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|Art Market Watch
by Stewart Waltzer
|You would think that when Sotheby's auctioneer, Tobias Meyer, resurrected his hilarious impression of Lurch the lugubrious butler of Addams Family fame, that it would have been chuckles all around at Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art sale last evening.
But no. Poor Mr. Meyer could not get out of the passing lane, and lot after lot was left by the side of the road. Statistically, Sotheby's performance repeated Christie's the night before number for number, except of course Sotheby's didn't have a Blue Period picture to sell. Seventy percent of the lots failed to exceed the low estimate. Fifteen percent exceeded the low but not the high, and 15 percent exceeded the high estimate. Forty percent of the lots were bought in.
By now these guys ought to show a little style. We have been here before. The art market is unregulated. The auctions represent a very public component. The great houses must police themselves. Don't laugh. The first house to take its courage in hand, posit a sale of creditable dimensions, and succeed is going to walk away from the competition. There is no percentage for either house to walk the road to oblivion arm and arm with the other. Does idiocy love company?
Is there a Phillips factor? Does M. Arnault's money warp the playing field. Given Sotheby's and Christie's performance you might have been better served to take Arnault's francs up front, than join Sotheby's and Christie's in an industry-wide version of Las Vegas night. Both great houses labor under the imminence of a punishing fine. Has it corrupted their judgment? Has is softened their resolve to behave responsibly in the market place? Maybe.
Let's examine last night's tender moments. The New York real estate investor Joe Wohl's collection did not generate the mojo that Sotheby's had hoped for. The estimates were too high. Of the first 16 lots that comprised the collection, 12 did not exceed the low estimate set by the house. Of those 12, five were bought in. Prices given here are at the hammer, and do not include the auction house's commission, which is 10 percent plus.
Bidding on the Degas Les Entraneurs, estimated at $6 million-$8 million, halted at $3.5 million and the picture was passed. It would not have hit $8 million in a lottery.
The Lone Bidder came back and bought the Monet, Antibes vue de la Salis, at its apparent reserve of $4.6 million. It was estimated at $5 million-$7 million.
The lovely Fauve Braque, Paysage a la Ciotat, sold for a plausible $2.8 million over an estimate of $3 million-$4 million. The salacious Van Dongen, Anitia ou la Gitane apprivoisee (La Bohemienne), a painting of an attractive woman with her blouse pulled down below her breasts -- a pose that would not catch on till Playboy hit the stands some 50 years later -- passed at $950,000. It was estimated at $1.8 million-$2.5 million. Were they dreaming?
The very major league Manet, Jeune fille dans une jardin, sold for $19 million over a presale estimate of $20 million-$30 million. A very creditable price that has somehow lost its luster in the dot-com economy.
Another highlight was the sale of the small Picasso of Marie Therese Walter, Le Repos. Estimated to go for $3 million-$4 million, several bidders chivvied it up to $7.3 million.
For the next lot, one lovely phone bidder warred with another lovely phone bidder, pushing the price for Modigliani's Fillette assise en robe to $14.2 million. It had been optimistically estimated at $8 million-$12 million. The painting is one of the cute Modigilanis. There ain't nothing in the world like a big eyed girl. Make me act real funny; make me spend my money.
One lot later the same telephone bidder failed to buy Matisse's La Robe Persane. It hammered down for $15.5 million, having also been optimistically estimated at $9 million-$12 million. The work had sold previously in 1991 for $4.5 million, when it was estimated at $5 million-$7 million.
Sixteen of the 60 lots offered had appeared at auction previously. Some had appeared in the heyday of the late 1980s and early '90s. Some had appeared as recently as 1999. Surely the earlier markets offer some reference as to a plausible value. The market audience is not same now. It is more skeptical and more perceptive as far as the value goes. It might have tempered Sotheby's judgment. The figures speak for themselves, courtesy of the Artnet.com database. And sometimes, crime does pay.
Lot 17, the Rodin Eternal Spring, sold for $550,000 last night. Formerly it sold at Christies London 3/30/93 for $157,000.
