The big trends this spring are "cut bids" (going from $1 million to $1.05 million, rather than the standard $1.1 million) and a new degree of reticence that showed up most clearly at Sotheby's Impressionist and modern sale on May 11. Everyone's happy to have new buyers in the market, but it's slowing things down.
Sotheby's big item was Claude Monet's Meule (presale est. $8 million-$12 million), a nice and important enough painting with too colorful a past and too static an image to generate the kind of buzz the house was hoping for. The consignors were the Nahmad family, two generations of art traders who have galleries in New York and London and, more importantly, a warehouse stuffed with hundreds and hundreds of paintings. The fact that the warehouse is in Geneva's freeport (think off-shore banking) adds to the mystery of the Nahmads and the way they operate.
They came across the Monet in June 1990 in a small auction in France, where they bought it for $5.66 million. Six months later, they tried to flip it for a 60 percent profit in London, and the painting became a cause scandale. The market was falling apart, and the Nahmads were rushing to make a score, as if trying to catch the last helicopter out of Saigon. The Nahmads didn't make it: the painting went unsold.
Cut to Sotheby's nine years later, in the midst of a thriving but discriminating market. The Sotheby's turntable spun, the Monet appeared and auctioneer Tobias Meyer faced a listless crowd. Despite getting no interest in the room or on the phones, he ran the bidding up to the increment, or foot, below the reserve (a standard practice). Things stopped at $7.75 million, just short of the $8 million reserve.
The Nahmads -- brothers Ezra, of London, and David, of Monte Carlo --looked on, as did their sons, who are both named Hillel. (They're named after their late grandfather, who originally came from Syria and later moved to Lebanon and then Milan.) David's wife and daughter were also present, though not Joseph, the eldest brother, who hasn't visited America in decades.
Meyer kept the non-bidding open. He knew clients had been interested in it prior to the auction, though now they were being coy. He was on the verge of hammering it down as unsold when a phone bidder finally coughed up a bid. Oddly, the painting then had a brisk run and was bid up to $10.9 million, where it sold ($11.99 million with fees). David Nahmad grimaced throughout, seemingly unsure whether a modest sale was preferable to getting the painting back to hold onto for another decade.
The Nahmads were nearly victims of a cat-and-mouse game they've played so often before. Let a painting go unsold and try to buy it afterwards at a discount. (They lost the game that night, when their Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec went up and got no bids. They had bought it after it went unsold at Christie's in 1991, when it had an estimate of $4 million-$6 million.) When the Nahmads play the game as buyers, they're willing to let things go. They buy for inventory and have enough money to sit and wait, so they only buy cheaply.
But the anonymous Sotheby's buyer is a collector, not a pro, and doesn't have the kind of sophistication to let things go, according to someone who knows him. Apparently, he wanted to steal it at the lowest price possible at auction. He was also willing to go much higher in the face of competition, once he knew that someone else wanted the painting. It's a safety-in-numbers approach that some beginning collectors go through, before they know the market and their own tastes.
It's a cagey market -- fairly sophisticated, sly and in this case cool and then not. Yet it's a different story when buyers are offered what they want. Then, passion and drive displace games. It happened with Renoir's Les Rosiers à Wargemont, a dazzlingly pretty painting of blossoming trees and the kind of oversized French house that we'd all like to retire to, preferably tomorrow. The painting had sold in 1997 for $1.7 million, but no one minded this time around. It was pretty and fresh and ended selling for $6.16 million.
Sotheby's brought the schizoid bidding upon itself. Eighteen of the 48 works offered didn't sell, a shockingly high 37.5 percent for a market as strong as this. And the sold total of $55.58 million was well below the auction's $76.5 million presale low estimate. (Sotheby's has undoubtedly made up part of the difference with post-sale negotiated transactions.)
It's no skin off Sotheby's nose that 2,000 people have to sit through clots of paintings that no one wants. The firm is willing to live with a reputation as a volume-driven factory, taking flyers too often.
In its auction of Impressionist and 19th century art on May 12 and 20th century art on May 13, Christie's took its standard, different approach: be selective about what you're offering and keep estimates within the market. As a result, Christie's sold 88 of the 102 works of art (13.7 percent unsold) it offered. Undoubtedly the stats were helped by going second, which gave the firm's specialists a chance to convince the consignor of Claude Monet's Pont dans le jardin de Monet to lower his reserve. The painting sold at a hammer price of $5.4 million ($5.94 million with fees) against a low estimate of $7 million.
Auctioneer Christopher Burge occasionally had to exercise patience for offers ("What I have to do to get a bid," he exclaimed at one point) but managed to keep things moving. Early on, a dawdling phone bidder was a half-second too late in his bid for Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's Mornex (Haute-Savoie) -- Au fond, le mole. The Christie's representative handling the phone was crest-fallen, but bids came a little faster after that.
Christie's did spectacularly well with the collection of Maurice and Margo Cohen on May 13, which focused on somewhat difficult, cerebral works by Miro, Léger and Dubuffet, among others. Joan Miro's L'espoir notched $4.51 million (est. $2 million-$3 million), and Fernand Leger's Les trois femmes au bouquet brought $4.4 million. And the artist the market can't seem to get enough of, Alexander Calder, saw scads of bidding for Hanging Apricot, which sold for $992,500 (high estimate $700,000).
Christie's had two mega-lots, and neither took off. The firm squeaked by with Vincent van Gogh's La Roubine du Roi, in which it had an ownership interest. Estimated at $20 million, the work sold to Washington, D.C., communications mogul Joseph Albritton for $19.8 million. Jasper Johns' Two Flags, a late (1973) painting of the flag done once in oil and once in encaustic, sold to dealer Larry Gagosian for $6.5 million ($7.15 million with fees), which may have been the painting's reserve.
Three nights of auctions totaled $184.17 million. Nothing to sneeze at, but hardly a bumper crop. Moving forward, the houses face the same problem that's beset them for a year: convincing people who have both money and art that they should sell their paintings. Back in March, Christie's Michael Findlay complained to an associate that getting things to sell was harder than it had ever been -- the supply just wasn't there. In a moment of frustration, he felt that unless more collections came from estates, glamorous evening sales might become a thing of the past. Christie's (and Sotheby's) might not be able to find enough high-wattage material to fill a 40-lot catalogue. It's that dry out there.