Was it Christies chief auctioneer Christopher Burge I heard muttering to himself in the mens room just prior to last nights sale? "My soul be still, and wait without hope. For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love for love would be love of the wrong thing. . . ." No, it was not; Burge is not a man to be blown by fortune. At last nights auction of Impressionist and modern art at Christies New York, he led us through our elitist, liberal grief, back into the familiar cadence of works selling in $500,000 increments. The sale was more than okay, all things considered.
The $104-million Young Boy with Chintz that sold last May at Sothebys obviously captured the hearts, minds and venal fantasies of America. It also brought more looking-for-a-home-money into the auction rooms than anybody wanted. Which purportedly ratcheted up the quality of the works offered, as holders became sellers, and prices began to superheat fueled by all that outsider cash. "Catch the wave, Dude. SELL. Boo-yah!"
Lest we mis-remember, auction houses have had some bumpy going in the past year or so. One ex-chairman recently finished his time in the big house, an ex-president her house arrest, funds have been returned, credited, coupon-ed to past sellers and buyers, and the cost of doing biz is markedly going up. Passed along to be sure.
In the meantime, canny sellers were looking for serious guarantees. At Sothebys, the collective low estimate on the guaranteed Ester Diamond material -- six works, including exceptional pieces by Brancusi, Mondrian and Kandinsky -- totals $61 million. The 13 lots of material from Philip and Muriel Berman, including a massive Henry Moore sculpture, another $15 million. Thats seriously real money.
Careful Christies wagered considerably less, surmising that the presidential election might possibly impact upon the sale. Still, the low estimates of guaranteed material to the estate of Pay TV pioneer Nathan Halpern totaled $17 million, almost 20 percent of the sale; $15 million to the very Private European Collector with a van Gogh (said to be Saudi billionaire Wafic Said); and another $15 million or more to the rest of the riffraff. In all, about $47 million.
Is there no trust in the business anymore? Whats the dollar gap between the low estimates and the amounts guaranteed? Or is it a sliding scale based upon the sale price, with a split above x? Or are there side deals, where OPM ("other peoples money") finances the loan for all funds risked plus 30 percent of the profit, 40 percent, 50 percent? It was Bellagio night at Christies. Wheres Steve Wynn?
The worry is, of course, that the good old days are back. Bush is in the White House, the economys running on fumes and weve just weathered an agonizing presidential election. The last time this happened was in 1988, and the market died so completely it took six years before it rejoined the living. Youd think there were evangelicals on their knees in Christies sky boxes overlooking the turntable.
Increasingly, Impressionism as industry seems dodgy. "Not your fathers Monet?" Really -- ask the dealers. The milieu lacks timeliness, point, and point of view. It is stuffy. Not only do Renoir paintings not shout "hip," theyre the very picture of boring, parochial taste. The Part II material in both houses looks like a warehouse sale at Day and Meyer, the famous high-end storage company. Old money is not cool money. If you made $100 million last year, you dont want to look like you were born with it. What is the generational life of a picture, 30 years? Collectors buy, hold and hopefully sell before they cop it. Kids dont want it. Who wants accessible pictures? The Whitney? Times change.
Worse, the dollar is so cheap that every avaricious Euro-dealer has turned up to bid. Staying the week in New York costs less than the price of dinner at the Paris Hilton. Its good to be in Euros. The currency board that hangs in the air above Christopher Burges head even measures how good, lot by lot.
So with high prices, a declining audience base, diminished American economic strength, a presidential contest that divided the educated from the uneducable, do you want to have an auction? Sure, its what we do.
One has to think in terms of guarantees, and consignment blocks. Nathan Halpern was a precocious overachiever who ended up working as assistant to CBS mogul William Paley. The Halpern lots were guaranteed and ran from lots 5 to 21, a big, serviceable chunk of the sale. Halpern apparently brought back the Miró at the end of his WWII military service in Europe, trading coats and cash for art. More than troops in Iraq can do. The Miró, La caresse des étoiles, lot 11, sold for $10.5 million in spite of its roughish looking surface, eclipsing the estimate of $6 million-$8 million. It is the most expensive Miró ever sold, the record.
(Prices given here are at the hammer, and do not include the buyers premium, which at Christies is 19.5 percent on the first $100,000 of the hammer price and 12 percent of the remainder.)
