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|Art Market Watch
by Stewart Waltzer
|Last night at Christie's Impressionist and modern art sale, star auctioneer Christopher Burge, feinting left and right on the rostrum, did more passing than a pro quarterback. Thirty-one passes in total, and all, by their nature, incomplete. More than 70 percent of the lots failed to exceed their low estimates. That's the sort of number that is reminiscent of the Dark Ages of the mid 1990s.
But even with Dubya breathing hot and heavy on the White House gates, no one in the audience was gasping in the face of economic Armageddon. In fact quite the opposite, everyone had fun, particularly the art dealers who saw the auction house soundly thrashed for the hubris of its ridiculous estimates.
Such an event also chastens consignors. Ignoring the plaintive advice of the dealers, they were seduced by Burge's white shoulders and now found themselves lost and rejected outside the stage door.
With this sale, the lone bidder is back, bravely holding up his paddle in the face of no competition. But even the L.B. finally wised up and realized it may well be cheaper tomorrow.
Still, Burge bravely soldiered on, which wasn't so difficult, considering he hammered down a Blue Period Picasso for $50 million. (Prices given here are at the hammer; the auction house adds on a variable sales commission of about 17 percent.) This must be one of the few remaining Blue Period works still held privately, because if this Femme Anorexique is the best the Blue Period can offer, there would not have been a Blue Period.
So start with lot 1. How about that Rodin! Femme Accroupie (1880-82), presale est. $300,000-$400,000, goes for $850,000 for an itty-bitty little bronze, only 12 inches high. The next four Degas bronzes (lots 4-7) take off and sail into some serious cash, given the size and nature of the work. Lot 11, the Henri Fantin-Latour Bouquet de Fleurs (1889), sets a record for the artist at $3.2 million. Burge must have thought, for a moment, Surf City, here I come.
Alas, nine Monets were offered in the sale of 75 lots, more than the market might be expected to absorb. Plus, nearly all sported estimates beyond their apparent value. Eight failed to exceed the low end of the estimate, and four of the eight were bought in as well. It quickly became evident that bidders are somewhat more perceptive than they were in the late '80s.
By its nature this was not a bad sale, only implausible. The estimates reflected a hunger level characteristic of the '80s and with this New Age honor system, courtesy of the U.S. Justice Department, the houses had to offer more to entice the clientele. If Sotheby's felt that it strained esthetic credulity to set prices at more than a specific sum, Christie's obviously did not. It no doubt went both ways, as we will see at Sotheby's sale this evening.
In the end, lots lay upon the field of battle like the dead of Carthage. The great Hector, Paul Gauguin's Paysage aux trois arbres (lot 25), estimated at $12 million-$16 million, was passed over. A significant loss. Perhaps it was the Dubya factor, Barbarians at the Gates and all.
Then, two lots later, the mighty Achilles, Paul CÚzanne, is slain. Bords de la Marne, lot 27, estimated at $7 million-$10 million, perhaps not all that major a picture, is bought in at $5.5 million.
The bad news continues. A nasty Bonnard is passed over at $1.1 million bid. Then Renoir, then Degas, then Monet, then CÚzanne and so on, as one Impressionist luminary after the other falls dead upon the plain until the mighty Picasso, beloved of the gods, takes the field and slays the $50 million monster.
There were some interesting lots. Two of the cutest Modiglianis, Fillete assise, lot 40, and Portrait du photographe Dilewski, lot 50, actually sell at their apparent reserves, proving that Burge can truly walk on water when he wants.
Two small Duchamps were quickly passed. L.H.O.O.Q., lot 56, estimated at $700,000-$900,000 did not receive a bid. The work was 9 by 7 inches and most of it was frame. Duchamp's Box in a Valise, lot 57, estimated at $800,000 $1,200,000, also passed. The world's most expensive Dopp kit? Aren't these guys getting their medication on line?
The Picasso, Téte de femme, estimated at $4 million-$6 million, was bought in. Two of the three Giacomettis passed, and the one that sold seemed to verge on the miraculous. All four of the Legers passed.
The auction houses are able to realize prices on very modest works of art that no dealer could accomplish, or would attempt. The great houses have become retail outlets. There are no bargains here, in fact quite the opposite. The consignor constituency has visions of sugar plums. Dubya is jingling the keys to the economy in his hand, just waiting for his turn to drive. The only reality is the market itself. Christie's ought not be proud of last night's performance.
NB: 72 percent of the sale failed to exceed the low estimate; 12 percent of the sale exceeded the low but not the high estimate; and 16 percent of the sale exceeded the high estimate.
Phillips New York, Impressionist and modern, Nov. 6, 2000
If you find the course of my deductive reasoning flawed, don't bet that thoughts similar to mine weren't echoing through the corporate cranium as Phillips went to sale Monday evening. The London-base auction house is depending on a formidable economy to allow it to establish a beachhead in the New World. If the economy goes, it is going to be Dunkirk all over again.
Is Phillips profitable? Probably as much as a dot-com, but it is not to be confused with the opportune establishment of Hapsberg-Feldman at the end of the '80s. Whither Hapsberg-Feldman? Phillips has offices spread far and wide across the world, although it is by no means equal to the collective reach of Sotheby's and Christie's.
Still, Phillips has the wherewithal of Bernard Arnault, and money being what it is, the house did quite plausibly Monday evening. It was not brilliant but neither was Christie's. If you think that the present market appears to rival the late '80s in cost and intensity, it does, a bit.
At the Phillips sale on Monday evening, lot 3, Pissarro's Fete de Septembre, Pointoise, sold for $2,532,500 with the commission. It sold in 1989 with the commission for $1,980,000. Net gain.
The owners of lot 4, Renoir's Nature morts, fleurs et fruits, were less fortunate. It was purchased in 1989 for $1,870, 430, including commission. On Monday it sold for $1,432,500 with commission. Net loss.
The owners of the CÚzanne, La Côte du Galet, à Pontoise, were still less fortunate. The picture sold in 1996, a few short years ago, for $11 million. Monday evening it was resold for $7.75 million. Net big loss.
Finally, Renoir's Femmes dans un Jardin sold in 1993 for $6,712,500 with commission. Phillips sold it on Monday for the exact same price with commission. The more things change the more they stay the same. There, I said it.
For an illustrated listing of the sale results, go to:
STEWART WALTZER is a New York dealer.