At Rockefeller Center, previewing the Christie's evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on May 9, 2001, a visitor could not help but see this costly, reserved interior as a metaphor for the house itself. No ancient paneling, darkening in the light of the clerestory windows high above, illuminating pictures hung in the sales room hither and yon, one above the other. No avuncular auctioneer, exchanging les bon mots with a reptilian a crowd of aristocratic No. 2 sons.
The new Christie's is distinctly not the auction house pictured in the painting of James Christie that the firm trots out to advertise its lineage. No. This is Planet Christie's, corporate theme park, redefining what it means to be really wealthy. This is the real thing, shaking the money tree. This is monster booty, with the emphasis on monster.
If only we could use the two-faced god Janus as our market emblem, with each face labeled not too discreetly buy or sell, digitally wired to reflect the temperature in the sales room. For Sotheby's sale of property from the collection of Stanley J. Seeger on May 8, Janus would have been all smiles. Sotheby's showed everyone just how far a little good will can go. Estimates were reasonable and everyone joined in making Mr. Seeger just a little bit richer.
As for Christie's sale the next day, does it show that kind of Midas touch? Who can tell? Why, the Artnet.com auction database, of course, with its illustrated records of over a decade of auction prices. One cannot examine every lot, but some were so wanting to be judged.
Lot 4, Degas, Danseuse russes, sold in 1993 for $6,272,500 over an estimate of $2,500,000-$3,500,000. Now the painting is back, with an estimate of $6,00,000-$8,000,000 hypothesizing that this work will be among the most expensive Degas pastels ever sold from 1989 to the present, surpassing the most formal and elegant arrangements of ballerinas ever laid in pastel or what ever. The owner wants his money back regardless of the market.
Who is the Six Million Dollar Man, or more aptly, where was he on May 9? Not at Christie's. Bang. Passes. You want good will?
Lot 10, Gauguin, Femmes au bord de la rivière, estimated at $5,500,000-$7,500,000, far above any Gauguin sold since 1997, none of which were Tahitian period pieces. Go back to 1989, however, and the record is a different matter. Mata Mua sold for $24 million, Te fare hymnee, a big picture, sold for $11 million, and still others sold at $9 million, $8 million, $6 million. Pricey, but Tahitian pix don't often appear. How long can anyone's money wait, old or new? Not that long. Bang! Down it went at $6 million.
Lot 8, Boudin, Trouville, scène a la plage. The second one. All the world knows by now that Boudin beach pictures are undervalued and divine, floating heretofore in the $150,000 to $200,000 environs. Someone paid $800,000 for this one. Why? Is it the power of spring?
Whatever Christie's pays its chief auctioneer, the mellifluous Christopher Burge, it isn't enough. Mr. Burge conjured clients out of a bottomless hat. Half the fun of the sale was watching if he could do it yet again. Dead silence in the room, no one is breathing. No one wants to get tagged when the music stops. Burge is repeating in a Gregorian liturgy "Seven hundred and seventy five thousand, seven hundred and seventy five thousand, seven hundred and seventy five thousand, the bid is in the center, fair warning" and then miraculously some timorous voice holding a phone squeaks, "Bid sir... It's as if it were Oliver Twist holding out his bowl. "Ah, eight hundred thousand dollars, selling to the telephone then, all done." Bang! It's over. One picture, one client, it's all you need if you're a pro. Just don't blow the smoke off the gavel.
If you're looking for a reality check, an auction house is the wrong place. Lot 19, Monet, Nympheés, estimated at $10 million-$15 million, sells for $9 million. Heartbreak for the house? Not at all. It is the second most expensive Nymphéas ever sold since 1989. The estimate was delusional. It's a nice picture, just not the number two of its kind.
But Burge, undimmed by the effort, launched into another grande jette and immediately sold one of the most mundane Monet falaise pictures for a staggering $820,000. Bravo! 9.7, 9.8, 9.7. Nearly perfect.
The Matisse Etude pour Nu rose sold for $1.6 million. In May 2000 a virtually identical study sold for $2.7 million. Good try.
Pauvre Paul Cézanne. Madam Cézanne accoudée, lot 23, passed at $2.6 million. Here was Paul, age 32, painting his wife, each still in the flush of their youth, alas she never smiled or bought another dress. Small wonder it was passed.
Now the big event, Burge palpably pauses atop his three-meter-tall platform. He is containing his joie. Centering, summing up the room, his next dive alas, has an unforgiving degree of difficulty. He is going to sell the Olga, Picasso's umpteenth portrait of his first wife painted in 1922. He focuses, opens swiftly at $16 million, then he is off the platform, flipping precariously as he pulls bids from the ceiling in the motionless room. No one has offered a paddle, and he is up the proverbial creek. Passed at $26 million. We all gasped.
It was one of the few missteps of the evening. Lot after lot went down, lost properties were hauled back from the brink of passing and slowly slowly pushed through the high estimate. Dealers feigned indifference. These lots were not unknown. They were just impossible, dull, awkward or unlovely. Homely as they were, they still sold. Burge sold them. Not so long ago he arrived at the rostrum looking like a British Howdy Doody compared to the suavely impressive John Marion. Now he is Rambo with a gavel, whacking the lots.
