The art market's late-'90s boom expanded on Nov. 8 and 9, as Christie's hammered down $188.23 million worth of art, ranging from Impressionism to contemporary classics from the 1970s. The headline news stories mentioned a Monet Waterlillies, which sold to Swiss art advisor Simon de Pury for $22.6 million, and Picasso's Nu au fauteuil noir (1932), which went to an anonymous telephone bidder for $45.1 million. The top of the market is perfectly fine and quite reasoned, even a bit dispassionate. But it's in the trenches that things are interesting.
The most striking, even jarring, aspect of the auctions were the newbies -- a group of new buyers who went after mid-level Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in the range of $500,000 to $2 million. It's the feeder segment of the market, where the buyers are either looking to decorate, in which case they're tourists on the scene, or are emerging collectors, who will feed the market for years to come. "Impressionism has always been a very easy entry level to the market because the images are accessible," said London dealer James Roundell.
Among them at Christie's, on Nov. 8, was a brunette woman in charcoal gray slacks who sidled over to the exit as she waited for her target. It was lot number 141, Camille Pissarro's Prairie à Eragny, a perfectly fine but fairly wan painting of a rural farmhouse (that the artist later bought). The picture sold for about $1.8 million in 1990, when the market was boiling over, and was up now with a presale estimate of $700,000-$900,000.
Bidding with a paddle in one hand and a cell phone held to her ear with the other, she faced no competition from other buyers and got it for a hammer price of $600,000 (and a final price of $662,500 after the auctioneer's buyer's premium was tagged on; price are reported here with the premium included). On winning the painting, she said to her phone pal, "I'm so psyched -- you're gonna love it!" And she scooted out the door.
Time after time, a new collector stepped in either to save a work from not selling or to push up a price. Claude Monet's Iris jaunes au nuage rose, estimated at $700,000-$900,000, brought $1.08 million from a new buyer who was bidding against the eternally cautious Boston financial guru Scott Black, who once again proved his fear of the $1 million level by bailing out at $950,000. Back in 1993, when the market was restively trying to lumber out of the recession, the Monet had been offered at Sotheby's with an estimate of $700,000-$900,000 and failed to sell, eliciting no bids above $525,000. Two years later, it sold at Sotheby's for $607,500. Now, three years later, it goes for 40 percent more.
The newbies are helping to fill out a dead zone in the market. From 1991 until about 1996, prices for run-of-the-mill Impressionist works had stalled out. Middling stuff sold, but not well. At the Christie's Impressionist and Post-Impressionist sale, a bit of the zip was back, though without fever. Is the market "healthy and stable," as auctioneer Christopher Burge said? Perhaps for the auction houses. Dealers uniformly felt that the mediocre works sold because Christie's had succeeded in bringing in fresh blood to mop up the middle. "The accent seems to be over the easy image at whatever level of the market," Roundell noted.
None of this helped a group of early Paul Cézanne paintings owned by descendants of legendary Paris collector Auguste Pellerin (1852-1929). The paintings were largely small, often sketchy works that foretold Cézanne's seminal contributions to Cubism. Christie's got away with selling most of them. But the highlight of the group -- Le festin (L'orgie) or Le banquet de Nebuchandnezzar, ca. 1870 -- was bought-in at a $5.2 million bid against a low estimate of $7 million. In this market, it's pretty before age.
Other highlights included Vincent van Gogh's interesting but undecorative Le pont de Trinquetaille, which sold at its reserve of $15.4 million (est. $18 million-$24 million). Auguste Rodin's nearly six-foot tall bronze, Eve, one of the Pellerin works, brought $4.84 million (est. $3 million-$4 million), a record for the artist. London dealer Libby Howie paid the same price, $4.84 million, Renoir's Geraniums dans une bassiné de cuivre (est. $2.5 million-$3 million).
Maximilien Luce, a second-string Post-Impressionist, had a couple of eager fans at the sale. His La Seine au pont Saint-Michel (est. $500,00-$700,000) sold for $1.05 million. Earlier this year it was exhibited in the Palm Beach art fair with a price tag of $430,000.
