The Impressionist and modern art auctions are such a multi-tiered spectacle, it is a wonder of our age that the event hasn't been ennobled as a work of honest fiction instead of the semi-demi conjuration it now embodies, aggressively scripted, with cultural emanations filling in for the laugh track, and that whole suck-it-up Brit thing as absolution for plain raw avarice.
There's even a bit of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome in the archetypal auction-room duel: "Two men enter, one man leaves. . ." (with the art), alas. They are fighting with the coin of their hearts. Bludgeoning one another with half-million-dollar truncheons. "What's the matter, no more, can't take it, ah well." Auctioneers are sympathy itself, dismissive but still caring, shoving you on to the next lot with an assured, "I can sell it," and a resounding course of the gavel.
Two bidders jousting for the same lot may set a monetary value at considerable odds with the esthetic worth, so a sale may not be without its humor or its tragedy or its irony or indeed its stupefaction. Do you wonder why the bidding pool clapped six feeble times at the agonizing expenditure of $24 million for Amedeo Modigliani's 1917 Reclining Nude? They did and I do. Did George Bush the tax-cutter really get it right?
And there is still the cosmic humming in the background left over from the economic big bang, the unheard strategies of singular wealth. "If I own five of these and I push the price of this lot past the top of the estimate, no one will have it for cheap. If I end up with it, why I'll sell off the one I got from grandmre and own this one at a profit." Thus wheels within wheels.
All this being said, the Impressionist and modern sale last night at Christie's should have been the Carnivle, the state fair and the liberation of Iraq all rolled into an embracing unity of wealth and happiness in the post Saddam Hussein era. There were more than enough Renoirs to provide hi-jinx worthy of two men in a horse costume with seltzer bottles at both ends. But it wasn't. Allow me.
Christopher, if the bidders before you shall add
one bid more to the lot, what tongue has told.
Hammer it down, for what thy hands have held
the fingers of no heir will ever hold.
With apologies to Horace and A.E. Housman, metaphorically and literally, Christie's longtime auctioneer Christopher Burge seemed not to have a paranormal grasp of where the next bid was coming from. The whole sale was much like a Christmas pudding with four or five juicy plums in a dry and flavorless custard.
Look at the high points of the auction. Van Gogh came to Arles in February of 1888 with snow on the ground and found himself so wanting that he snapped off the branch of an almond tree and forced the blossoms in the heat of his room. That was lot 6, a van Gogh still life. A month later he was out painting the bridge to Langlois, lot 21, the celebrated watercolor. By October he was glorying in the fall color, lot 25. Thirty months and some 400 canvases from his arrival in Arles, he was dead. He must hold the record for the most masterpieces in the shortest possible time in the history of art.
All the big-money van Gogh pictures date from this period. The Portrait of Doctor Gachet, the self portrait, Irises and Sunflowers, bringing $82 million, $71 million, $53 million and $39 million. There are less than 50 works left in private hands and there are ever so many more incredibly rich people. Tant pis. No super-prices this time. Lot 25, Allee des Alyscamps, sold for $10.5 million. One bidder. It had been purchased at Christie's New York for $2.4 million in 1985, so it outperformed most mutual finds by a considerable margin, though far from Christie's hopes as set out in the $12 million-$18 million presale estimate.
Lot 21, Le Pont de Langlois Arles, sold for $7.4 million and lot 6, Nature morte avec branche fleurie et livre, which is a very long name for a picture not much bigger than a baseball card, sold for $3.9 million. The frame helped.
Top lot was the Modigliani, Femme avec un jolie petit cul (lot 29), owned by Las Vegas casino magnate Steve Wynn (who supposedly paid almost $35 million for it in the 1990s). One could die of longing. Sex sells. It is a large picture of a woman with a perfect ass. It makes Ingres' and Manet's houris look positively dour. Modigliani died at the age of 36. Now you know why. Overwork. It sold for $24 million to a man with a very understanding wife. Nu assis sur un divan, another big Modigliani nude, wrapped only in a towel with an arm across her chest, sold for almost $17 million four years ago. The Modigliani nude from the 1995 Ralph Colin sale, Nu assis au collier, sold for $12.5 million eight years ago. Both might have been arguably better pictures. Who cares? Grab the booty.
