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the mystery of the van gogh millionaire
by Andrew Decker

Vincent van Gogh
Portrait de l'artiste sans barbe
$71.5 million

René Magritte
Le journal intime

René Magritte
ca. 1955

René Magritte
Le tombeau des lutteurs
$5.72 million

Amedeo Modigliani
Nu debout
ca. 1917-18
bought in

Paul Klee


Henri Matisse
Composition à la croix rouge
$3.08 million

Paul Delvaux
Douce nuit

Tamara de Lempicka
Portrait d'Ira P.
$1.19 million

Piet Mondrian
   The benchmark of the new art boom is now $71.5 million, the price Christie's realized on Nov. 19 for Vincent van Gogh's Portrait de l'artiste sans barbe (1879), a self-portrait the artist made for his mother, his last self-portrait, and most likely the last van Gogh self-portrait that will ever be available for sale. The price is the third highest in auction history, the highest since 1990, and was one of those lovely moments when the outrageousness of the money spent on a work of art is basically equal to the painting's quality.

Bidding on the painting started at $14 million and ended about 11 minutes later when auctioneer Christopher Burge brought down the hammer at $65 million. The only consistent bidder in the room was New York dealer William Acquavella, who sat with a phone to his ear and dropped out at $45.5 million. That left Sachiko Hibiya, president of Christie's Japan office, handling a bidder on a phone and Christopher Hartop, a Christie's executive vice president, bidding from behind a desk and not tethered to a phone line. Hartop's anonymous buyer ultimately beat out Hibiya's anonymous buyer, and the identity of each will probably long remain a mystery, as Christie's went to great lengths to ensure.

The question at 8:04 p.m., as the bidding slowly pressed past $50 million, quickly became, "How did Hartop know whether to bid or not?" Had someone merely left an order bid for, say, $90 million for Hartop to carry out while the client was at his pinochle club? No, according to informal reports from Christie's insiders.

So the buyer must have been in the room, and damn Chris Hartop for being so humorously sly. Time after time, after Hibiya had bid, Hartop would pause, a trace of a smile peeking though his beard, and slowly lift a hand holding a pen to signal his bid. It was a modulated, snake-charmer performance that drew and held the audience enrapt during an auctioneer's nightmare: a bidding war between (yawn) two of the auction house's staff members representing clients who might be half a world away.

So what was the signal that Hartop was receiving? Watching Hartop carefully, it seemed that he was looking either down or straight ahead, across the salesroom to a bunch of Christie's staffers. And there stood the lanky John Lumley, Christie's international department head for 19th- and 20th-century art, with a phone to his ear, and his gaze directed diagonally across the salesroom -- until Hibiya had lodged a bid. At each point, Lumley then turned his head and directed his gaze at Hartop, who went into his gleeful but restrained slow-motion bidding act.

Christie's wouldn't say whether Lumley was bidding through Hartop, or whether Hartop was getting a signal from an actual buyer in the room who was not using a signal to bid but had a signal to stop bidding -- uncrossed legs, putting on glasses -- so that no one in the room had a chance to pick up on a series of tell-tale gestures.

Which still leaves the question of whoboughtit. Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler says he didn't, and the rest is speculation. Collectors whose tastes run to van Gogh, who have the money to afford it, and who don't talk about their collections, include Estee Lauder International director Ronald Lauder, philanthropist Walter Annenberg, shippers Philip and/or Spyros Niarchos, the Sultan of Brunei (though the timing would be bad for him, what with his country's problems), Mirage Resorts owner Steve Wynn, who was in it until $45.5 million through Acquavella, according to trade sources, and Dreamworks partner Paul Allen.

The guesses here: Lauder's spent over $100 million on art in the past two years and can't really justify another $70 million. Wynn wasn't willing to sell more of the art he already has for the painting. Annenberg feels like a long-shot. The Niarchoses already have a van Gogh self-portrait.

Though one can't know for sure, Allen seems the most likely candidate. The day before the auction, word went out on the street that Allen definitely wasn't interested, which makes him look good for it. And New York dealer David Nash, who invariably attends these sales, was nowhere to be seen in the auction room. Instead, he was in a private room in the building, watching a video feed. Nash says, "You're barking up the wrong tree."

