The prime-time spring art auctions got under way at Sotheby's
New York last night, May
3, 2005, with 65 lots coming to the block,
including a Picasso "Algerian Women" from 1955, a 1914 Leger, a ca. 1909-1910 Kandinsky and a Max Beckmann self-portrait. The total, about
$91.3 million, was posted on a rather modest 69 percent sell-through, with
20 of the 65 lots being passed.
The sale begs more questions than it answers. Is this it?
Are we done? Have we topped out? Has the auction house commission structure,
now at $40,000 on top of the first $200,000 and 12 percent of everything
thereafter, up to infinity, dampened our ardor? Are we about to enter the
dark ages where the grim auctioneer whips lot after lot off the turntable
murmuring "Paaszt" or "Pawss'd," depending
upon the house? The present moment has rather
too many similarities to the 1990s. George Bush is in the White House again,
albeit in a second model. The economy is down, gas is up and the mighty
dollar has struck out. Well?
Do we have brilliant sales? No. Has the "continued momentum
of the Impressionist and modern art market, the record-breaking prices"
and unalloyed avarice brought brilliant works of art out of hibernation
to lap dance briefly in the spotlight before hooking up with their new honey? Nooo. Have the paintings of the dead, divorced and indebted risen
in sure and certain resurrection of financial glory on the block? No, no, noooo!
Do we have a lot of hoydenish pictures tarted up with fancy prices? Well. .
. pretty much.
Sotheby's star auctioneer Tobias Meyer must have been channeling Mr. Star Trek, the late Gene Roddenbery, because he hit the block. By the time the sale was done, however, he would need all the momentum
he could find.
Show me the Monet! "I'm Monet on the block, Monet on the block,
I used to cost a little and now I cost a lot." Ten Monet works are to be
auctioned this season and the Impressionist market is not what it once
was. Look what Sotheby's asked for lot 5, the dowdy Les Bords de
la Seine á Argenteuil from 1872: $4 million-$6 million. It is number
W221 in the catalogue raisonné. Numbers
W222, W223 and number W224, Argenteuil,
fin d'aprés midi, which sold for $3.5 million in 1990,
are illustrated in the auction catalogue with a kind of corporate wistfulness,
as if the grace of one could mitigate the grossness of the other. And it paid off. Lot 5 sold for $4.3 million. I didn't
believe. I discriminated against people of faith. I'm dammed.
On to lot 6. In 1883, and 1885, and 1886 Monet
painted the rock formations along the coast in and around Etretat in
at least three dozen examples. The Vague á la Manneporte (W1036)
sold in 2003 for $680,000, and it is arguably a more interesting painting
than the one offered at Sotheby's; the L'aiguille, á travers la
Porte d'Aval (W1050), sold for $1,460,000
just last fall at Christie's, arguably a much more interesting painting.
So, an estimate of $900,000-$1,200,000 for La Manneporte, Marée Haute (W1035),
this evening's offering, would be excessive in any light save for
the Bush initiative, "No Monet Left Behind." Make that no Monet left on
the table. It sold for $2.3 million. Wow! Or better, bow wow.
Lot number 12. Did you wonder why this large, somewhat
imperfect Picasso carried such a big sticker? It is part of Groupe Femmes d'Alger, and that has lots of cash-et. Victor
and Sally Ganz bought five of them, including
this one, in 1956. They kept four versions O, M, K and H, and lost version
J, herein offered, within the year. The Ganz pictures
sold at Christie's New York on Nov.
10, 1997, and brought,
respectively, $32 million for the incredibly well-orchestrated, enormously
complex, rock'em sock'em version
"O"; $11 million for the sere, High Cubist-colored, precisely ordered version
M; and $7.2 million for the similar version K. Version H was hot-colored,
and looser, though not so louche as the version
J offered last night. H brought $7.1 million in 1997.
Picasso obviously got better as he worked his way through
the alphabet. The Ganz Sale, as anyone will tell
you, defied all economic norms and people threw paddles at auctioneer Christopher
Burge in their eagerness to bid. The point is that even by today's egregious
standards it seems like a fair valuation. Hence, the estimate of $15 million-$20
million seemed not only provocative and self assured, but lacking all modesty.
Wrong. It sold for $16.6 million. F**k modesty. The buyer was David Nahmad, sitting in the front row and presumably bidding for
a client, who was on the cell phone with one of the Nahmad fils in
the next seat.
Lot 4, the Rodin Eve, 29 ½" version,
sold for $2.1 million over an estimate of $600,000-$800,000. This was not
a first edition. It was a lifetime cast from somewhere between 1903 and
1917, which is not exactly an ironclad affirmation. The price was a miracle, perhaps suitable to the artist's theme. Rodin always
finds buyers, even in the face of an unraveling market.
Onto the Beckmanns, of which there were two -- Selbstbildnis Mit Glaskugel (Self
Portrait with Crystal Ball), lot 27, and Perseus'
(Herkules') Letzte Aufgabe,
(Perseus' [Hercules'] Last Duty), Lot 36. Perseus'
Last Duty (they never translate French titles, do they?) was previously
sold at Sotheby's in 2001 in the one-collector-only Stanley Seeger sale.