Christopher Burge, perhaps inadvertently, added untold thousands to the price of Kees van Dongen's La valse chaloupée - Mistinguette et Max Dearly (est. $400,000-$600,000), which shows a woman held in an enraptured dip. At Christie's, the work was placed on the turntable rotated 90 degrees clockwise, so it seemed that the woman was on top of the man, rather than in his embrace, and Burge quipped, "Before and after, I think." The painting, suddenly a hang-it-as-you-like work, fetched $904,500.
Buyers at Christie's 20th-century auction on Nov. 9, featuring works made from 1900 to 1970, were the same old faces -- seasoned pros mining the market. As mentioned above, Picasso's luscious Nu au fauteuil noir soared past its $35 million-$40 million estimate to fetch $45.1 million, making it the third highest price for a Picasso work ever recorded at auction. Still, the bidding in that contest -- three anonymous folks on phones -- was measured. The winner seemed to have it locked up at a hammer price of $39 million, but one phone impetuously jumped to $40 million before losing out at $41 million.
Bidding for Giovanni Segantini's monumental Primavera sulle alpi, a great sprawling Divisionist work from 1897, climbed beyond its $6 million estimate and sold for $9.57 million to New York dealer Henry Zimet of French & Co. Zimet was sneakily relaying his bids to Christie's Polly Sartori.
There were hints of passion here and there. Henri Matisse's bronze, Nu couche I (Aurore), cast around 1912, was estimated at $2 million-$3 million and sparked a bidding duel between an anonymous telephone bidder and New York gallery C&M Arts principal Robert Mnuchin. No Matisse bronze had ever sold for more than $4.2 million publicly, but the market for the artist's sculptures was whetted by a C&M exhibition in 1998, "Henri Matisse: Sculpture." Mnuchin wound up the underbidder, and the final price of $9.24 million rewrote the record books.
Unlike the previous evening, when even pretty insipid paintings sold pretty well, the more sophisticated audience for Modernism and classical contemporary art was willing to let things pass without bid. A Picasso gouache on board, Nu a la chevelure tiree, went unsold at $4 million and elicited groans from the artist's devotees. Another Picasso, his Synthetic Cubist Bouteille d'anis del mono, compotier, pipe (1915), had a market history. In 1993 it fetched $1.2 million. This week at Christie's, it notched $2.04 million. "There may not be inflation in the real world," said New York dealer David Nash of Mitchell-Innes and Nash, "but there certainly is in the art market."
One exception is works that sold in the peak of the last boom -- 1989-90 -- which for the most part remain far short of their peak values. Christie's hoisted up Cy Twombly's huge 1971 untitled blackboard painting with an estimate of $5 million-$7 million. The painting had sold in May 1990 for $5.5 million and remained in the U.S. even though its owner, art dealer Shigeki Kameyama, lives in Japan. Kameyama has a loan with Christie's, and the auction house was looking to sell off some of the dealer's art it is holding. But the estimate was gargantuan. Burge held the bidding open at $4.5 million -- one step below the reserve -- for an uncharacteristically long minute and looked imploringly at Larry Gagosian, the New York dealer who has been active with Twombly's work. But Gagosian simply stared back, vacantly.
Which is pretty much how the sales felt. Christie's couldn't muster enough fun, exciting, unusual or spectacular works to generate any great buzz. Mercifully, they dropped the 19th-century academic painting segment of their Impressionist sale (the anticipated synergy between the two fields apparently was less than the firm had hoped for), but even so, the sales felt dull. Commercially, they were a success, given the tepid offerings. But collectors wanted more.
And privately, two lucky collectors go it, at a price. Christie's nearly outdid itself with these two private sales in the weeks leading up to its auctions. The firm brokered the sale of Alberto Giacometti's "Dog" sculpture for around $15 million and had a small role in the sale of an undisclosed Henri Matisse still life for $25 million, according to various sources. The down and dirty sales were negotiated over periods of no more than two weeks each, showing just how hot the market is when something great is in play. Both prices exceed the auction records for works by the artists.
Christie's Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art, Nov. 8, 1999
$88,235,500 (presale estimate: $79.8 million-/$105.0 million), 93 percent sold by dollar. 52 lots offered, 48 lots sold, 4 lots unsold. 92 percent sold by lot.
Christie's 20th-century art, Nov. 9, 1999
$99,991,500 (presale est. $84.6 million-$106.7 million), 85 percent sold by dollar. 53 lots offered, 38 sold, 15 unsold. 72 percent sold by lot.