The photograph of Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer in Thursday morning's New York Times, stationed next to the $100 million Picasso sold the night before, left me wondering if he didn't see himself as a young Clint Eastwood. He stands there slim and steely eyed, at the height of the bidding, whipping the six potential buyers into some cohesive, orderly whole sufficient to complete the sale at maximum remuneration to the house. By all opinions, he did a superb job. Like Dirty Harry, staring down a bidder who ponders whether or not to bite off another $1 million raise, "Come on punk, make my day."
He was equally superb on Thursday evening, at Sotheby's May 6 general owner sale of Impressionist and modern art, moving deftly from lot to lot with an economy of bidding that kept the sale flowing with a sense of inevitability and left the house choking on the proceeds. It is post-$100 million P, however. The world will not soon be the same.
Unlike $80 million van Goghs, which are impossible to find, Picassos are the most heavily traded works on the auction circuit. Thousands of these things, from prints to paintings, get hammered down annually at auctions all over the world. Now, every time a Picasso hits the blocks, some swaggering merchant banker is going to squint at it like a myopic reptile, ease the Colt Peacemaker on his hip, and say, "Let's see what you've got."
So when the fifth lot of the evening, the Picasso Nu Accroupi (1959), sold for $10.5 million at the hammer over an estimate of $3,000,000-$4,000,000, I experienced an uncomfortable frisson of moral positivism. It again begged the question, how do you know how much to pay, when it is hard to know what you are paying for.
There are numerous strategies for bidding at auction. One might consult the records, see what similar works have sold for, and set a plausible limit that acknowledges the return of capital with profit. Presumably in one's lifetime.
Or, one can lead the market, sniffing out inherent value, willingly paying more while knowing it can sell off for twice that. Or, one can see oneself as the meanest, most puissant shit on the block and insist on having his or her own way, which seemed mysteriously to be the case for the Picasso Squatting Nude.
For the record, a smiliar 1959 Picasso from the collection of Victor and Sally Ganz sale in 1988 sold for $6,000,000. It was better, but it too, looked like the bride of Baron Samedi. There was also a smaller, bad juju portrait of Jacqueline that sold for $2.3 million a few months later in 1990. So what were these guys thinking when they smacked each other all the way up to $10.5 million for the "Queen of the Zombies"? That all post-$100 million Ps are going to be worth the earth in the next Republican administration? Wrong.
It became a more intriguing question 15 lots later when the 1932 Picasso, Le Sauvetage, hit the block. Once, back in the mid-'50s, a Swiss dealer was admitted to Picasso's secret strong room and invited to pick as many paintings as he wanted from a trove of seriously top dog pictures. He did not get everything, but he got enough and put them away for rather a long time to watch his money grow. Was Le Sauvetage one of these Lost Dutchman pictures? It has all the attributes the "Queen of Zombies" lacked, and some the $100 million P lacked as well. Along with the Monet Nympheas, lot 133, it was incontestably one of the two most interesting pictures in last night's sale and interesting in is own right. It sold for $13.2 million ($14,768,000 with the auction house's premium). If you know what you are paying for, you know how much to pay. Right?
Which brings us to the Monet, Le basin aux nymphéas. Five or six comparable works have appeared in the past 15 years at prices ranging from $12 million for a Nympheas selling in 1992 to $7 million for one that sold in 2001. The present offering broke this elastic boundary, setting a new record for a water lily at $15 million. Alas, Monet could have painted two pictures in the time it took Mr. Meyer to sell this to one of three sluggish bidders.
The $100 million P market reminds us of the unforgotten excesses of the late '80s and early '90s. There was a Republican president practicing doo-doo economics and building an inordinately high national debt. The haves were hurtling up the food chain. High prices drew public attention and art became the place to store your funds. Not only could you look at your money sitting on the wall, but if you bought works like the Picasso Peintre au chapeau, which sold last night for $980,000 ($1,105,600 with premium), it would look back at you. Accusingly.
In all, there were eight Picassos in last night's sale bathing in the warm afterglow. Lot 104, the minimalist Tete d'homme, a 1909 charcoal drawing, was passed over an optimistic estimate of $400,000-$600,000. Then "Queen of the Zombies," at $10.5 million, then the hyper-thyroid self-portrait of the painter, which incidentally was estimated at $750,000-$1,000,000, then Le Sauvetage.
The delicate 1919 pastel and pencil drawing La famille was estimated at $1,000,000-$1,500,000 and sold to a lone bidder by the phone for $800,000. Guitare sur table, charcoal on paper, 1912, squeaked by at $350,000 over an estimate of $350,000-$450,000. Femme Assise, a big 1949 oil on canvas de-accessioned by the Art Institute of Chicago, failed to profit from its provenance. It sold for $3.8 million off a presale estimate of $4,000,000-$6,000,000. Nature morte a la cafetiere did brilliantly, given the picture, selling for $2.3 million over an estimate of $1,500,000-$2,000,000. Perhaps all is not lost.
Other morbid highlights of the sale. The Delaunay passed, the Modigliani passed, the Balthus sure looked like it was going to pass but didn't, but should have, with a phone bid from a parallel universe. Two Mirós passed, the Laurens passed, then the Soutine. Not all were without redemption.
Van Dongen did a prescient portrait of what could be a grown-up Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen vamping naked for the camera, which sold for $1.7 million in really spirited bidding. Finally.
Forty-eight percent of the lots may not have exceeded their low estimate, but nearly 40 percent exceeded the high, which is one benchmark of a successful sale. If prices keep rising, perhaps Mr. Meyer will reprise another Clint Eastwood role at the sale in November. Hang 'em High. . . or if the market suddenly drops. Pale Rider?
By the numbers: Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern Art sale, May 6, 2004, sold 42 of 52 lots offered, or just under 81 percent, for a total of $96,071,200 (with premium). The $3,816,00 paid by an anonymous phone bidder for Balthus' Golden Afternoon (1957) is a new record for the artist at auction. A new auction record was also set for a work by Jacques Villon ($1,296,000).
Among the buyers were Swiss dealer Doris Ammann, who won Picasso's Nu accroupi (1959); Montreal dealer Robert Landau, who bought Picasso's Femme assise (1949) from the Art Institute of Chicago; Manhattan dealer David Nahmad, who bought Picasso's Le peintre au chapeau (1965); and New York dealer Alexander Apsis, who won Juan Gris' Bouteille, pipe et cartes a jouer (1919).
For complete, illustrated results, consult Artnet's signature Fine Art Auctions Report.