
"Things are a lot better than last year," said London dealer Flavia Ormond, who showed a selection of 35 drawings, 18 from new stock, at Adelson Galleries in the Mark Hotel on Madison Avenue, her usual New York venue. "Last year the few serious buyers seemed terribly depressed and said they had no money," she remembers.
By the middle of the show's second week, Ormond had sold eight sheets, with more on reserve, and seemed pretty confident: "I fully expect to sell more." All three of her John Singer Sargent drawings sold, and all to American private collectors. Sargent's Tintoretto Studies (1874), which was priced at $14,500, shows the young artist's dynamic, blocky pencil lines abstracting four figures from a detail in Tintoretto's painting The Worship of the Golden Calf in the Church of the Madonna dell'Orto in Venice. His Light and Shade (Young Man Praying), offered at $85,000, a much more finished academic nude study in charcoal, was also made during the artist's stay in Paris in 1874. Seated Woman, listed at $65,000, a pencil sketch of an exotically draped figure, probably dates to Sargent's trip to Palestine and Syria in 1905.
Ormond also sold drawings by Adolph von Menzel, Romulo Cincinnato and Gottfried Bernard Gz, reinforcing a sense that no particular school is in special vogue at the moment, frustrating though this notion may be for trend-spotting journalists. Among the most interesting drawings was Gericault's watercolor, The Bull Market (1818-20), a sheet showing a great crush of beasts, defined by the tone of the wash rather than by decisive outlines (priced at $180,000, it was also included in last year's show).
"Business is not what it was before 9/11," said Ormond. "But at least people have stopped coming in and saying they haven't any money." And overall, she said, "The mood in New York is a lot better than it was. People are more relaxed. It's much more cheerful here than it is in London."
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At Adam Williams Fine Arts on East 78th Street, the London gallery Jean-Luc Baroni was primarily offering selections from the company's recent London "Christmas sale" of some 60 relatively modest drawings, most priced under $10,000, with just a few "tasters" of the big ticket items that he will present in New York in May. "There is no need for us to compete with the auction houses and the other dealers who have major shows right now," says Baroni's drawings specialist, Stephen Ongpin. "We get a lot of publicity for the really expensive drawings that we have sold [in recent years these have included Michelangelo's early study for a figure of a Mourning Woman and a Bronzino Study for the Lamenation]. People don't realize that we have a really large stock and cater to a variety of pockets."
Like Ormond, Ongpin felt that the company had done very well recently (28 of the drawings sold in the show's first round in London and six in New York, with more on reserve), especially and somewhat to Ongpin's surprise with a large number of anonymous drawings. "One main difference this year is that of the two dozen or so 16th- or 17th-century drawings in the catalogue, more than half are anonymous. We've had some of them for quite a while and have not been able to attribute them," he says. He admitted that "it was a risk. But the whole thing has created quite a scholarly buzz with all sorts of people writing in and we've sold almost all of them."
Quite a few sheets have gone to major museums, too. A black chalk drawing by Swedish artist Carl Larsson showing A Woman Seated on a Chair (1897), priced at $13,400, sold to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., along with a pen and brown ink drawing (listed at $7,500) by Bartolommeo Gagliardo, called Il Spagnoletto (1555-ca. 1626) of Perseus and Andromeda. Princeton bought a fine anonymous 16th-century Italian drawing of The Virgin Annunciate in black chalk heightened with white on blue paper, offered at $13,400 ("The curator might have an idea as to whom the author is," speculates Ongpin).
Another anonymous 16th-century drawing, in this case a design for a ceiling decoration (priced at $11,700), sold to the National Gallery of Scotland, an institution that has an established interest in designs for ornament. Ongpin was more surprised by the Dresden Kupferstichkabinett's purchase of a Crespi drawing, The Virgin and Child Adored by a Kneeling Saint in red chalk (ca.1730): "We've never sold anything to them before," says Ongpin, "but it turns out they had always been looking for a Crespi."
Three outstanding drawings from Baroni's main catalogue were also on show here: A glorious large finished drawing by Guercino in pen and brown ink of Susanna and the Elders, a compositional study for a painting of 1649-50 (now in the Galleria Nazionale in Parma); a rare 17th-century still-life drawing in pen and brown ink by Frans Snyders, showing a Hunter and Hounds with a Still-Life of Game and Shellfish, a preparatory study for a painting; and Abraham Bloemart's Study of the Virgin in red chalk that may relate to an engraving by Jacques de Gheyn.
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Laura Bennett, director of the gallery of established Upper East Side drawings dealer Mark Brady, who has just moved his operation (W. M. Brady & Co.) into the Fine Arts Building on East 80th Street, was more cautious than some of the others. "It is probably a bit better for us than last year at the same time," she said, before reeling off a list of some of the really major items that have sold from the gallery's show of "French Drawings 1600-1900," a characteristically very polished range of sheets, including lots of portraits and figure studies. Of the works still unsold, a major standout was Poussin's pen and brown ink drawing, Un dessinateur dans un paysage (ca. 1635-40), the only known plein-air drawing by Poussin showing an artist sketching (offered at $250,000).
