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    the silent boom
by Andrew Decker
 
     
 
Victory Boogie Woogie
Piet Mondrian
1943-44
 
Au Moulin de la Galette
Pierre-Auguste Renoir
1876
 
Still Life with Ginger Jar,
Sugar Pot and Apples

Paul Cézanne
1900
 
Composition V
Vassily Kandinsky
1911
 
Wheat Field with Cypresses
Vincent van Gogh
1889
 
Famille Tahitienne
Paul Gaugin
1902
 
Peasant Girl in
a Straw Hat

Vincent van Gogh
1890
 
Les Femmes d'Alger
Version "O"

Pablo Picasso
1955
 
Bassin aux Nympheas et
Sentier au Bord de l'Eau

Claude Monet
1900
 
Le Rêve
Pablo Picasso
1932
 
PRIVATE TRANSACTIONS
1. Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Dr. Gachet (1890), over $65 million, 1998. Buyer: unknown. Broker: unknown. Auction record for the artist: $82.5 million.
2. Vincent van Gogh, Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889) $57 million, 1993. Buyer: Walter Annenberg. Broker: Steven Mazoh & Co., Inc., Rhinebeck, NY.
3. Paul Cézanne, Still Life, Flowered Curtain, and Fruit (1900), around $50 million, 1997. Buyer: Ronald Lauder. Brokers: Daniel Malingue, Paris; John & Paul Herring & Co., New York. Auction record for the artist: $28.6 million.
4. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Au Moulin de la Galette (1876), around $50 million, 1997. Buyer: Unknown European. Broker: Sotheby's. Auction record for the artist: $78.1 million.
5. Vincent van Gogh, Peasant Girl in a Straw Hat (1890), $47.5 million, 1997. Buyer: Steve Wynn. Broker: Acquavella Galleries, Inc., NY.
6. Piet Mondrian, Victory Boogie Woogie, (1944), $40 million, 1998. Buyer: Dutch National Art Foundation Fund. Broker: None. Auction record for the artist: $9.6 million.
7. Vassily Kandinsky, Composition V (1911), around $40 million, 1998. Buyer: Ronald Lauder. Broker: Unknown. Auction record for the artist: $20.9 million.
8. Paul Cézanne, Still Life with Ginger Jar, Sugar Pot, and Apples (1900), around $35 million, 1996. Buyer: J. Paul Getty Museum. Broker: Artemis Fine Arts, London.
9. Paul Gauguin, Famille Tahitienne (1902), around $35 million, 1997. Buyer: Steve Wynn. Broker: Alex Reid & Lefevre Ltd., London. Auction record for the artist: $24.2 million.
10. Winslow Homer, Lost on the Grand Banks, $30 million, 1998. Buyer: Bill Gates. Broker: Unknown. Auction record for the artist: $2.64 million.

AUCTIONS
11. Pablo Picasso, Le Réve (1932), $48.4 million, 1997. Buyer: unknown. Broker: Christie's New York.
12. Claude Monet, Bassin aux Nympheas et Sentier au Bord de l'Eau (1900), $33 million, 1998. Buyer: unknown. Broker: Sotheby's London.
13. Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d'Alger (Version "O") (1955), $29 million, 1997. Buyer: unknown. Broker: Christie's New York.
Last March, Johann Locher, the director of The Hague's Gemeentemuseum, or Municipal Museum, sent a letter to Condé Nast chief S.I. Newhouse, Jr. Locher wanted to buy Piet Mondrian's Victory Boogie Woogie, a diamond-shaped painting from 1944, the year Mondrian died, that was in Newhouse's collection. Locher was one of many who had approached Newhouse about the painting since the publishing magnate had bought it in 1987 for $11 million. But Newhouse had always rebuffed the offers.

In his letter, Locher played on the absence from Dutch collections of a '40s Mondrian, dating from when the artist was an émigré in New York. Locher also counted on the fondness of Newhouse and his wife, Victoria, for the architect H. P. Berlage's Gemeentemuseum design. The building was being carefully restored and would open to the public in the fall of '98. Would Newhouse, who was clearly attached to the painting, consider selling it to the Dutch?

By June, Newhouse had given the Gemeentemuseum an option to buy the painting for $40 million, take it or leave it. A few months later, the Dutch National Bank contributed $55 million to the Dutch foundation for the National Art Collections Fund, which buys art for the Netherlands' state-run museums. By the end of that month, Victory Boogie Woogie was in The Hague.

The price is more than four times the auction record for a Mondrian, which is $9.6 million, set by Façade in Tan and Grey (1913) at Sotheby's New York in 1989. Newhouse has netted a $29 million profit on a work he had owned for 11 years. (The extravagant purchase also ignited a scandal in Holland and may lead to changes in the way government art funds are spent.)

Welcome to the very quiet, upper-echelon art boom of the '90s, where selective, cautious buyers target particular paintings for acquisition and collectors are equally choosy about whom they sell to.

Victory Boogie Woogie is but one of 13 works that have reportedly sold for over $30 million since the art market crashed in 1990. All but one of these $30-million-plus sales came in 1997 or '98. In the '80s, which are still regarded as unparalleled boom times for art, only nine paintings passed the $30-million mark.

The silent boom is a radical shift from the '80s, when collecting was a high-profile game and sellers put up their works at auction hoping they'd take off like a rocket, as they often did, with giddy buyers chasing art at any price. This time out, a handful of knowledgeable buyers are going after specific paintings. These works would never have gone to auction simply because they weren't for sale -- until the buyers made an offer the sellers couldn't refuse.

