If you wandered dispassionately through Christie's galleries earlier this
week, or thumbed through the catalogue for the May 4 evening sale, you will
have noted that this spring, inevitably, the auction business is not all
it might be. With few exceptions, it is a run-of-the-mill collection of art
with little Paris Hilton-grade material to stir our
The problem with art is the people who buy it (followed closely by the people
who sell it, and the people who make it). Dead sellers press the auction houses for encomia lauding real-estate developers and TV producers as esthetic mandarins. Judging by the number of special-collection inserts in this evening's
catalogue, a lot of people gave their lives to make this sale possible.
It was an enormously successful sale -- totaling more than $142 million
on 52 of 59 lots sold, or 88 percent. The success was even more pronounced
in light of the mediocrity of many of the lots offered. Christie's auctioneer Christopher
Burge would not take "passed" for an answer. The word "sparse" doesn't begin
to describe some of the bidding, and on significant lots, too.
Somehow they were sold, to a phone bidder, to a lone bidder in the room;
it did not matter. They were sold. Four lots passed in the heart of the sale,
but they were so unlikely, it was expected. Three passes came in the final
two minutes of a two-hour-long sell-a-thon. Sotheby's poor performance the
night before (totaling less than $100 million) must have forced many consignors,
dead or no, to lower their reserves, contributing to Christie's success.
Some obvious high points.
Lot 6, Bonnard, Interior avec
des fleurs, 1919. The very beautiful Bonnard anchored the main gallery
in the presale exhibition. It is a ravishing painting estimated at $3 million-$4
million. By comparison, Bonnard's Aprés le repas sold
in 1988 for $7.4 million. More to the point, Matinée au
Cannet sold in February 2003 for $7 million, so a strong market for
a high-quality picture was plausible. Lot 6
hammered out at $4.8 million. It had sold for $3.3 million in 1996, nine
Lot 7, Brancusi's Oiseau dans l'espace, 1922. "Beneath
the passage of time and generations objects once treasured become all too
easily forgotten. . ." is how Christie's explains the story that the sculpture's
owner put it in the attic and forgot about it for the next 80 years. This
particular piece, with its phallic shape, conceivably lends itself to an
array of coarse humor in the home and might have been conveniently set
Still, birds in space don't fly in every day. This is a great sculpture,
an icon of modern art, and there can't be many more left in people's attics,
private collections, etc. So? Brancusi's 1913 bronze head, Danaide,sold
in 2002 for $18 million. The bird, estimated at $8 million-$12 million, sold
for $24.5 million. It was important to the sale. It is an accessible, likable
work. The bidding was tense but not repugnant in the manner of the $104 million
Picasso. It sold. We all clapped and felt beneficent, fuzzy and forgiving.
We'd need it.
In 1901, Monet, having spent the two previous years in London painting fog,
bridges, bridges in fog, Houses of Parliament and bridges in fog, et cetera,
must have been ecstatic to get back to Giverny do a little lite orchard,
a little garden, a few dopey arched bridges before packing up his easel and
setting off to Vétheuil every afternoon with Madame in the back seat
of the moteur.
Lot 58, Leicester
la nuit, is the last (?) picture he makes
in London before leaving London, and looks more like the garden he yearned for than it does Leicester Square. It sells
for $700,000, at the low estimate. Amazing.
Lot 18, Vétheuil,
après midi, 1901. As Christie's encyclopedic article
accompanying the painting tells you, Monet would motor to Lavacourt,
across the Seine from Vetheuil, and start painting.
He took a convenient house there and didn't leave until October when the
summer's heat had broken. In the interim he painted a series of 15 pictures
of the Romanesque church of Notre Dame, which are numbered W1635
to W1649 in the catalogue raisonne. One could take away the impression that
he was just setting his eye, because he returns to Giverny and over the
next 24 months painstakingly tears off some of the best pictures in his
life, Nyphéas galore.
This is not to say the Vetheuil pictures, like W1637, lot 18, are bad; rather,
it is simply to note that the rich, $7 million-$10 million estimate might
have better fit Le Parlement, Soleil Couchant, a work that sold in
May of 2001 for $14.5 million. Another painting from the same series, Veteuil,
après-midi automne, sold in February 2004 for $5 million in London. The surface of this evening's picture
is labored and overworked, the series itself never really caught on, no T-shirts,
no postcards, no mythos. The robust sale of Sotheby's Argenteuilpicture
for $4.8 million the night before must have helped but on this night lot 18 must barely have exceeded its reserve, selling at $5.9 million. At least
it didn't pass. It was followed by a great Sisley, Le Loing à Moret,
which sold in a frenzy of bids for $1.45 million. Good Auction Feeling.
Lot 21, the Degas pastel, Women with a very, very bad headache (otherwise
known as La coiffure, ca. 1892-95), seemed to be the purest distillation
of what besets middle age. Cutting both for and against. A French dealer
however offered, "it is a French woman longing, I wish for me." Whatever.
. . . Burge hammered it out for $700,000 over a presale estimate of $600,000-$800,000.
Interestingly, the U.S. Treasury gets the proceeds, the Customs Service having
seized the work in some kind of money-laundering sting.
