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Pierre Bonnard
Intérieur avec des fleurs
est. $3,000,000-$4,000,000

Constantin Brancusi
Oiseau dans l'espace
est. $8,000,000-$12,000,000

Claude Monet
Leicester Square, la nuit
est. $700,000-$900,000

Claude Monet
Vétheuil, après-midi
est. $7,000,000-$10,000,000

Edgar Degas
La coiffure
est. $600,000-$800,000

Paul Cézanne
Les grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan
est. $12,000,000-$16,000,000

Pablo Picasso
Boulevard de Clichy
est. $1,800,000-$2,500,000

Pablo Picasso
Tête et main de femme

Carter Burden, as pictured in Christie's catalogue for its Impressionist and modern art auction, May 4, 2005

Ruth and Harvey Kaplan

Edgar Degas
La loge
est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000

Auguste Rodin
Iris, messagère des Dieux
est. $200,000-$300,000

Art Market Watch
by Stewart Waltzer

If you wandered dispassionately through Christie's galleries earlier this week, or thumbed through the catalogue for the May 4 evening sale, you will have noted that this spring, inevitably, the auction business is not all it might be. With few exceptions, it is a run-of-the-mill collection of art with little Paris Hilton-grade material to stir our material lusts.

The problem with art is the people who buy it (followed closely by the people who sell it, and the people who make it). Dead sellers press the auction houses for encomia lauding real-estate developers and TV producers as esthetic mandarins. Judging by the number of special-collection inserts in this evening's catalogue, a lot of people gave their lives to make this sale possible.

It was an enormously successful sale -- totaling more than $142 million on 52 of 59 lots sold, or 88 percent. The success was even more pronounced in light of the mediocrity of many of the lots offered. Christie's auctioneer Christopher Burge would not take "passed" for an answer. The word "sparse" doesn't begin to describe some of the bidding, and on significant lots, too.

Somehow they were sold, to a phone bidder, to a lone bidder in the room; it did not matter. They were sold. Four lots passed in the heart of the sale, but they were so unlikely, it was expected. Three passes came in the final two minutes of a two-hour-long sell-a-thon. Sotheby's poor performance the night before (totaling less than $100 million) must have forced many consignors, dead or no, to lower their reserves, contributing to Christie's success.

Some obvious high points.

Lot 6, Bonnard, Interior avec des fleurs, 1919. The very beautiful Bonnard anchored the main gallery in the presale exhibition. It is a ravishing painting estimated at $3 million-$4 million. By comparison, Bonnard's Aprés le repas sold in 1988 for $7.4 million. More to the point, Matinée au Cannet sold in February 2003 for $7 million, so a strong market for a high-quality picture was plausible. Lot 6 hammered out at $4.8 million. It had sold for $3.3 million in 1996, nine years ago.

Lot 7, Brancusi's Oiseau dans l'espace, 1922. "Beneath the passage of time and generations objects once treasured become all too easily forgotten. . ." is how Christie's explains the story that the sculpture's owner put it in the attic and forgot about it for the next 80 years. This particular piece, with its phallic shape, conceivably lends itself to an array of coarse humor in the home and might have been conveniently set aside.

Still, birds in space don't fly in every day. This is a great sculpture, an icon of modern art, and there can't be many more left in people's attics, private collections, etc. So? Brancusi's 1913 bronze head, Danaide, sold in 2002 for $18 million. The bird, estimated at $8 million-$12 million, sold for $24.5 million. It was important to the sale. It is an accessible, likable work. The bidding was tense but not repugnant in the manner of the $104 million Picasso. It sold. We all clapped and felt beneficent, fuzzy and forgiving. We'd need it.

In 1901, Monet, having spent the two previous years in London painting fog, bridges, bridges in fog, Houses of Parliament and bridges in fog, et cetera, must have been ecstatic to get back to Giverny do a little lite orchard, a little garden, a few dopey arched bridges before packing up his easel and setting off to Vétheuil every afternoon with Madame in the back seat of the moteur.