Among the sold works at Brady were an astonishingly bold black chalk study of a nude by Ingres, a preparatory drawing for the angel at upper left of Le voeu de Louis XIII, a painted altarpiece commissioned for the Cathedral in Montauban in 1820; Delacroix's watercolor Deux ttes de chevaux (ca. 1840); a humorous Daumier, Le plaideur mcontent, in black chalk, pen and ink showing the exchange between a haughty lawyer and a disappointed litigant, one from a series on the legal system made in the 1860s for a more select group of collectors than his usual audience; a Czanne Portrait of Madame Czanne in graphite, seen in profile with eyes downcast (ca. 1884-87); and an explicit and sensual watercolor of Leda and the Swan by Rodin (1900-1910). All sold to American private collectors (for prices that are not available). "I am not sure if it's a bubble," said Bennett. "But, yes, it has gone quite well."
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Hamburg dealer Martin Moeller, who offered an idiosyncratic range of mainly Northern material at Frost & Reed on East 67th Street in what was his third time participating in New York drawings week, said, "I am satisfied with what I sold. But last year was good for me too." He nonetheless noted that there were less European buyers here than in the past. "It has become a spy country," he said. "The level of suspicion is just too much. You don't feel welcome anymore." But the absence of blandness in his selection of some 60 sheets was certainly welcome, to this viewer and many others.
Among the sold works at Moeller were J.J. Grandville's Ladies on a Walk, priced at $4,300, a charming pen and ink caricature of two voluminously becloaked ladies, one with a ridiculously tall feather in her bonnet; Adolph von Menzel's pencil drawing, Visitors in a Gallery (1893, priced at $78,000); and his Lady with Hat (listed at $39,000) -- also showing a female figure dominated by extraordinary millinery.
Moeller had two wonderful drawings by Kthe Kollwitz (both acquired in the Ketterer sale in Munich in May 2003), neither of which found buyers. One large pencil drawing shows a figure closely resembling that of the artist herself in the guise of Gretchen (1899) from Faust hunched on the right side of a large sheet; the other, Der Winter (1932), in black chalk, is a dark image of a woman and child heavily dressed against the cold, a comment on the bleak political landscape of Germany at that date.
One of my favorites among the unsold sheets was a drawing of a female nude by Max Klinger in black ink on the recto and verso of a letter written by the artist; the back view of the figure is drawn on the back of the sheet, creating a three-dimensional sculptural effect intended to transcend the two-dimensional confines of the paper.
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Like Sotheby's Old Master drawing auction [see "Art Market Watch," Feb. 4, 2004], Artemis Fine Arts on East 73rd Street offered botanical drawings by Jacques Le Moyne de Morgue. Unlike the works in the Sotheby's group, however, the two works here, characterized by a distinctive trompe l'oeil illusionism, were drawn in bodycolor on vellum, and were once part of a group of ten in the collection of Rudolf Wien. One of the works, A Sprig of Wild Cherries (1580s), sold before the opening; the other, Violets with a Dragonfly (1580s) sold during the show, both to American private collectors.
Other sales in this luscious group of mainly French and Italian material, reflecting the specific tastes of the company's Paris-based specialist Franois Borne, included an Oudry drawing of Two Cockerels Fighting (1749) in black chalk with brush and gray ink and Guercino's A Sybil Reading (1630s) in pen and brown ink, again, both to American private collectors.
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Meanwhile, Emmanuel von Bayer, the London-based prints and drawings dealer who last exhibited in New York two years ago, showed a wide range of mainly northern material at Shepherd & Derom Galleries on East 79th Street, a selection that revealed a highly personal approach to works of art on paper. "You have to have a broad range nowadays," said von Bayer, "and I choose what I love." And in any case, he added, "some of the items that weren't expensive ten or 15 years ago are now quite pricey. Fishing in new fields can be quite rewarding as long as the work is of a certain quality."
While von Bayer noticed the absence of some members of the European trade this year, he said, "There is generally a very good feeling about the market at the moment. The crowds at the openings were the biggest anyone has seen in a long time." Von Bayer was pleased to have sold several works to American museums, among them a black chalk drawing by Joseph Heintz the Elder of Jupiter Embracing Amor, a copy of Raphael's design for the spandrels in the Villa Farnesina, made during the artist's stay in Rome from 1584, and Johann Oswald Harms' Draftsman in a Landscape with Ruins (1643) in pen and brown ink with wash, from a series of three that were probably intended as designs for prints.
Of the many, inexplicably unsold curiosities here were a delightful sheet by Adolph von Menzel, showing Two Studies for a Sleeping Gentleman at a Garden Table in pencil (ca. 1864); a pencil drawing of The Dancer Emilie Bigottini in pencil by Louise Lafitte (1770-1828); and a study in watercolor (1851) by John Martin for his painting The Plains of Heaven (1851), one of three major works in his Last Judgment trilogy (now in the Tate Gallery, London).
Trends? A definite upturn? No one wanted to commit. But there was no denying the fairly brisk run of sales, and the generally more positive mood of drawings week this year, even among the field's most Eeyore-like constituents.
CATHERINE BINDMAN is an editor and art critic specializing in prints and drawings.