The current stratospheric activity has gone without comment from art-market pundits. No surprise, really. Ten of the thirteen $30-million-plus sales were private transactions, either brokered through dealers, done without intermediaries (like the Mondrian), or even completed privately by auction houses. In fact, Sotheby's handled at least two of these non-auction deals, including the resale for close to $50 million of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Au Moulin de la Galette, which the auction house sold in 1990 for $78.1 million.

One big player in our "private boom" is Estee Lauder chairman Ronald Lauder, who has twice spent record sums for art in the past two years. His criteria for paying a big price, ideally, is that the work be a "masterpiece," the seller be willing to take payment over a period of years and the sale take place outside the auction room, where competition can force up prices.

In 1997, Lauder paid close to $50 million for Paul Cézanne's Still Life, Flowered Curtain and Fruit, far eclipsing the auction record for Cézanne of $28.6 million, paid at Sotheby's in May 1993 for Grosses Pommes. In the spring of 1998, Lauder agreed to pay around $40 million for Vassily Kandinsky's Composition V. The sum is nearly double the auction record for a work by the artist, the $20.9 million paid for Fugue back in May 1990 at Sotheby's.

The Cézanne's owner was represented by Paris dealer Daniel Malingue, who had the painting available for over a year before Lauder became interested. The price was steep, but the work was one of the few Cézanne still lifes available that had the image planes breaking radically apart in a way that presages Cubism, the kind of telling, historically important evidence of Modernism that Lauder loves.

Composition V is staggeringly large (over six by nine feet) and from the artist's landmark series of the same title. The painting's Swiss owner, Monique Barbier-Mueller, had rejected offers from at least two buyers in the year or so before Lauder committed to buy it for close to $40 million. In one case, the buyer offered $30 million but said he was willing to go much higher. Barbier-Mueller responded, in essence, "The painting isn't for sale, and if it were, the price isn't enough," according to an uninformed source. (Barbier-Mueller declined to discuss that situation, or any agreement she had made with Lauder.)

But the price wasn't the sticking point, says the source. The hurdle was Barbier-Mueller's insistence that the painting go to someone with a track record as a museum benefactor -- since she wanted the masterpiece to wind up in a museum some day. Lauder, however, is chairman of the Museum of Modern Art and is a devoted patron to the museum, while Barbier-Mueller sits on its international council. When he expressed interest in the work, in late '97 or early '98, Barbier-Mueller was willing to listen. Ultimately, she agreed to a price close to $40 million, with payment made over time.

Back in 1993, Walter Annenberg purchased Vincent van Gogh's Wheat Field with Cypresses for an astonishing $57 million. Annenberg, too, it is said, was able to lure the van Gogh out of a private collection because he was giving the painting -- like hundreds of millions worth of Impressionist and Modern art from his collection -- to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As everyone must know at this juncture, Mirage Resorts CEO Steve Wynn is building his high-roller art collection to promote his new Las Vegas resort, the Bellagio. Working with his New York dealer William Acquavella, Wynn had let just about everyone in the art trade know that he would pay large prices for great works. In a Field of Dreams scenario, a Tahitian scene by Paul Gauguin emerged from a European collection for close to $35 million, and van Gogh's Peasant Girl with Straw Hat was brought to Wynn's doorstep at a price of $47.5 million.

Why did Microsoft chairman Bill Gates pay a reported $30 million for Winslow Homer's huge Lost on the Grand Banks, more than four times the auction record for the artist? Particularly when he owns few paintings (an Andrew Wyeth among them) and prefers the cold allure of oversized LCD panels displaying images of works of art? Who knows.

A thread through all these sales, notes New York dealer David Nash, of Mitchell-Innes + Nash, is that they were "buyer driven," with buyers or their agents hunting the art down. Sotheby's president, Diana D. Brooks, says, "Our clients understand the importance of rarity. I've made a number of offers on pictures in excess of $30 million in the past year, but the people are unwilling to sell. There are very few top pictures around, and the people who have them just don't need the money."

What might entice sellers back to the auction block? "Potentially, the upside," says Brooks, referring to those times when two buyers get into a battle over a particular painting and push the price to unimagined levels. Last June, the phenomenon struck at Sotheby's London, where two bidders battled it out from $24 million up to $33 million for Claude Monet's 1900 Bassin au nympheas et sentir au bord de l'eau. The price wa a record for Monet. The same may happen again this November when Christie's New York puts a van Gogh self-portrait up for auction.

The Monet was just one flare of what Brooks described as "the upside." She acknowledges that bidding wars have not become commonplace, as they were ten years ago, but says that the days of auction madness could return if "there were five or ten new players in the market who came in at the top and were most comfortable buying against competition." But for the moment, the market is controlled by old hands who know too much.

Former Christie's contemporary art specialist Neal Meltzer, who is now a private dealer, feels that a high-end auction revival isn't necessarily far in the distance. "It's just about supply," he says. "At the moment there aren't pictures coming up publicly that create the right kind of competition. Take anything that's fresh and great and you could probably get at auction more than you could ask for it as a dealer."

For the moment, even without the public consumption of art through auctions and even without a raft of spectacular paintings going up for sale, the boom has been chugging along. But quietly.


ANDREW DECKER writes on art and the art market.
 
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