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    The $60-Million Cézanne
by Andrew Decker
Georges Seurat
Paysage, l'lile de la Grand Jatte
Paul Cézanne
Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier
ca. 1893-94
Pablo Picasso
Nature Morte a la Bouteille de Rhum
Pablo Picasso
Le Journal
"You're done?" Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer asked the firm's chairwoman, Diana D. Brooks. She had just bid, on behalf of a buyer on the phone, $47 million for Paul Cézanne 's 1893-1894 still life, Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier. No sooner had Meyer registered the price than another Sotheby's staffer had countered with $48 million. One million gone, in the blink of an eye. The painting was estimated to fetch $25 million-$35 million.

You can't blame the experts. Another still life by the artist, larger and more modern, with the picture planes breaking up into facets as if in anticipation of Cubism, sold for around $50 million just two years earlier. Yet another had brought around $35 million, in 1996, while a third had sold in the $25 million-$30 million range, all in private sales, confirming Cézanne as the god of the 1990s art market. Who knew there were so many people chafing to spend over $35 million for a toweringly important artist, but one who didn't even rate a 4.8 on the art market's Richter scale until 1993, when Grosses Pommes fetched $28.6 million.

Resigned to loosing, Brooks shook her head no -- no more bids. She circled the number 48 in her catalogue. The act signified that the painting had sold for a $48-million hammer price.

Standing in the podium, in black tie, Meyer leaned down, his face but 12 inches from Brooks'. "Done?" he asked.

After a moment, Brooks bid again. And so it went, Brooks' client bowing out of the bidding, coming back in. When the bidding hit $55 million, Meyer looked at Brooks again, who was once again behind in the two-telephone competition. "I'm done," Brooks said. "You said that before," Meyer quipped, but this time out Brooks' buyer was resolute. He, or she, one supposes, was done.

Moments later, Meyer brought down the hammer to hearty applause. With commissions and premiums, the painting was sold for $60.5 million, making it the fourth most expensive painting ever to have sold at auction, and placing Cézanne, for the moment, ahead of Picasso. The move up finally righted a long-standing inequity. Cézanne, the god-father of Cubism, had finally eclipsed a younger colleague he had so greatly influenced.

People unfamiliar with art tend to imagine that there's some abstract equation that governs the art market, perhaps something like "price =quality." It's an easily understood fallacy, particularly there is no AMPA (Art Market Painter Average) or other index that can calculate the changes in taste and fashion and wealth that every six months or so assigns dollar values to art.

What really happened to make the Cézanne worth so much?

After the sale, Brooks said, "My sense of what was going on at that point," referring to the moment her client's bid of $47 million was eclipsed, "is that we were over the level we had decided on." So, with the bidder beyond his limit, one he and Brooks had agreed to in the cool light of day, before the painting had gone up for auction, she circled 48. It was over.

"But as much as the client was going to walk, the client couldn't walk." Brooks paused, thinking of the anonymous client and his enormous wealth, some abstract sum that was probably far beyond really having to worry whether the painting cost $45 million or $55 million or $65 million. "It was torture," she said empathetically, characterizing the process of the client being unable to let the painting go without a fight. A game of extortion between her client and the other anonymous bidder on another telephone -- the money for the art. "It was $1-million-at-a-time torture."

In the end, the client acquiesced, having gone about $10 million beyond his pre-sale limit. But, as Brooks noted, "That's what happens at auction."

The same rush didn't occur with Georges Seurat's landscape painting, Paysage, l'Ile de la Grande Jatte, also estimated at $25 million-$35 million. Although it made $35.2 million, nearly $33 million beyond the previous auction record for the artist (and $7 million more than a private sale of three years ago), the painting didn't quite take off. Two bidders went at it for a while, but then it stopped. "The Seurat did fantastically," Brooks said, "but I think it was the great bargain of the sale."

The problem is rarity. Seurat oil paintings come to market infrequently, and great Seurat oils far less often. There aren't enough to get people accustomed to paying tons of money for them, and however wonderful a painter Seurat may be, his effect on art history is mild compared to that of Cézanne. "We always knew that every great collection needs a great Cézanne. But not every collection needs a great Seurat still life."

The paintings were but two from the collection of the late John H. and Betsey C. Whitney that Sotheby's sold on the evening of May 10, 1999. The sale brought $128.3 million (the overall estimate was $68.6 million-$95.3 million), making it the second highest total of a single owner evening auction. (The collection of Victor and Sally Ganz, featuring works by Picasso's and contemporary artists, brought $206.5 million at Christie's in November 1997.)

Other paintings did well, with Picasso's Synthetic Cubist painting, Nature Morte a la Bouteille de Rhum fetching $7.9 million (estimate $5 million-$6 million) and the artist's Analytic Cubist work Le Journal, from 1912, bringing $6.8 million (estimate $4 million-$6 million). It was bought by Herbert Rosenfeld, of the Michelle Rosenfeld gallery, in New York, presumably on behalf of a client.

For a complete illustrated list of the sale results, go to the Fine Art Auction Report.

ANDREW DECKER writes on art and the art market.