The economic recession may have put out the IPO fires on Wall Street and even dampened the raging New York City real estate market, but it hasn't touched the high-flying art market -- yet.
The boutique auctioneer Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg launched the fall New York auction season on Monday, Nov. 5, 2001, with a pair of sales that totaled just over $100 million and were about 95 percent sold. "We're thrilled with the results," said auctioneer Simon de Pury with understandable enthusiasm. "The results were more than triple those of a year ago."
The Hoener Collection
The morning sale offered 48 lots from the German Expressionist collection of Diethelm Hoener, a 60-year-old German investment banker and "stock market wizard" who died earlier this year. (Hoener's death in January had an element of drama; a friend of former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, he apparently died in a plunge down the staircase of his fortified villa in Cannes. According to the Parisien newspaper, Hoener had enemies among the Russian mafia and links with the CIA.)
As for the Hoener auction -- the first sale to offer exclusively Expressionist art in New York, according to de Pury -- 46 of the 48 works sold for a total of $12,520,400 ($13,852, 210 with premium). Top lot was Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's Die Lesende (1911), an asymmetrical portrait of the writer Else Lasker-Schuler (whose husband, Herwarth Walden, opened the Galerie Der Sturm in 1912), which went for $3,962,500 (est. $1,800,000-$2,500,000).
In addition to the Schmidt-Rottluff, which set an auction record for the artist, the house set records in specialized categories for several other artists: an Emil Nolde watercolor ($464,500), a Max Liebermann pastel ($332,500), a George Grosz pen and ink ($79,500), a Max Pechstein litho ($68,500) and a work (here a watercolor) by Hermann Hesse ($25,300).
Hoener's widow, Stephanie Hoener, donated a portrait by Otto Dix to the new Neue Galerie in New York in memory of her late husband.
The Smooke Collection
Phillips did even better that evening, Nov. 5, when it offered the Smooke Collection, a group of Fauve, Cubist and Expressionist works assembled over 25 years by L.A. collectors Nathan and Marion Smooke. Mr. Smooke, who died in 1991, was head of Wellman Properties, an industrial real estate firm; Mrs. Smooke died this year. Their collection was exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum in 1987.
By the end of the lengthy, two-hour auction, 67 of 72 lots, or 93 percent, had been sold for a total of $86,193,700 (with premium). This happy result -- "Christmas in November," said one observer -- came at the low end of the total presale estimate of about $80 million to $115 million. "The figures speak for themselves," de Pury said after the auction. "We are witnessing great momentum in all areas," he added, referring to his new firm's growing market share.
Top lots included Egon Schiele's Haus mit trocknender Wäsche (1917), a folkish Jugenstil-inspired picture of a house on the river with wash hung out to dry in the artist's mother's hometown in Bohemia, which sold for $9.9 million (est. $8 million-$12 million). Amedeo Modigliani's Renaissance-styled portrait Almaïsa (1916) was the second-highest-priced lot, going for $7,152,500 (est. $6 million-$8 million). Both artists, so well known for their nudes, were represented in this sale by tamer works, as is pointed out by art dealer Stewart Waltzer.
Other six-figure prices came for paintings by Leger, Kandinsky, Beckmann, Vlaminck, Matisse, Feininger, Braque and Picasso. The sale included a large number of sculptures, and top prices were brought by Modigliani's sandstone Tête de femme ($3,852,500), Henri Matisse's Le Serfe (L'esclave) ($3,412,500), Alberto Giacometti's Femme de Venise IX ($3,192,500) and Constantin Brancusi's L'enfant endormi ($2,202,500).
One sculpture, and the one major work, that failed to sell was a Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, Edgar Degas' famed bronze of a young ballet dancer in an actual cloth tutu, which carried a presale estimate of $8 million-$12 million. This sculpture exists in a multiple of at least 33, the art historians say, and are not that difficult to find; one sold in London last year for about $11.6 million, and de Pury suggested that one had recently sold privately.
Among the buyers spotted in Phillips' cozy, ground-floor salesroom on 57th Street was Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn, who was underbidder on two lots and apparently left empty-handed midway through the auction. "I didn't know he had any limits," said journalist Judd Tully, who writes for Art & Auction magazine.