The Seeger sale was another of those economic
anomalies that left dealers palsied in their seats, as Sotheby achieved
prices that could not be contemplated outside of a casino. It sold for
$3.8 million over an estimate of $700,000-$900,000. Nearly everything
in the Seeger sale went for 50 percent to 100
percent over the high estimate.
A good night, but two nights later, in Sotheby's boring, regular
sale, Beckmann was the showstopper, as Self Portrait with Flugel Horn --
an admittedly rough translation -- sold for $22.5 million over a presale
estimate of $7 million-$10 million. Tobias Meyer took four hours to sell
it (or so it seemed) in very small increments. The work was one of the
last Beckmann self-portraits in private hands.
The question Sotheby's must have asked itself as the catalogue
for the current sale went to bed in March 2005 was, "Would the magic hold?" Perseus' Last Stand is not the Beckmann you
dream about. Babe getting her head whacked off downstage center, Gorgon
or no. But then they had the crystal ball. . . the
now even rarer self-portrait to warm up the crowd and reflect its glory
upon the other. Beckmann's Self Portrait with Crystal Ball was estimated
at $10 million-$15 million and sold for $15 million, while later in the
sale the same artist's poor Perseus brought home
nothing, not even the head. Passed.
Soutine is like the West Side of Manhattan,
with lots of development changing the economic landscape quickly. In case
you weren't paying attention, Soutine's portrait
of Le Pâtissier de Cagnes sold
for $9.3 million over an estimate of $5.6 million-$7.5 million in London this February. Last November, Le
Chasseur de Chez Maxim's sold for $6.7 million over an estimate of
$2.5 million-$3.5 million right here in town. A year ago, the largest price
ever seen for a Soutine portrait or landscape
was $2.5 million. These figures are offered here simply to illustrate the
market. So last night's portrait, Le garcon en bleu, estimated at
$4 million-$6 million, was just another floor in the Richard Meier building
on Perry Street. Alas, it was not to be for Sotheby's
on this night. Passed. It's not like the Basquiat market with better pictures after all.
We need to mention the droll Matisse portrait of Lydia, Le reflet,
lot 30, which according to Sotheby's catalogue "is a stunning double portrait
of Lydia Delectorskaya" (read: stunning décolletage).
Still, I think we have seen Lydia looking a whole lot better, younger,
bigger and for less than the estimated $5 million-$7 million price on Sotheby's
wish list. However, no one has been able to buy any plausible Matisse picture
at auction in the past four years for less than $5 million, and the house's
estimate seemed uncharacteristically modest, perhaps in keeping with the
picture. But are we talking in koans?
What is a modest Matisse? One that fails silently in the auction room with no one clapping. Passed.
Onto the two Legers, lot 18, Les maisons dans les arbres (1918),
estimated at $8 million-$12 million, and lot 29, Les Campeurs (1954), estimated at $6 million-$8 million.
Each speaks wealth in two different voices, and if not well bred, then rarefied.
Back in 2003, La femme en rouge et vert (1914)
sold for $22.5 million in one of those "I'm the most puissant shit, no,
I'm the most puissant shit" contests that seem to reshape market values
short term. It had been estimated at $10 million-$15 million and set the
tone for tonight's works. Legers had not seen such prices since Contrastes des formes (1913), sold in 1989 for $9.3 million. While last
evening's 1918 lot was later, with steam visibly leaking from its elided
Cubist engine, it still says wealth in a harsh, reptilian sibilance that
one cannot ignore. It is the one true note in an auction house. Though
the picture may not be in the first rank, where would you find another?
Who cares? Passed.
The second Leger was Hummer-sized and even at first glance
screamed "Riiiich!" No whispering here. Leger
died in 1955. This is a late picture at the very end of his career. No
others of this scale and date have appeared at auction. The costliest heretofore
was L'anniversaire, which sold in 2003 for $2.1 million.
With such a high estimate ($6 million-$8 million), Sotheby's thought the
picture was loud enough. It was and sold for $6.8 million. Deafening,
The high points of the sale were the low points. Twenty lots,
almost a third of the sale, were passed. The Kandinsky,
estimated at $15 million-$25 million, passed. The Matisse estimated at
$5 million-$7 million passed. The Matisse estimated at $2.5 million-$3.5
million passed. A $6 million-$8 million Magritte passed. The Beckmann passed.
A Balthus passed. An incredibly boring Pissarro passed.
Pretty little Matisse drawings passed. Giant Henry Moores passed.
A $300,000 Picasso watercolor estimated at $600,000-$800,000 passed.
By lot 39, 13 lots had been passed and there was still a long
way to go in the 65-lot sale. Tobias Meyer to his credit upped the pace.
He sprinted toward the finish barely giving people time to bid. He flew
and the up tempo seemed to stave off a complete debacle. At least one dealer
alleged it was a disaster. Yet, given the very rich market that the auction
houses had shaped, a market that has lost touch with any prudent constituency;
it was more a matter of reaping what you sow; timely and perhaps beneficial
in the long term. In any event, richly deserved.