Fernand Leger's La femme en rouge et vert (1914) sold for $20 million over an estimate of $10 million-$15 million. It was one of those nasty tag team moments when the room catches fire. Somewhere in the middle of the bidding when the high estimate had been eclipsed and Burge was threatening to gavel the lot, a very determined woman put up her hand, and stood by while one phone bank after the other pushed her up in $500,000 increments. Was the Leger worth twice the van Gogh? It was one thing to taste tremulous acquisition at $17.5 million and quite another to see it wrested away from you at $19.5 million, which was afar as she went. It was a record for Leger. The quite similar contraste en formes painting from 1913, Les maisons sous les arbres, sold for $10 million and that was in 1990.
Gustave Caillbotte's 1881 Chemin Montant, a bright scene of a strolling couple in a garden, sold to a telephone bidder for $6 million. Everyone in the room seemed to be in suspended animation while Burge appeared to bid the lot up to the reserve. Who was that masked man? That, sir, was the Lone Bidder. Equally it appeared that it was the cleanest Caillebotte to come to auction in sometime.
Does Renoir equate with posh-lust? See posh-lust in the Oxford Annotated Nabokovia, second edition, where Vladimir translates from the Russian the nature of vulgarity masquerading as beauty, or the graceless disguised as the grand. How much would you pay for an oblate, simpering beauty with two large flowers for ears estimated at $1 million-$1.8 million? Nothing. Lot 20, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's ca. 1908 Jeune fille la couronne de fleurs, it passed.
How much would you pay for an early version of the Woodstock girl sans everything, painted in vapid, bathetic (a kitschier version of pathetic) brushstrokes disappearing into a rural stream? Lot 24, Renoir's tiny (ca. 16 x 12 in.) bather, $580,000. And, lest we overlook lot 13, Renoir's Deux jeune filles combing out lice, it sold for $1.4 million.
Renoir died at age 78, and not from what killed Modigliani. Every time one sells you find yourself asking, "My God, what must the house look like?" Lot 17, Portrait of Madame Fould, was the most interesting of all the Renoirs, but with a face only an aged mother could love. Alas, this was the aged mother. It passed at $480,000.
Edgar Degas grew into a closed, isolated and not altogether pleasant man. In the early self-portrait, lot 5, we see the makings of the maturity to follow. Passed at $950,000.
Chaim Soutine's painting, La route folle Cagnes (ca. 1923), similar to the artist's Paysage Cagnes that Phillips sold in 2001 for $1.6 million, was aggressively estimated at $1.2 million-$1.6 million and brought only $1.05 million, but it was late in the sale and what little magic there was, was leaving.
Only irony remained as the three Henry Moore sculptures hammered down at very, very healthy prices. That's $5.5 million for the monumental Three Piece Reclining Figure: Draped from 1975, $1.2 million for the Maquette for King and Queen from 1952 or shortly thereafter, and $750,000 for Seated Woman: Thin Neck from 1961-63.
For a short sale it had been a long evening. At the end, when Burge said, "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you very much," it really sounded like he meant it, but what he was thanking us for was a lingering question.
Christie's sale of Impressionist and modern art on the evening of Nov. 4, 2003, totaled $117,011,300 with buyer's premium (20 percent of the first $100,000 and 12 percent of the remainder). Of the 43 lots offered, 38 sold, for a total of 81 percent by lot.
New auction records were set for Modigliani, Lger and Henry Moore; the Caillebotte price was the second highest for the artist at auction. In all, 58 percent of the lots failed to exceed the low estimate, 21 percent exceeded the low estimate but not the high, and 21 percent exceeded the high estimate. By the numbers it was a moderately successful sale.