The word on the street was that Sothebys Nov. 4 evening sale of Impressionist and Modern art had it all. Even the lowliest internet millionaires had heard it, slinking around Christies, shaking their heads knowingly, advising anyone who came near enough that they were in the wrong house. Who could blame them? Sothebys had put up the chips to play at the big table.
All that Hester Diamond material (well, Harold Diamond, her late husband, the art dealer). A big, great, late Mondrian, from New York, probably the first boogie-woogie picture. A Brancusi Kiss, fantasy right? Who ever thought to see one for sale. The giant Kandinsky, Sketch for Deluge II, sounds pretty grand, and a 1912 date -- a picture from the heart of greatness. Plus the Picasso, 1921, Baigneur et Baigneuse, a hunky MoMA style picture. Dont forget that Picasso has been paying double miles ever since the gimlet-eyed Tobias Meyer whacked one out of the park at the last Imp-Mod sale in May. But that was not all.
The sale had a Tahitian Gauguin. How many are left in private hands and not entombed in a museum? Theyll go with any décor, from Palm Beach to Bel Air. The estimate was so high they didnt want to tell you. Or that gorgeous Modigliani of the ever comely, friendly, Jean Hébuterne (Devant une porte), not one of those bitch goddesses van Dongen painted that would make your life hell. Or that dreamy Soutine portrait; a portrait, thats where the real money is, not in one of the artists Cagnés landscapes that look like dogs breakfast. But that was not all. There was more, much more.
A 1934 Picasso, Nus, 32 x 39 in., muted in soft pastels, great; painted in Boisgeloup, when he was rutting every night with Marie-Therese, his demon muse. And the SUV lady, Renoirs Baigneuse Assise, a painting of a woman with a behind so big that it could only be carried by an estimate of $5,000,000-$7,000,000. And the 1914 F.LEGER. One of those brilliant contraste des formes type pictures with striped pyramids, planes, and cylinders in green and white, and red and white, and blue and white. Well almost, not quite, but almost. This was a landscape.
If this wasnt an embarrassment of riches, there was still a huge block, 14 lots, guaranteed, from the Philip and Muriel Berman collection, not brilliant but good, serviceable works, the kind that every auction must have tucked away in the second half of the sale. For desert there were six lots from the estate of Sarabel Florsheim, the shoe queen. Remember, all these lots had never seen themselves in an auction catalogue. These were works that rapacious collectors had scoured out years ago, hiding them away in their living rooms or lending them only to the best museums or even, even only to their own museums. These were swells.
So what happened? Did we just see the top of the market go by? It was all going so well. Christies had set a brilliant pace the night before. With such a luminous cast at Sothebys (rumor had guarantees of $80 million-$100 million), one expected a comparable performance. Had we not agreed to set aside from our consciousness the victory of he-who-cannot-be-named?
(Prices given here are at the hammer. Official auction-house records include the buyers premium, which at Sothebys is 20 percent of the first $100,000 of the sale price plus 12 percent of the amount over $100,000.)
So when the Mondrian, New York 1941, Boogie Woogie, hit the block over an estimate of $20 million-$30 million, we were poised. Alas, the lot was not in great condition, more cracks in the surface than in a Vanessa Beecroft photo, and when the lot was knocked down for $18,750,000, there was a small rip in the ether, a frisson, a chill. The Brancusi Kiss sold next at the bottom of its estimate at $8,000,000, and that seemed both too much for what it was and too little for what was expected. The Kandinsky passed in sparse bidding that stopped at $17,500,000.
The hunky Picasso, lot 10, passed next at $6,250,000 and the room was well chilled after that. Lot 12, the Renoir Nu Couche (La boulangere), the bakers wife indeed, another of Renoirs super sized houris on a background that was lifted out of a suburban aquarium; it passed. The Gauguin, estimated at $40,000,000-$50,000,000 on a need to know basis only, sold for $35,000,000. Not enough. Because directly after, the Degas, Woman Washing her Pits passed; the Dufy, passed; the $4,000,000-$6,000,000 Vlaminck, passed; the wondrous 1914 Leger landscape passed; all one right after the other. Nobody in the room would move or breathe, let alone raise a paddle.
Auction houses are not sympathetic institutions, euchring bids and gouging on the commission as they do, so that when things go poorly for them, there is a secret pleasure in the room. But with the haphazard economy, and four more years of the same or worse to come, plus the memory of an art market collapse, or of sales where half the lots bought in still fresh and poignant, the room seemed edgy. The auctioneers purposive Dirty Harry demeanor vanished. How many glib and charming ways are there to say passed? We had all just watched the heavily advertised, heavily subsidized heart of the sale buy in. Was this the end? Well. . . no.
The room never thawed but things got better. People started calling, just as the Wendell Cherry Modigliani and the Philip and Muriel Berman material went on the block. The rest of the auction could have been contested by the 25 or 30 people manning the phones. Occasionally, someone in the room would lift a paddle, but the phones bought it all and paid the very top dollar, too. A few things passed afterwards, as they always do, but the bulk of the material sold well.
On one hand, the Modigliani of Jean Hebuterne sold for $28,000,000 over an estimate of $20,000,000-$30,000,000; on the other, the aforementioned Renoir Baigneuse assise (or Woman who swallowed a Hummer) passed over an estimate of $5,000,000-$7,000,000. The Bermans were big collectors of sculpture; they bought from dealers and held on to what they bought for years. A sampling: the Archipenko, $200,000, at high estimate; the 1918 Lipchitz, $750,000, above high estimate; the Laurens, $360,000, above high estimate.
The Berman collection had two outsized Henry Moores. Reclining Figure: Angels brought $3,200,000 at the hammer over an estimate of $3,000,000-$4,000,000, and Three-Piece Reclining Figure: Draped brought $7,500,000 above the estimate of $4,000,000-$6,000,000. The 1934 Picasso, Nus, succulent in every way passed earlier in the sale; the Berman picture by Picasso, LAubade, a large, late, obvious picture from 1967, horrible, a grotesque hit the block over an estimate of $2,000,000-$3,000,000, and a crowd of phone bidders argued over it up to $4,800,000. In the meantime, Mr. Meyer reverted to his sponge-diver cadence, where bids bubbled only slowly to the surface and the picture took longer to sell than to paint.
The last lot of the sale, a Picasso, Nu, painted on Jan. 25, 1972, his second picture that day, he wasnt spending as much time on them as he used to, and nasty doesnt do it justice, sold for $1,500,000 over an estimate of $750,000-$1,000,000. So, if for a moment the earth opened and we looked in the abyss, it closed. Alls not quite well but Picassos still pay double miles, for now.
Overall, 48 of 61 lots offered found buyers, or more than 78 percent, for a grand total of $194,289,600 (with premium). Forty-six percent of the lots failed to exceed the low estimate. It is a marginally better percentage than Christies sale last evening, but here, more lots bought in, and those lots were of greater significance in terms of the sale and of a much higher dollar value. Fourteen percent of the lots exceeded the low estimate but not the high and a formidable 31 percent exceeded the high estimate. It was hardly a comfy snooze. Sothebys had misread the market, if it is possible to read at all and it left more than a few spectators wondering whats to come.