Also in the Halpern block was an exquisite Matisse ink drawing, Nu dans latelier, that sold for $1.35 million; a 1961 Picasso charcoal drawing masquerading as a 1903 Arlequin that sold for $1.55 million; a just plain dull cliff from Etretat that still managed to sell for $1.3 million, barely; a pretty little Cézanne landscape, Vue dAuvers-sur-Oise, that cost a mere $1.65 million and was worth it; and a Matisse painting, Woman with a breast showing, that cost $1.8 million and was not. If the crowd was edgy, lamenting statesmen loved that lost, this settled them down. The Halpern lots took in $22.5 million at the hammer. We were off to a good start.
A less successful block (lots 36, 40, 41) contained the van Gogh, Le pont de Trinquetaille, as well as a 1904 Picasso, Vase de fleurs, and the 1880 Monet Coucher de soleil á Lavancourt. The Monet had sold in 1999 for $1.8 million and last night sold for $2 million. Christies likened it to the famous Impressionism, Sunrise, but even Karl Rove would have found that a stretch. The Picasso did not sell at all.
And the van Gogh, which Christies sold for $15.5 million in 1999, was lucky to bring $10 million at the hammer. The buyer, a big man in the front of the room, got a bargain. (He was reported to be Israeli collector Joseph Hackmey, the one who unloaded contemporary art from his Israel Phoenix Collection at Christies in 2002.)
Then there were the unfortunate lots from an Important American Collection, also guaranteed. Two of the five lots passed, the Leger, La charmeuse doiseaux, bland,and the Giacometti, a small, fecal looking Buste sur socle. The macque in the group was a large 1968 Picasso, Mousequetaire á la pipe, sporting all the faults of every mousquetaire ever painted, none of them wholly redeeming.
The three lots "Property of a guaranteed European Lady" were fabulous. Two Feiningers, Benz VI and Melligen V, and a nice, early Van Dongen from 1906 entitled Femme Fatale. The femme, wearing too much eye makeup and holding her breast like an offering, looked like she worked for the mousquetaire; she sold in 1990 for $2.8 million. Last night she sold again for $5.3 million at the hammer. A record for Van Dongen, she came first. The Feininger, Benz VI, came second, eclipsed only by the Feininger that sold at Christies London this past February for $4.5 million.
Cézannes little cutie, Portrait de femme, a gray-haired dame who looks like she was his first grade teacher, Sister Strict, hammered down for $9 million, guaranteed over an estimate of $9 million-$12 million. Steve Wynn has been tagged as the seller. It was, however, a wonderful picture that rightfully takes it place amid all the other horrible looking women ever Cézanne painted. He certainly wasnt having as much fun as Van Dongen.
In the midst of all this structured gambling, Mr. Burge hammered out Londres, le Parlement, effet de soleil dans le brouillard, Monets somewhat pedantic title, for $18 million over an estimate of $12 million-$18 million. People even clapped. It was the fifth highest price for a Monet. There are about 20 Parliament pictures in total and a big step up from the Charing Cross pictures, where Parliament sits less prominently. Cant be many still private?
The Pissarro Quatre Saisons did not look all that interesting. Four pictures painted in 1872 and 1873 in a matching, elongated, rectangular format, the pictures were estimated as a group at $8 million-$12 million. One instantly wonders, if you broke up the set would they bring more? -- and immediately reject the idea. In that they are a matched set, they are phenomenological and thus worth the $8 million, alas, only.
It was a miraculous sale considering that the activity of art collecting is, in fact, a liberal persuasion (hiss) and a fair part of the audience was in a suicidal mood as the bidding began. However, like good Bush-era Americans, they spent unselfishly to help the economy, and for the moment art-market Armageddon was postponed.
In all, including auction house commission, the sale totaled $128.2 million, with 47 of 58 lots sold, or 81 percent. Fifty percent of the sale failed to exceed the presale low estimate. Considering that the low estimates were hardly diminutive, this shortcoming is no cause for alarm. Thirty-one percent of the lots exceeded the low but not the high estimate, and 19 percent exceeded the high estimate. It was a nice comfy snooze, and when it was done, we could all go back to brooding with a clear conscience.