Paul Cézanne's Les grands arbres au
Jas de Bouffan (ca. 1885-87) from the Maspro Art Museum, a corporate collection in Japan, lot 22. In an
unusually sycophantic insert even for a auction house, Edward Dolman, CEO
of Christie's, lauds as nearly divine the consignor, Takashi Hashiyama,
which resonates ironically insofar as Consignor Hashiyama chose Christie's
over Sotheby's by playing rock-paper-scissors, as reported by the Wall
Street Journal and the New York Times. Did I just make that
The Cézanne, which is sort of divine, sold for $8 million
at Sotheby's London in 1996. The present estimate of
$12 million-$16 million posited a far more valuable picture. The John Hay
Whitney Cézanne, which sold for $60 million in 1999, gives some idea
of the range of values but in no way alludes to the quality of this picture. Les
grands arbres au Jas de Bouffan is at least very Cézannessque,
and sold for $10.5 million, escaping its reserve -- but by how much? Bad
The incredibly unlovely 1901 Picasso, Boulevarde de Clichy,
lot 26, reappeared again over an estimate of $1.8 million-$2.5 million. It
had sold in 1995 for $1.5 million. There are sardines for eating and sardines
for trading. This early picture seemed to float on the periphery of the dealer
circuit season after season in the 90s. It is a trading picture, burnished
by its early date but by little else. Still, someone stepped up to the freight
car and unloaded it for another $1.5 million. Listen. Don't eat them. Auction
Feeling Number 4: Disbelief.
Speaking of trading pictures, the other offering from the laudable Consignor
Hashiyama was the van Gogh, Vue de la chambre de l'artiste, rue
Lepic. It has been to the altar more frequently than Larry King. In 1985
at Sotheby's New York it sold for $715,000. In 1996, at
Sotheby's New York it sold for $1.6 million. In 2000
at Sotheby's New York it didn't sell at all. What happened
this time? Did the concierge at Sotheby's forget to say, "Oh sir, how nice
to see you again, it's been awhile," and send it pouting off across town?
No. Christopher "No-Lot-Left Behind" Burge sold the picture for $2.4 million,
exceeding the high estimate of $2 million.
Lot 31. The important
Picasso of the evening: the neoclassicist portrait, Tête et main
de femme, 1921; estimate on request. I did not request. It sold for
$12 million with almost no bidding to a phone buyer over an expectation
that it would not sell at all.
More memento mori were provided by the catalogue pages dedicated to the
late collectors whose estates graciously filled out the auction. New York
socialite Carter Burden (1941-1996), looking very sleek in the estate photo,
like a version 4.5 upgrade of Profirio Rubirosa, legendary husband of everyone,
consigned two slinky, dirty little Schiele nudes, lots 33 and 34, that sparked
the house, selling for $620,000 and $300,000, at their high estimates. His
Balthus portrait of a knowing little 14-year-old sold for $1.6 million, nearly
double its presale high estimate. You know how collectors are. The heartbreak
of the sale came when they withdrew the dirty Van Dongen, lot 50, a picture
of three naked go-go girls.
The collection of Ruth and Harvey Kaplan, chronicled by an
essay titled "The Life Well Lived" and illustrated
in the catalogue in an estate photo by Diane Arbus (just kidding),
had a very nice Giacometti. Lot 35, Femme Leoni,sold for
$7.5 million with a lot of work. It was estimated at $7 million-$10 million.
A Grande femme debout sold in 2000 at Christie's New York for $14.3
million. Sotheby's sold a Grande tete de Diego in 2002 for $13.8
million, and a Grande femme debout IV in November 2003 for $9.6
As catalogue entries metastasize into sales brochures, very once in a while
the in-house staff, when confronted with a difficult picture, with a difficult picture, calls in for take-out. A specialist in the field. When the consignor of the Degas pastel, Head
on the Balcony, lot 40, stood pat on a reserve that predicated an estimate
of $4 million-$6 million, Christie's called in Richard Kendall, independent
scholar, to write the blurb. Wrote the book on Degas, at least one of them,
La loge, the
actual title, depicts the head of a woman poised like Humpty Dumpty on
the rail of a theater balcony. The face occupies maybe two percent of the
composition. It looks a bit worn by time and light, the color in the catalogueseems
fresher, the work, dull and without éclat. Is it the age-old conundrum
the posits a choice between brilliant, difficult work and the simpler,
more accessible? One wishes. La Loge is bizarre in a way that language
alone cannot efface. In June 1999 Dancer au repos sold for $28 million,
and it was of course perfect, large, sonorous and brilliant. The Ur pastel.
Degas' famous À musee de Louvre (Mary Cassatt) depicts Mary
posing for her friend Edgar in the museum. A luminous moment in the history
of art, the work sold in 2002 for $16.5 million. Light, poignant, without
weight. After that only perfect pastel ballerinas could aspire to the economic
strata between $5 million and $10 million.
Perhaps Christie's was gambling on the graphic nature of the current sale's
pastel to vault it into the stratosphere. Well. . . . It sold for $4 million
at the low estimate in very few bids. Auction Feeling Number 17: Indifference.
In contrast, four lots after, the Degas Danseuse a mi-corps se coiffant,
lot 44, 1900-1912(?), small, beautiful and sold without fuss in a happy frenzy
for $3.35 million over an estimate of $1.8 million-$2.5 million. Good Auction
The end was in sight. The Renoir painting, Madeline accoudée avec
fleurs dans ses cheveux, which could have been taken from the famous
poster, "Women of the NFL," passed at $380,000. Speaking of flying wedges,
the first lot, Rodin's 1890-91 Iris, messagere des Dieux, a notorious
sculpture of a leaping, welcoming nude, sold for an epic $450,000 over
an estimate of $200,000-$300,000. The cast was late, too, 1945.
The Brancusi had left behind it an aura of jubilance and tolerance that
sustained the sale throughout its length. The currency board showed the strength
of the Euro and the Pound. It was a well-disposed crowd. People had fun and
no one posited a market in panic. Still, the cracks in the market were evident.
Fifty percent of the sale did not exceed the low estimate. There is a strong
sense that the market is contracting. Perhaps there could be nothing better
than a reminder that markets, even art markets, must act predictably to be
sustainable. Contemporary sales start next week with a richer pool of material.
Will they hear the warning?