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    Artnet Auction Report
by Stewart Waltzer
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
L'Abandon ou les deux amies
$8.5 million
Claude Monet
Le Portail (Soleil)
$22 million
Paul Cézanne
Ferme à Montgeroult
bought in
Henri Matisse
La Serpentine
executed in 1909
cast in 1948
Salvador Dalí
Chair de Poule Rhinocerontique
$1.4 million
The sale at Sotheby's New York on May 10 was like sitting at the bottom of an ocean of tepid water. Events bubbled slowly up from the floor. Auctioneer Tobias Meyer took the rostrum, whipped up the volume to keep us wakeful and then plodded through two hours of excruciatingly slow bidding. It lulled us, it narcotized the senses, it disguised, almost, the sale's more disturbing aspects.

Mr. Reserve and Mr. Telephone battled through lot after lot while the audience sat anesthetized. Not always, but often enough to cause comment, one found there was but one bidder in the room, or on the phone, or in the book, or somewhere -- but one only.

It is thinner at the very top than one surmises. The affluence of this audience is formidable. A million does not bring much, at least not something you are willing to keep. This is my second point. Many of the works offered this evening were hardly strangers to the turntable. Some had been away for 20 years, but many had appeared in the last two or three years.

Was this profit taking, or getting out while the getting was good? That is the third point, the NASDAQ syndrome. The quality does not justify the price. Big Madison Avenue dealers sat stupefied, shaking their grizzled heads in disbelief. "Had I put that in my gallery, at that price, people would have laughed at my stupidity," said one seasoned charmer in reference to the $8.5 million hammered for the Toulouse-Lautrec L'abandon ou les deux amies. Or should that be Les douces amies? The hubris of the house estimating the work at $6 million to $8 million was typical of the event. (Prices mentioned do not include buyer's premium.)

Fifty lots were offered. Forty-eight percent of the works failed to exceed the low estimate, although one concedes the estimates were mighty. Twenty-six percent exceeded the low estimate but not the high, and 26 percent exceeded the high estimate. Eight lots passed entirely. The sale totaled $140.3 million, buyer's premiums included. Not a bad show.

The auction itself was like the stations of the cross; one could impute how Jesus felt as he trudged gamely on to the end. The first epiphany of the evening was the sale of Monet's Le Portail (Soleil) (1892-94) for $22 million (est. $15 million-$20 million). The owner bought the work, which shows Rouen Cathedral, in 1987 for $2.8 million, showing a return far greater even than Microsoft 2000.

Station 2: The Cézanne Ferme a Montegeroult (1898) sold for $4.5 million to one buyer and then by some legerdemain was reoffered and passed at $4.3 million. It tested the reputation of the painting, not to mention the credulity of the Lone Bidder. The picture, however, was lovely. Lot 21, Vincent van Gogh's Flowers in a Vase, estimated at $5 million to $7 million, sold one bid above the leaden sound of the reserve, at $4.2 million. The last time it appeared at auction, two years ago, it hammered down at $3.7 million.

Station 4. Bidding on the Matisse sculpture, La Serpentine (1909), estimated at $8 million to $10 million, enacted an interminable underwater two-step but made it all the way to $12,750,000, breaking the record for any sculpture at auction. No one clapped. The work was produced in an edition of 10, so it may reappear in a different avatar at any time. And one hopes, sell more rapidly.

The less than wholly lovely Picasso Compotier and Guitare (1932) sold for $9 million (est. $10 million-$15 million). It had been purchased for $3.85 million at Christie's in 1992. That's better than putting your money in a bank. Someone paid $900,000 for a fetching Egon Schiele gouache of a naked, three-legged woman. The Balthus painting of a naked adolescent girl yawning, accompanied by a smarmy text that celebrated this pederasty, sold for $2.8 million. It was more than anyone had any right to expect.

The Giacometti Dead Men Walking, or La place (1948), sold for $4.1 million, well below its $5 million to $7 million estimate. It was part of several lots from the Morton G. Neumann family collection, which Sotheby's appears to have guaranteed.

Finally the last stop -- Salvador Dalí's uniquely bizarre Chair de Poule Rhinocerontique (Flesh of the Rhinocerous Chicken?) (1956), a picture of a nude female torso floating in the ether above sea and sky. Dalí clearly came by his exoticism the hard way. He earned it. How this painting transcended the high estimate of $700,000 to land at $1.4 million is anyone's guess. Clearly the seller had strong mojo. Then with a big sigh, it was over. Hallelujah.

The new rate structure at Sotheby's is more complicated than a taxi's. Twenty percent from $1,000 to $50,000. Fifteen percent from $50,000 to $100,000. And 10 percent thereafter. No charge for waiting in traffic. Sotheby's, for all its dullness, produced a better sale than Christie's, qualitatively. I miss all those old familiar faces.

STEWART WALTZER is a New York dealer.