If William Blake had a moral compass, it was an anti-intellectual one. He vilified the Age of Reason. Reason had been used to enslave thought, he believed, while the creative impulse was the purest manifestation of God and Good. Evil and Mammon and Sotheby's, through this purist esthetic, is everything linear, ordered, reasoned, mercantile, the work of the Devil and if you will, BAD ART. We comment, as last night's sale of a Wm. Blake, chez Sotheby's, went for $3.5 million, breaking every known record for a work by the artist and that was just the opening act. Ironic. How about them Whitney's? Nice. Damn!
How does one know how much to pay when it is so difficult to know what one is paying for? Apologies to George Edward Moore, the Principia Ethica (1903), moral science, the nature of the GOOD. Fine, yes, auctions have become way stations in a metaphysical universe of INFINITELY EXPANDING VALUES as evidenced by last night's sale of the PICASSO ROSE PERIOD picture for $93 MILLION ($104.1 million with the auction house's 12 percent premium added in). The question on everyone's lips -- "Did they buy the picture to match the chintz, or did they buy the chintz to match the picture?"
Jock and Betsey Whitney were not on the cutting edge of taste, no one with that much chintz in their life could be. So how is it that this group of pictures, good, maybe half-good, but far from remarkable, harbored in their midst THE MOST EXPENSIVE PICTURE EVER SOLD, eclipsing the van Gogh Dr. Gachet by more than $20 million? Is it a triumph of George W. Bush's pro-corporate, Republican governance or an accessible, mainstream Picasso, from a rare period, shouldering out the edgier, once despised van Gogh? Does it matter? No. Good times were had by all, most particularly Sotheby's. If disbelief comes as your side dish, you don't have to finish, do you?
They liked horses, those Whitneys. It was the theme of last night's ball, as it raised perhaps $170 million or so for the Greentree Foundation, which does its good deeds promoting peace, human rights and international cooperation. The works were taken, more or less, from the home of the Whitneys in Manhasset, Long Island. It represented the kind of small, clubby pictures that rich people like to live with, rather than an intensely focused collection assembled by some obsessive nutter.
Notably, many of the paintings brought prices in excess of their obvious value on the strength of the Whitney affiliation. The degree of excess is the news. Two works (the Daumier and the Rousseau) passed, as no one in the room wanted them, rather than being sold under the blanket of a global reserve at any price. Most of the work was set above strong estimates and Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer did a brilliant job of flensing the assembled multitudes for a record $190 million, one of the largest purses ever taken off willing buyers.
Among the stars in the firmament: The first lot, the Degas pencil sketch of a cute, knowing horse bearing an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Ed, sold for $300,000 at the hammer, more than twice the high estimate. Lot 2, the painting by Theodore Gericault of Napoleon's horse went for $1.7 million, also twice what similar works brought previously.
The previously mentioned William Blake colored monotype, The Good and Evil Angels Struggling for Possession of a Child, was unique among Blake offerings, and last sold at auction at Sotheby's in 1862. Mr. Meyer compared it to two collectors struggling over a Picasso, harbingering what was to come and measurably lightening our evening. The work sold for $3.5 million at the hammer, more than double its presale high estimate and a record for the artist. Gasp, what next?
A Raoul Dufy. Granted, it was not one of those pictures you could pick up as a souvenir of a great summer in the South of France in the early '50s. Fete á Stainte-Adresse (1906) sold for $2.8 million, overstepping the previous record of $2,400,000 set in 1990, when the Japanese were parsing Manhattan the way we had hoped to parse Iraq. It wasn't a slow build to the main event.
PICASSO. In slack-jawed wonder, we watched as the bidding opened at $57 million and rose in swift $2 million increments to $80 million, whence it slowed as the art world cased its collective memories and realized that this would be HISTORY.
So what are you paying for? There is probably less than a handful of Rose Period pictures left in private hands, and if you can afford the insurance. . . . Hey, Saddam Hussein used to have that kind of money lying around in an old vault. Is it worth $100 million? To whom? Meta-ethics aside, don't want to hear what could you do with the money, nice cottage, some time off, eradicate disease, redo the Bronx. That's what it cost. Sotheby's could probably auction off signed copies of the check.
It was a pretty upbeat crowd after that, as the pictures rolled off the revolving stage at the sound of the gavel. The Monet Bateaux sur le Gallet (1884) sold for $4 million, highlighting a philosophical inquiry between actual and perceived value.
It was the Manet, a few lots later, however, that hammered the argument home. Le course au Bois de Boulogne (1872), not transcendent, a horse picture, sold for $23.5 million. The Manet La rue Mosnier aux drapeaux sold for $26.4 million in November 1989 is the record-holder for this particular artist.
A pair of horsey Degases only brought $3.9 million each over presale estimates of $5,000,000-$7,000,000, which were still brilliant prices for what they were. There was a scattering of small still lifes with flowers by artists ranging from Matisse to Redon. There were some logy Renoirs painted before the artist had his Varilux lenses reground with a more sensible diopter. All selling well beyond the reach of the most avaricious dealer.
No horse cotillion would be complete without a promenade overseen by Sir Alfred Munnings. The Red Prince Mare (1921), described in the text as "simultaneously monumental and personal," sold for $7 million, nearly $3 million more than any other Munnings, ever.
It was an event where wealth transcended normal existence. One left somewhat battered, having felt the ominous hum of the dynamo at the far end of the room. Power is always a bit bruising. Not sure one wants to watch, really, reality TV and all. Who'll buy the movie rights?
By the numbers, the sale at Sotheby's New York on May 5, 2004, of "Property of the Greentree Foundation from the Collection of Mr. & Mrs. John Hay Whitney" totaled $189,894,400 (with premium). Of 34 lots offered, 32 found buyers, or just over 94 percent. In addition to records for works by Blake, Dufy, Munnings and Picasso, the sale set a new auction benchmark for Jean-Frédéric Bazille at $5,328,000.
For complete, illustrated results, consult Artnet's signature Fine Art Auctions Report