Lot 19, Monet's Aux Petites-Dalles, sold in very active bidding for $2,250,000. Previously it sold at Christie's on 5/10/89 for $4.2 million over a presale estimate of $2 million-$3 million. Ouch!
Lot 20, van Gogh's Vue de la chambre de l'atriste, rue Lepic, passed at $1.5 million bid, with an estimate of $1.8 million-$2.2 million. It was sold at Sotheby's on 5/1/96 for $1.6 million over an estimate of $1 million-$1.5 million.
Lot 23, the van Gogh Femme dans une jardin, passed at $3.5 million over an estimate of $4 million-$6 million. Formerly, it had sold at Christie's on 11/13/96 for $3.1 million, over an estimate of $5 million-$7 million.
Lot 26, Renoir's La jeune fille au Cygne, passed at $4.2 million, with an estimate of $5 million-$7 million. Previously, it had sold at Christie's on 11/11/97 for $ 5.1 million with an estimate of $5 million-$7 million.
Lot 28, the Bonnard, passed at $950,000 with an estimate of $1.3 million-$1.8 million. Formerly it sold at Christie's on 11/14/88 for $913,000 with an estimate of $500,000-$700,000.
Lot 30, the Degas Portrait de Zacarian, passed at $3.4 million over an estimate of $4 million-$5 million. Formerly it sold at Sotheby's on 5/17/90 for $ 2.3 million with a presale estimate of $1.5 million-$2 million. Has the market changed so much since then? Guess not.
Lot 32, the Morisot Cace-Cache, sold for $4 million with an estimate of $3.25 million to $5 million. Formerly it sold at Sotheby's on 5/10/99 for $ 3,850,000 over an estimate of $1.8 million-$2.2 million. Short-term small gain.
Lot 34, Modigliani's Paul Guillame, sold for $4.2 million with an estimate of $3.5 million-$5 million. Formerly it sold at Christie's on 11/13/96 for $ 3.1 million with an estimate of $1.8 million-$2.5 million.
Lot 37, Picasso's Le Repos, sold for $7.2 million over an estimate of $3 million-$4 million. Previously it sold at Christie's on 6/23/93 for $ 2.2 million with an estimate of $1 million-$1.4 million.
Lot 38, the Modigliani Jeune fille assise, sold for $14.2 million over an estimate of $8 million-$12 million. Formerly it sold at Sotheby's on 11/28/89 for $7,950,000 with an estimate $7 million-$8.5 million.
Lot 39, Matisse's La Robe Persane, sold for $15.5 million with an estimate of $9 million-$12 million. Formerly it sold at Sotheby's on 5/7/91 for $ 4.5 million with an estimate of $5 million-$7 million.
Lot 44, the Modigliani, passes at $3.4M over an estimate of $4M to 6M. Formerly itsold at Christie's on 6/21/93 for $ 4.3M with an estimate of $3M to $ 4.5M
Lot 46, the Miró Tete-Le cat blanc, passes at $2.4 million with an estimate of $3 million-$4 million. Formerly it passed at Christie's on 11/5/91 with an estimate of $1.5 million-$2.5 million. So why raise it?
Lot 49, the Matisse La blouse rose, passed at $2.4 million with an estimate of $3 million-$4 million. Previously it sold at Sotheby's on 5/10/88 for $ 3.1 million over an estimate of $1.6 million-$2 million.
Lot 52, the Picasso L'atelier, sold for $3.2 million with an estimate of $3.5 million-$4.5 million. Formerly it sold at Sotheby's on 11/10/88 for $ 2.8 million with an estimate $750,000 to $1,00,000.
The gains and the losses added up are almost exactly the same.
When you sell a painting for $50 million, as Christie's did Wednesday evening, no amount of buy ins will shake one's confidence in the market. Two nights running, however, and the laughter starts to grow a little thin. There is a paucity of material on the market. Dealers are watching their stocks erode and wondering how they can be replaced at these prices. There is no Allan Greenspan to orchestrate a soft landing. There is a healthy constituency that continues to buy art. There is no predilection auguring market collapse. So why are we having the most bizarre sales since 1991? Hello.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.