One ought to know that lot 33, the 1927 Picasso, Figure, sold for $6.5 million over an estimate of $10 million-$12 million. It is telling in that the sale price was so much below the estimate. Another work of the period sold at Sotheby's in 1999 for $11.8 million, giving at least an arguable basis for the projection. Someone was sufficiently awake to lower the reserve.
Mediocre lots were sold at very good prices. The auction room still holds its magic. As one lightly aging, and sleekly groomed collector said as he exited the salesroom." Thank God for new money, they just don't know any better."
Sotheby's Impresionist and modern, May 10, 2001
"No more? No more? No more?"
"No more! I'm sorry I'll never bid again. Just let me go. Please."
Let's cut to the chase. Sotheby's Impressionist and modern sale on the evening of May 10, 2001, wasn't a great one. It wasn't bad -- the stuff was no worse than what Christie's had the night before. Except at Sotheby's, half the stuff did not sell.
An auction is like a one-man show. It can be 90 minutes of Joe Pesci shtick or an endless infomercial on gas futures.
Sotheby's this time was an auction run in 4-4 time. "Eight hundred twenty thousand." Pause 10 seconds. "Say 40?" Pause 10 seconds, dead silence. "Eight hundred and forty thousand." Pause ten seconds. "No more? Are you sure? Don't we need another bid, Olivier? (Laughs.) Pause ten seconds." Eight hundred and fifty thousand. I knew you would agree. [More laughs, but lighter.] The lot ultimately went to $3,600,00, in $10,000 increments -- and then passed. And you think Dalí is Surreal?
Lot 4, the Pissarro L'hiver a Montfoucalt, sold in 1990 for $3.3 million. Last night it sold for $2.1 million over an estimate of $2.5 million-$3.5 million. It was a question of probability. An argument might be made that a work that sold in 2000 for $3.3 million was similar. Alas, the similarity was not all that great and these small errors of judgment show to ill effect in the course of a sale as you will see.
Lot 5, the Rodin Toilette of Venus, sold for $600,000, an even $100,000 above its high estimate. It seemed miraculous in the sales room, more so as it took ten minutes to get there in $250 increments, so of course we were impressed. The early part of the sale, the Renoir Tête de jeune fille, the Degas sculpture Grand arabesques, moved off the block at strong prices, albeit at a funereal pace.
Monet's Le Parlement, soliel couchant was estimated at $9 million-$15 million and hammered at $13,250,000. Two like pictures of the same subject sold in 1989 for $10 million and $14.3 million. This version was in good condition and will have brought the record price for an "English" Monet when the premium is calculated into the final figure. Good work. Dull, but good. This was only the eighth lot.
If you like traffic accidents, the fun part of the sale was about to begin. Lot 9, the Renoir of a young girl with the flu, passed, estimated at $1.4 million to $1.8 million. Duh. The Degas Trois Danseuses estimated at $2 million to $3 million also passed. It sold for $3.2 million in 1990, and $2.5 million in 1998. Duh. Then the Cézanne, Pichet et fruits sur une table, hit the deck estimated at $14 million-$20 million. Sotheby's had sold it before in 1989 for $11.5 millio, but this time is was a BI. Duh.
The next big thing, Gabrielle, Jean et une petite fille, another Renoir reaching well above its station with an estimate of $7 million-$9 million. Quite a sum for a jowly, Monica Lewinsky look-alike holding some simpering brat on her lap as it reaches for a fruit. No other Renoir of this ilk had approached those kinds of numbers. Thud. Pause 10 seconds. "Pass."
Lot 18, the Malbin Monet Nyphéas, sold in 1990 for $8.8 million in a special catalogue sale that usually brings higher prices. It is just not one of the top ten Monets by a long way and that is where the owner and the house set their sights over the $7 million-$10 million estimate. This is 2001 and not 1990. It sold for $6.5 million. So put away your sackcloth, save your ashes. The picture did plausibly well. Next.
The Beckmann was the clapper. Among the last remaining self-portraits in private hands and an excellent picture in top nick, it sold, albeit not rapidly, for $20.5 million at the hammer. Each ten-second pause was like a drop of water whanging on your forehead as you lay pinned to a huang huali table. When the hammer came down the audience broke into applause of either relief or astonishment.
After that, in some small satori, in a mass raising of consciousness, the audience awakened to the knowledge of how to end the pain. Don't bid. Not unless you absolutely had to. If you don't bid it goes much quicker. Of the remaining 18 lots of the sale, only four others sold. They were not terrible, nor were they brilliant. The market had fallen out of bed and had a stroke. In the midst of all this passing the Matisse sculpture Figure decorative sold for $11.5 million. It is the second most expensive Matisse sculpture ever sold. For the rest of the works, they suffered from delusions of grandeur, probably caught it from their owners. Mad Collectors Disease.
Sotheby's big room, decked out like the Old Vic with the stage lit up, looks right nice. But who on a Thursday night wants to go out and watch 14 hours of The Ice Man Cometh? Maybe a gorilla suit would help?