Both Carol Vogel of the New York Times and Josh Baer of the Baer Faxt tagged Manhattan private dealer Jeffrey Loria as buyer of Fernand Léger's monumental Les quatre constructeurs sur fond jaune (1950), a beautiful picture that sold for $5.7 million, well above its $4 million high estimate. "He should buy some pitching," said Baer, in reference to Loria's ownership of the Montreal Expos baseball team. (The Expos have the lowest attendance in the league, and are a likely candidate for commissioner Bud Selig's recently announced "contraction" of Major League Baseball from 30 to 28 teams; Loria, it is hypothesized, could take a few top players and move the franchise to Tampa Bay.)
Perhaps most curious about the Phillips sale were the accompanying reports in the press that the house may have lost as much as $80 million on the deal, thanks to a "guarantee" offered to the consigner to secure the collection for auction. If so, we all owe a note of thanks to Phillips, which has then sacrificed much to paint rosy cheeks on the autumn art market!
At the after-sale press conference, de Pury declined to say whether Phillips had made money with the auction, and wouldn't comment on those press reports, except to say that they were wrong. In fact, though the house may have taken a loss, it seems exceptionally unlikely that Phillips would pay such a huge premium for the Smooke Collection -- a guarantee is in effect a purchase -- no matter how avid its desire to challenge Christie's and Sotheby's, and no matter how deep the pockets of Bernard Arnault and LVMH Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton.
"After all," said one top dealer, "all Phillips had to do was beat the price offered by the other two, not double it."
In any case, Phillips is continuing its expansion. De Pury announced plans for the firm's first New York sale of furniture on Dec. 5, as well as the addition of Joshua Holdeman, a veteran of Robert Miller Gallery, as the new Phillips photography expert. The Phillips auction of Bauhaus and modern design, organized by former Artnet.com design expert James Zemaitis, is scheduled for Dec. 12.
Christie's Impressionist and modern
After the good prices and high sell-through rate at Phillips, attention turned to the Impressionist and modern sale at Christie's Rockefeller Center on the following evening, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2001. Curiously, it was an Impressionist sale with no "Impressionists" -- no Cézanne apples, no Monet water lilies or haystacks, no Renoir nudes, no van Goghs. Whether this represents a new sophistication in the market or a shortage of $10-million-plus pictures (especially in a recession) is hard to say.
Christie's totaled $108,900,775 for the evening sale, finding buyers for 49 of 64 lots, a sell-through rate of 77 percent. The two top prices also set world auction records for the artists. After a drawn-out telephone duel, Léger's Le Moteur (1918) sold for $16.7 million, well over its presale high estimate of $6 million. Five lots later, Joan Miró's Portrait de Mme K. (1924) was sold for $12,656,000 (est. $4 million-$6 million), also to a client on the phone.
Much momentum was provided for these works by the fact that they were among the first 25 lots in the auction, which were being sold without reserve to benefit UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. Purveyor of this beneficence is the estate of René Gaffé, a Belgian perfume mogul who bought the works in the 1920s and '30s. The results were "extraordinary," as Christie's chief auctioneer Christopher Burge said later, several times. "We had 15 or 25 potential bidders for each lot," he said.
The total for Gaffé material was more than $73 million, which, less Christie's commission, will go to UNICEF in the organization's largest-ever donation. One dealer noted that the Gaffé section of the auction was energized by the fact that bidding opened at a "real number" -- no "bidding from the chandelier" -- which played on the bargain-hunting psychology of many auction participants.
A third record, also set in the Gaffé sale, was for a sculpture by Pablo Picasso, when a bronze of his famous Tete de femme (Fernande) went for $4,956,000, well over its high estimate of $3.5 million. The original clay was done in 1909; this bronze version was cast in a small edition for Ambrose Vollard shortly thereafter.
Auction week continues tonight, with Sotheby's sale of Impressionist and modern art. The 39-lot auction includes casts of Auguste Rodin's Thinker and his Kiss, a small study for Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, and nudes by Maillol, Matisse, Van Dongen and Giacometti. And jury selection begins for Sotheby's trial on anti-trust charges in federal court in downtown Manhattan on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2001.