Christie's had set up the van Gogh beautifully. The sale began with 17 works from the collection of the late Harry Torczyner, a French-born, New York-practicing lawyer who was a close friend of Rene Magritte. The 17 Torczyner lots had been estimated at $12.2 million-$17.1 million and fetched $30.2 million (including buyers premium).

What's more, six of the ten works of art from the estate of the late Swiss industrialist Jacques Koerfer had come up for sale before the van Gogh was presented, and those six had all reached or exceeded their pre-sale estimates. Overall, the 10 Koerfer works Christie's sold on Nov. 19 fetched $97.7 million. It was the fourth and last auction of Koerfer property that Christie's handled over several years, and the total for the entire group of works was $157.8 million, making it the second most expensive collection ever sold at auction.

The mixed-owners segment of Christie's sale revealed, yet again, that buyers are happy to pay a lot of money for good works and just as happy to see middling art, with excessive values, fall flat. Bidding on the strange, hopelessly estimated Modigliani, Nu debout, never started, and Burge put a halt to it at $5.5 million, well shy of the $8 million low estimate.

The audience for the evening was exceptionally active, with people happy to participate in going after the art. For the Torczyner property, Montreal dealer Robert Landau bought the first lot, Magritte's Le moir des vendages, for $134,500, with the Richard Gray Gallery's Andrew Fabricant as the underbidder. New York art advisor Thea Westreich paid $600,500 for Magritte's Le journal intime, and the artist's Femme-bouteille sold to an anonymous phone buyer for $211,500, with New York dealer Jack Tilton the underbidder. Magritte's Le tombeau des lutteurs sold to an anonymous buyer for a striking $5.72 million.

The same artist's Le therapeute brought $409,500 from Swiss dealer and advisor Simon de Pury, who also underbid Magritte's La plagian, which sold for $707,500. Stronger still was the record price of $7.15 million for the artist's Les valeurs personnelles, which went to a telephone bidder. Gallerist Jan Krugier, of New York and Geneva, paid $607,500 for Paul Klee's rot/gruen orange/blau.

Bidders for the Koerfer art included C&M Arts' Robert Mnuchin, who paid $1.21 million for Mark Rothko's 1967 Untitled. Fabricant of Richard Gray paid $2.64 million for Piet Mondrian's Composition with Red, Black and White. London dealer James Mayor paid $2.31 million for Joan Miro's Figure a la bougie. German dealer Wolfgang Wittrock was the underbidder. De Pury paid $11.55 million for Cézanne's ca. 1904, distinctively Modernist Le Château Noir.

In the mixed owners part of the evening's auction, London dealer Desmond Corcoran paid $6.05 million for Fernand Leger's Composition (Le typographe). New York private dealer Nancy Whyte, who was so active at Sotheby's on Nov. 16, paid $3.08 million for Henri Matisse's decoupage, Composition a la croix rouge. Whyte also beat out underbidder Daniel Malingue to land Paul Klee's Landschaft UOL for $1.32 million, underbid Paul Delvaux's Douce nuit, which sold for $662,500, and paid $1.19 million for Tamara de Lempicka's Portrait d'Ira P.

London dealer Richard Nagy paid $233,500 for Egon Schiele's two-sided drawing, Selbstbildnis; Skizze eines maennlichen Aktes. Acquavella & Co.'s Duncan McGuigan paid $717,500 for Mondrian's Pointillist Dune Study, Crest at Left. New York dealer Abigail Asher paid $662,500 for Mondrian's Chrysanthemum.

Picasso's L'atelier sold to international dealer David Nahmad for $1.54 million, with Olivier Berggruen, of de Pury and Luxembourg, underbidding. An anonymous telephone buyer paid $2.75 million for Andy Warhol's Orange Marilyn, which was owned at least in part by Christie's owner François Pinault; according to sources familiar with the deal, Pinault bought the painting in June 1998 for $2.6 million.

ANDREW DECKER writes on art and the art market.

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