Dull doesn't begin to describe it. The only people who could have found last night's Impressionist and modern auction at Sotheby's New York interesting were those newly awakened from a coma, Sotheby's shareholders, auctioneer Tobias Meyer and 36 of the 40 people that bought something, because quite few lots went to the order bid. One might gently suggest that many lots had a middle of the brow esthetic. Christie's seemed to have made off with this season's more striking debutantes, leaving last night's cotillion at Sotheby's a rather measured affair.
Many of the estimates seemed too grand for the dullish works they purported to value. Many works did not sell, many works seemed barely to pass the reserve before they were hammered off the stage, low estimate not withstanding, and many works sold in a pas de deux between the house and a telephone with the room hovering in suspended animation as Tobias Meyer quickly blessed the union, and moved on. It was a workmanlike sale and probably made more money than the more soign Christie's auction. So be it.
Gustav Klimt's Landhaus Am Attersee (1914) set a new auction record for the artist, hammering down at $26 million. Another landscape from the same series, Schloss Kammer am Attersee II (1909), sold in 1997 for $23.5 million at Christie's London. Still another, Litzlbergerkeller am Attersee (1915-16), sold at Sotheby's in New York for $14.5 million. Other Klimts have appeared on the market since 1997, though not at that level. The picture was reportedly a casualty of upstart auctioneer Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg's bid for entry into the auction market at the top tier, floating around, looking for a very expensive home. It appears to have found one. According to the published provenance, it had also been restituted. Not an altogether common verb to find in the provenance; presumably the picture was appropriated in WW II.
After lots 3, 4 and 5 were passed over, Meyer must have welcomed the van Gogh watercolor batting sixth in the lineup. The work had sold at Sotheby's London in 1997 for $14.5 million, so last night's triumphant sale at $9.2 million might not have left the owner dancing on air. Still, the van Gogh result leavened the evening, particularly as the artist's extraordinary Le Pont de Langlois Arles had only brought $7.4 million at the hammer the night before. Sotheby's had sold Bateaux de pches sur la plage. . ., another reed pen and ink work, in 1998 for $5 million and Olivier avec Alpilles au fond in 1999 for $8.5 million. All in the neighborhood.
The Alexej Jawlensky portrait of Schokko went where no Jawlensky had gone before, to $7.4 million. Major pictures had heretofore sold between $1 million and $3.5 million. One year ago, Christie's sold Junges mdchen mit den grnen Augen for $3.3 million. Last night, Sotheby's made an audacious estimate of $5 million-$7 million, and pulled it off and then some. Albeit, the painting opened at $3.9 million and got to $7.4 million in $100,000 increments, which slightly diluted the joy of its sale.
Monet painted almost 200 Nymphas pictures. The 1908 painting in last night's auction sold for $9.4 million at the hammer (roughly $10.5 million with the addition of the house premium). It was estimated at $10 million-$15 million. In 1988 the picture was sold for $10.3 million. It was not a brilliant Nymphas. Other Nymphas have sold in past three years in excess of $20 million, fueling the dreams and ultimately dashing the hopes of house and seller. It was that kind of a night.
Bill Blass' stylish 1932 Picasso drawing of Marie-Thrse, Nu couch, very prettily rendered in charcoal, brought $8.7 million. In the catalogue you get to read the titillating bits about the 50-year-old Picasso sneaking around with his 17-year-old girlfriend. Is that ju-ju or what? Speaking of Picasso, last night's sale held 11 lots by the artist, some 20 percent of the sale, ranging from the Blass beauty to a 1964 picture of two guys busting a joint, coyly titled Deux Fumeurs. All of them did very well except for the tiny picture of three lounging naked men and the Cubist woman who looked like a burn victim.
The small Czanne still life of apples and pears just squeaked by at $7.8 million over an inordinately hopeful estimate of $8 million-$12 million. Bidding was very slow and episodic. It seemed amazing that it had not been passed. Alas, the early Czanne rendition of Manet's Olympia was less successful, and was passed at $4.3 million.
The ever-present Gabrielle, Renoir's housekeeper, nanny, model and Marie-Thrse-like (?) goad to Mrs. Renoir, seemed to have been dishing into the pasta with some zeal, as she posed with her blouse undone fingering the rose in her ear. Still, lot 13, Renoir's Gabrielle au collier vert (1905), sold for $1.2 million to the Lone Bidder, just below the low estimate. Madame Charpentier, less fortunate, had earlier suffered the humiliation of older woman. Her 1878 portrait, lot 4, was passed over. We had seen her looking much better in other avatars. She too, had been dishing into the pasta.
And to put an objective balance into these proceedings, that temptress, Romana de La Salle, as portrayed by Tamara de Lempicka in her 1928 portrait, was also passed. Pink-gowned, eyes shadowed by soulful brows, left hand open and extended, she could find no one to take her home. Perhaps with an estimate of $2 million-$3 million, she was more than high maintenance. Sotheby's set the record for Lempicka last May at $2.6 million with a portrait of a European flapper holding a banjo, euchring themselves into one more go at a bigger number.
After a few more of the odd bits that seem to end every auction, Tobias Meyer shot us out of the room in only one hour and fifteen minutes, which was a record that certainly deserved our applause.
By the numbers, Sotheby's New York Impressionist and modern art sale on Nov. 5, 2003, totaled $125,519,200 with the buyer's premium (20 percent of the first $100,000 and 12 percent of the remainder), in the middle of the total presale estimate of $111.8 million-$155.9 million. Of the 57 lots offered, 17 lots were passed, or about 30 percent of the sale.
As Sotheby's Impressionist and modern expert David Norman noted after the auction, the total compares favorably to the $65 million mark reached in the similar evening sale last spring. "It's just about double," he said, going on to note that the auction included 20 lots over $1 million and eight over $5 million.
The sale set new auction records for Klimt, Jawlensky, Georg Scholz and Jean Metzinger. It was a respectable performance.