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christie's impressionists
in new york, nov. 19, 1998
by Andrew Decker

Vincent van Gogh
Personnage sur la route

Claude Monet
Vue du bassin aux nymphéas avec saule
ca. 1917-19

Paul Signac
Concarneau. Calme du Matin.
Op. 219 (Larghetto)

$4.4 million

Paul Signac
La Côte d'Or, La Suleïmanie,


Claude Monet
La Palais Ducal vu
de Saint-Georges Majeur

$2.7 million
   Christie's did a nifty little turn with a so-so auction of 19th-century paintings on Nov. 18, 1998, racking up sales of $44.93 million. The firm's chairman, Christopher Burge, summed up the evening nicely: "Clearly the market is very strong for top quality works, and it is still possible to sell works of lesser quality if they're priced right. The market doesn't have inflation in it. The market doesn't have speculation in it. There are a lot of buyers out there, and they have a lot of money to spend."

The results, particularly following Sotheby's difficulties on the night of Nov. 16, were nearly shocking, as works sold across the board and at all price levels. Claude Monet's 1874 Canotiers a Argenteuil sold to dealer David Nahmad for $9.02 million, who beat out London dealer Desmond Corcoran (and a high estimate of $8 million) to land the painting. Paul Gray, of the Richard Gray Galleries, beat out New York dealer Richard Feigen to snare Vincent van Gogh's ink drawing, Personnage sur la route, at $442,500.

Both works were quite good, but what was surprising was that fairly uninspiring paintings got sold as well. Gustave Courbet's slightly stiff Vue d'Ornans et son clocher brought $607,500 (at the reserve), and a Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Femme debout a la famille (La moissonneuse) pastel and chalk drawing almost began to look appealing at $288,500.

The game of setting estimates and reserves is both a financial and marketing tool. This season, Christie's played it squarely within the market. Apparently, when dealers and collectors feel that they aren't being pushed, they also feel comfortable spending. No question that Christie's worked the reserves down on a few lots after the Sotheby's sale on Monday, but there was nothing forced about the evening, and the results showed.

In a strange parallel to an awkward moment at the Sotheby's sale on Monday, auctioneer Christopher Burge faced the same problem as Henry Wyndham: a halved bid that left him just shy of the reserve.

While offering Paul Signac's La Côte d'Or, La Suleïmanie, Constantinople (a sub-theme of the night was Christie's great success with sailboats), Burge had worked the bidding to $500,000 against a reserve of $520,000. He took a bid at $520,000, but the bidder said no, $510,000. Burge tried again to take the bid at $520,000 and -- unlike Wyndham -- gave the bidder a chance to respond.

When the gentleman went back to $510,000, Burge demurred and hammered it down at that. Christie's now has to pay the consignor as if the painting had been hammered down at $520,000 (the reserve price), and not the actual hammer price of $510,000. What's it going to cost the firm? Somewhere between $9,400 and $9,800. But by taking that small hit, Burge keeps the sale's momentum going and avoids a confrontation that would have pitted the auction house against the buyer, who is, after all, Christie's client.

Fuzzy Monet's are not the market's passion at the moment. His Cabane des douaniers a Varengeville went unsold at $1 million (low est: $1.5 million), and his Le Palais Ducal vu de Saint-Georges Majeur bombed at $2.7 million (est: $3.5 million-$4.5 million).

Rory Howard, of James Roundell, Ltd., paid $189,500 for Stanislas Victor Edouard Lepine's Le Quai de Louviers au Pont Sully (Le Quai Henri IV a Paris). He also bagged Edgar Degas's Cheval au galop sur le pied droit at $464,500.

Some other results:

Monet, Vue du bassin au nympheas avec saule. Darker than its competition at Sotheby's, this painting of waterlillies brought $552,500.

Gustave Moreau, Suzanne et les viellards. David Nahmad picked up this nearly Rococo symbolist work for $794,500.

Emile Bernard, Madeleine au bois d'amour. Boston collector Scott Black paid $497,500 for this painting, beating out Paris dealer Daniel Malingue.

Claude Monet, Promenade (Equisse). A pretty, early, al fresco Monet that went to London dealer James Roundell for $1.05 million.

A new record for Paul Signac, as Concarneau, Calme du Matin. Op. 219 (Larghetto) brought $4.4 million from N.Y. dealer David Nash. London dealer Desmond Corcoran was the underbidder, with N.Y. dealer William Acquavella in the hunt until around $3.4 million.

An anonymous American couple, who are private collectors, paid $4.73 million for Edouard Vuillard's highly decorative Conversation (Le pot de gres).

Washington private collector Joseph Albritton paid $1.01 million for Claude Monet's Le moulin de Vervy.

ANDREW DECKER writes on art and the art market.