Lot 58, Leicester Square, la nuit, is the last (?) picture he makes in London before leaving London, and looks more like the garden he yearned for than it does Leicester Square. It sells for $700,000, at the low estimate. Amazing.

Lot 18, Vétheuil, après midi, 1901. As Christie's encyclopedic article accompanying the painting tells you, Monet would motor to Lavacourt, across the Seine from Vetheuil, and start painting. He took a convenient house there and didn't leave until October when the summer's heat had broken. In the interim he painted a series of 15 pictures of the Romanesque church of Notre Dame, which are numbered W1635 to W1649 in the catalogue raisonne. One could take away the impression that he was just setting his eye, because he returns to Giverny and over the next 24 months painstakingly tears off some of the best pictures in his life, Nyphéas galore.

This is not to say the Vetheuil pictures, like W1637, lot 18, are bad; rather, it is simply to note that the rich, $7 million-$10 million estimate might have better fit Le Parlement, Soleil Couchant, a work that sold in May of 2001 for $14.5 million. Another painting from the same series, Veteuil, après-midi automne, sold in February 2004 for $5 million in London. The surface of this evening's picture is labored and overworked, the series itself never really caught on, no T-shirts, no postcards, no mythos. The robust sale of Sotheby's Argenteuil picture for $4.8 million the night before must have helped but on this night lot 18 must barely have exceeded its reserve, selling at $5.9 million. At least it didn't pass. It was followed by a great Sisley, Le Loing à Moret, which sold in a frenzy of bids for $1.45 million. Good Auction Feeling.

Lot 21, the Degas pastel, Women with a very, very bad headache (otherwise known as La coiffure, ca. 1892-95), seemed to be the purest distillation of what besets middle age. Cutting both for and against. A French dealer however offered, "it is a French woman longing, I wish for me." Whatever. . . . Burge hammered it out for $700,000 over a presale estimate of $600,000-$800,000. Interestingly, the U.S. Treasury gets the proceeds, the Customs Service having seized the work in some kind of money-laundering sting.

Paul Cézanne's Les grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan (ca. 1885-87) from the Maspro Art Museum, a corporate collection in Japan, lot 22. In an unusually sycophantic insert even for a auction house, Edward Dolman, CEO of Christie's, lauds as nearly divine the consignor, Takashi Hashiyama, which resonates ironically insofar as Consignor Hashiyama chose Christie's over Sotheby's by playing rock-paper-scissors, as reported by the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. Did I just make that up?

The Cézanne, which is sort of divine, sold for $8 million at Sotheby's London in 1996. The present estimate of $12 million-$16 million posited a far more valuable picture. The John Hay Whitney Cézanne, which sold for $60 million in 1999, gives some idea of the range of values but in no way alludes to the quality of this picture. Les grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan is at least very Cézannessque, and sold for $10.5 million, escaping its reserve -- but by how much? Bad Auction Feeling

The incredibly unlovely 1901 Picasso, Boulevarde de Clichy, lot 26, reappeared again over an estimate of $1.8 million-$2.5 million. It had sold in 1995 for $1.5 million. There are sardines for eating and sardines for trading. This early picture seemed to float on the periphery of the dealer circuit season after season in the 90s. It is a trading picture, burnished by its early date but by little else. Still, someone stepped up to the freight car and unloaded it for another $1.5 million. Listen. Don't eat them. Auction Feeling Number 4: Disbelief.

Speaking of trading pictures, the other offering from the laudable Consignor Hashiyama was the van Gogh, Vue de la chambre de l'artiste, rue Lepic. It has been to the altar more frequently than Larry King. In 1985 at Sotheby's New York it sold for $715,000. In 1996, at Sotheby's New York it sold for $1.6 million. In 2000 at Sotheby's New York it didn't sell at all. What happened this time? Did the concierge at Sotheby's forget to say, "Oh sir, how nice to see you again, it's been awhile," and send it pouting off across town? No. Christopher "No-Lot-Left Behind" Burge sold the picture for $2.4 million, exceeding the high estimate of $2 million.

Lot 31. The important Picasso of the evening: the neoclassicist portrait, Tête et main de femme, 1921; estimate on request. I did not request. It sold for $12 million with almost no bidding to a phone buyer over an expectation that it would not sell at all.

