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Nu couché aux bras levés
pass at $8.8 million
Jeune Femme en Rouge
artnet auction report: the sharp collection
by Walter Robinson
By all accounts, Evelyn Sharp (1903-1994) was unusual. After her husband Jesse Sharp died in 1941, she took over his business, and by the '50s had assembled a major portfolio of hotels and real estate (including the Stanhope and the Beverly Wilshire in Los Angeles). Savvy investments in the stock market made her a big holder of IBM. Her philanthropic activities were widespread. In the arts, she helped found the Los Angeles Music Center, served on the board of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and with her son, the late Peter Jay Sharp, funded the Sharp Gallery in the Metropolitan Museum's 20th-century wing. She launched the Evelyn Sharp Foundation in 1952.
She also formed an art collection, strong in works by Picasso, Chagall and Modigliani, that was put on the block at Sotheby's last night, Nov. 12, 1997. Of the 39 lots, 34 sold for $41.2 million, an impressive sum that is nevertheless substantially under the presale estimate of $59 million to $78 million. Sotheby's actually lost money on the sale. "Our estimates were too high," said Sotheby's c.e.o. Diana Brooks. "We did not make our guarantee." Brooks noted that the auction house would most likely sell enough of the remaining lots in the coming days to put the transaction in the black.
The top three lots were by Picasso, selling for $6 million, $5 million and $4 million -- all at or below their low estimates. A pleasant 1933 Matisse, Still Life with Three Vases, went for $3.3 million (est. $3,500,000-$4,500,000). Top lot among the six Sharp Chagalls was Lovers with Lilies (1922-25), a strong picture that sold for $3.2 million (est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000). Prices are listed in the table below, and include the auction-house commission.
Among the big buy-ins was lot 22, the 1916 Modigliani nude, estimated to sell for $12 million. It was bought in at $8.8 million -- though it seemed that no one was actually bidding from $7.8 million on up. Presumably the reserve was about $9 million. The picture was atypical for Modigliani, a little too painterly, and with a rather lurid look in the model's eyes, which stare out at the viewer. Considering the circumstances, auctioneer Henry Wyndham, imported from Sotheby's London office for the sale, did a good job -- posh but not drawling.
Other interesting prices included the $772,500 paid for lot 12, Soutine's Young Woman in Red (ca. 1928), a picture with character (est. $300,000-$400,000). The collection included a Rouault, the priapic Coucher de Soleil (1937-39), which sold for $387,500 (est. $400,000-$600,000), and a Utrillo, Rue Saint-Rustique a Montmarte (1911), that went for $277,500 (est. $300,000-$400,000). Both prices, though below estimate, were huge for 1997.
The disappointing results of the sale point up one of the problems with big-ticket auctions, in which reserves are set aggressively. Though the Sharp collection was of high quality, it lacked challenging individual works that can bring up the value of the rest. For all her dynamism, Evelyn Sharp liked sweet, saccharine pictures -- and one can argue that such things sell better privately.