The auction previews at Christie's New York yesterday morning had the displaced air of a small New England mill town after the mill has closed down. On the other side of the highway, the vibrant Sotheby's, last season's economic redevelopment zone, ended up with all the business -- the mall, the national chains and the fey boutiques that Ms. Jessica Mitford would have seen as decidedly non-U, but in an era of new democracy, taste doesn't swagger like it used to. Oh, and the Whitney collection, Sotheby's has that as well. Very U.
Meanwhile, at Christie's, collectors were quietly peering at the labels, hunting up bargains in the lonely side streets, looking for value out of the limelight. But they didn't find it last night at Christie's Impressionist and modern art auction, those sober merchants of glam didn't give anything away, U or non U. Unless of course you were a consignor, and then whilst all gave some, some gave a whole lot more.
Although the auctioneer Christopher Burge, master conjuror, seemed positively gleeful as the millions rolled across his gavel, the room never quite caught on. Granted there was enough botox in the serene brows of the assembled bidders to drop a regiment in Falluja, it did nothing for the small yet not entirely unprepossessing sale. The estimates were somewhat optimistic, but Christie's isn't being run as a charity, to acknowledge a level of understatement. That some of these works sold at all was due to Burge who, Gandalf-like, pointed his gavel at a living evil from the depths of the 19th century and intoned, "Thou shall not pass! Thou shall not pass!" till miraculously a phone bidder from a parallel universe must have called in a bid.
Let's start with the high point, as low as it was. Tamara de Lempicka set a world auction record with her 1929 portrait of Mrs. Rufus Bush. That's Bush Terminals of New York, not Bush Terminator of Washington, D.C. The portrait of the then-19-year-old Jazz Age heiress sold for $4.1 million at the hammer, considerably above the previous record of $2,650,000, paid for the Deco babe in the blue evening dress with the banjo at Sotheby's in November of 2002. But it's a de Lempicka. Okay. Okay. My fault. Sorry.
FYI, a de Lempicka was the second most expensive picture sold in 1994 -- Adam and Eve, out of the Streisand collection for $1.9 million. In 2001 the third most expensive work by this artist sold for $1.5 million and the fourth sold for $1.3 million in 1989. The fifth most expensive de Lempicka also sold in 1989 for just over $1 million and thereafter, for considerably less. A little context as we spend the endowment.
The sale's Miró, Le rouge, le bleu, le bel espoir (1947), sold for $4.8 million at the hammer, over estimates of $4,000,000-$6,000,000. It is a good picture, comparable to the 1946, L'espoir that sold at Christie's in May of 1999 for $4.5 million. It was one of the stars that did not fade as the evening wore on.
The very small (15 x 13 in.) and exquisite Mondrian painting from 1922, Composition with Blue Yellow, Red and Gray, sold for $3 million to a bidder in a parallel universe over the phone, one bid above the reserve. Or if that seems prejudicial, in limited bidding (probably with the house), an extraordinarily good price, all aspects factored.
The Lgers, lots 25 and 28. The first, painted in 1919, sold for $2.2 million and had four pages of supporting documentation showing infinitely more interesting pictures that Christie's had once sold. They had a superficial resemblance to the work presently on the block, and had presumably sold for gobs more than what was now being modestly asked. It was estimated at $2,000,000-$3,000,000. The second, painted in 1923, an apparently more successful picture, with only one page of supporting documentation, sold for $1.3 million. It was estimated at $600,000-$800,000.
The de Chirico, Il grande metafisico, 1917, ca. 42 x 27 in., ex-Albert Barnes collection, ex-MoMA, sold for $6.4 million over a presale estimate of $7,000,000-$10,000,000. It was a record price for the artist, whose earlier record of $5.3 million was set in 1989. It was an extraordinary price for the work, overshadowed by an overweening estimate set by Christie's resident astrologer.
Failures great and small. The lovely Boudins, lots 1 and 5, Trouville, scene de plage (1886) and Trouville, scene de plage (1887) were purchased in 2001 at auction for $886,000 and $556,000, respectively. Last night they were sold for $420,000 and $400,000, respectively. Not amusing.
The incredibly lovely Renoir from 1918-19, Femme en rouge et blanc couchée dans l'herbe après un repas colosse, lot 7, sold for $500,000, notwithstanding that all she lacked was a tattoo of an anchor upon her forearm and a beard to pass for Bluto.
The manifestation of fusion cuisine in lot 17, A half-baked Picasso masquerading as a fine Degas, also entitled, Ballerina (1901). Degas had been serving this signature dish for at least 25 years and had long since had his third star before Picasso turned up as an overly ambitious line cook in 1901. It sold for $700,000 over a presale estimate of $500,000-$700,000. Too zaftig, you think?
No one likes Dutch Monets, although lot 18, Le Binnen-Amstel, Amsterdam (1874), is as pretty as they come, delicate coloring and all. It passed at $480,000 over an estimate of $600,000-$800,000. They are dicey to resell and lack the characteristic repository of value one hopes for in Monet, the triple-A corporate bond of fine art.
The Modigliani, Portrait of Roger Dutilleul, failed to sell at $4.6 million. It was estimated at $6,000,000-$9,000,000, based upon the portrait of Giavanotto dai Capelli Rossi that sold for $8.5 million in November 2002. The Portrait of Roger Dutilleul came with six pages of supporting documents, showing other works Dutilleul had collected as well as an illustration of a Fang mask from Gabon, which presumably had a superficial if not wholly unflattering resemblance to Dutilleul himself.
Then there were the Picassos. Femme au chapeau de paille (Dora Maar) passed at $3 million. It had been purchased by the present owner at Sotheby's in London in 2001 for $4 million. It was part of the mutant Barbie series with extra mascara and nail varnish. The second Picasso, Femme assise dans un fauteuil, purportedly a picture of Jacqueline Roque, must have occasioned the famous phone call to Georges Braque when Picasso supposedly said, "The A.D.D. is so bad I just can't do it anymore." It sold for $2.4 million over an estimate of $2,000,000-$3,000,000.
I add obliquely that any resemblance to factual material herein is accidental. Not having budgeted for a fact checker, I avoided facts wherever possible. That being said, some facts are unavoidable, and what you think is a fact, probably is, and what seems less plausible, probably is too. I hope that's helpful.
In all it was an amusing evening, although the numbers show a sadder tale. Of the 39 lots offered, 32 sold, or 82 percent, for a total of $56,609,000 (with premium). Almost 20 percent of the lots passed, and 62 percent of the lots failed to exceed their low estimate. Twenty-eight percent exceeded the low estimate but not the high and approximately 10 percent exceed the high. The de Chirico, de Lempicka and Doris Duke's Vase au guerrier Japonais by Odilion Redon set auction records for the artists.
That as many works sold as they did, and at significant values, tells another story, especially juxtaposed to the quality of the works. The works in some instances were barely marginal, the prices high for the offering and some of the estimates medically insane. Which should be nothing compared to this evening, when the Whitney Collection hits the block.
For complete, illustrated results, consult Artnet's signature Fine Art Auctions Report