More memento mori were provided by the catalogue pages dedicated to the late collectors whose estates graciously filled out the auction. New York socialite Carter Burden (1941-1996), looking very sleek in the estate photo, like a version 4.5 upgrade of Profirio Rubirosa, legendary husband of everyone, consigned two slinky, dirty little Schiele nudes, lots 33 and 34, that sparked the house, selling for $620,000 and $300,000, at their high estimates. His Balthus portrait of a knowing little 14-year-old sold for $1.6 million, nearly double its presale high estimate. You know how collectors are. The heartbreak of the sale came when they withdrew the dirty Van Dongen, lot 50, a picture of three naked go-go girls.

The collection of Ruth and Harvey Kaplan, chronicled by an essay titled "The Life Well Lived" and illustrated in the catalogue in an estate photo by Diane Arbus (just kidding), had a very nice Giacometti. Lot 35, Femme Leoni, sold for $7.5 million with a lot of work. It was estimated at $7 million-$10 million. A Grande femme debout sold in 2000 at Christie's New York for $14.3 million. Sotheby's sold a Grande tete de Diego in 2002 for $13.8 million, and a Grande femme debout IV in November 2003 for $9.6 million.

As catalogue entries metastasize into sales brochures, very once in a while the in-house staff, when confronted with a difficult picture, with a difficult picture, calls in for take-out. A specialist in the field. When the consignor of the Degas pastel, Head on the Balcony, lot 40, stood pat on a reserve that predicated an estimate of $4 million-$6 million, Christie's called in Richard Kendall, independent scholar, to write the blurb. Wrote the book on Degas, at least one of them, anyway.

La loge, the actual title, depicts the head of a woman poised like Humpty Dumpty on the rail of a theater balcony. The face occupies maybe two percent of the composition. It looks a bit worn by time and light, the color in the catalogue seems fresher, the work, dull and without éclat. Is it the age-old conundrum the posits a choice between brilliant, difficult work and the simpler, more accessible? One wishes. La Loge is bizarre in a way that language alone cannot efface. In June 1999 Dancer au repos sold for $28 million, and it was of course perfect, large, sonorous and brilliant. The Ur pastel.

Degas' famous À musee de Louvre (Mary Cassatt) depicts Mary posing for her friend Edgar in the museum. A luminous moment in the history of art, the work sold in 2002 for $16.5 million. Light, poignant, without weight. After that only perfect pastel ballerinas could aspire to the economic strata between $5 million and $10 million.

Perhaps Christie's was gambling on the graphic nature of the current sale's pastel to vault it into the stratosphere. Well. . . . It sold for $4 million at the low estimate in very few bids. Auction Feeling Number 17: Indifference. In contrast, four lots after, the Degas Danseuse a mi-corps se coiffant, lot 44, 1900-1912(?), small, beautiful and sold without fuss in a happy frenzy for $3.35 million over an estimate of $1.8 million-$2.5 million. Good Auction Feeling.

The end was in sight. The Renoir painting, Madeline accoudée avec fleurs dans ses cheveux, which could have been taken from the famous poster, "Women of the NFL," passed at $380,000. Speaking of flying wedges, the first lot, Rodin's 1890-91 Iris, messagere des Dieux, a notorious sculpture of a leaping, welcoming nude, sold for an epic $450,000 over an estimate of $200,000-$300,000. The cast was late, too, 1945.

The Brancusi had left behind it an aura of jubilance and tolerance that sustained the sale throughout its length. The currency board showed the strength of the Euro and the Pound. It was a well-disposed crowd. People had fun and no one posited a market in panic. Still, the cracks in the market were evident. Fifty percent of the sale did not exceed the low estimate. There is a strong sense that the market is contracting. Perhaps there could be nothing better than a reminder that markets, even art markets, must act predictably to be sustainable. Contemporary sales start next week with a richer pool of material. Will they hear the warning?

For a complete, illustrated listing of sale results, see Artnets signature Fine Arts Auction Report.

STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.