The spring sales of 19th-century paintings at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York were surprisingly uneven. Most of the bog-standard, unexciting commercial pictures sold well enough, but a number of highly priced lots failed to find buyers.
The auction houses are no longer content to call their sales "Important 19th Century Paintings." Sotheby's actually held three sales, all on May 5 -- "Important 19th Century Paintings and Sculpture," "Eastern Encounters: Orientalist Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture" and "La Belle Epoque: Paintings and Sculpture." Christie's titled its auction the next day, May 6, "The Age of Elegance and Barbizon, Realist and French Landscape Paintings including Important Paintings from the Collection of Robert Isaacson" (whew!).
Sotheby's triple-catalogue, nearly 400-lot marathon on May 5 featured a star lot by Pierre Auguste Cot, Springtime (1873), consigned by New Jersey collectors Fred and Sherry Ross. An icon of late 19th-century Salon painting, it had hung for the past three years at the Metropolitan Museum beside the Met's own Cot, The Storm, one of the museum's most popular pictures. (Old timers will remember the 1960s ad pairing it with an expressionist Kokoschka with the caption, "Which one is the Bad Painting?" If you knew the finer points of art appreciation, it was the Cot, naturally!)
Unfortunately, it did not help the Rosses that the Met's picture is considerably finer and sexier than theirs. The aggressive presale estimate for the Ross picture, $1.4 million-$1.8 million, only put off all potential buyers, and the work was bought in.
Aggressive reserves also killed the splashy, rediscovered Tissot painting, The Hammock (1879), depicting the artist's English mistress, Kathleen Newton, awkwardly lolling on a summer afternoon while reading a newspaper and clutching a Japanese parasol. Estimated at $1.5 million-$2 million, the work failed to sell.
It didn't help that the Sotheby's sale also had an incomparably finer and earlier work by the artist, the exquisite Young Ladies Admiring Japanese Objects (1869) (est. $1.2 million-$1.5 million), consigned from a British family collection, where it had resided since ca. 1900. No surprise, then, that this sold for a worthy $2.1 million to an anonymous private collector.
Nicest of the Barbizon lots was an exceptionally fresh and early little Corot of Ville d'Avray -- The Pond, the House of M. Corot, Pére, and Its Kiosk (1825). Attractively estimated at $125,000-$175,000, it sold to a phone bidder for $350,000, underbid by dealer Simon Dickenson of London and New York.
Sotheby's huge Orientalist section, "Eastern Encounters," was unevenly received. Picture quality veered from superb to "looks like a still from a Maria Montez Epic." Definitely in the former category was the marvelous Alfred de Dreux from the Whitney estate (which was surprisingly badly displayed in a corridor during the presale exhibition) of An African Groom Holding a Stallion with a Dog (1858) (est. $300,000-$400,000). It sold (like most people thought it would) to London dealer Richard Green for $745,000.
Gustav Bauernfeind's sun-drenched Entrance to the Temple Mount, Jerusalem (est. $600,000-$800,000) shows a group of Jews gazing longingly at the Mount while one discourses with a turbaned Muslim. Surprisingly, it only brought $673,500 from an American collector.
Christie's sale the next day featured a group of pictures from the estate of Robert Isaacson, the pioneering connoisseur who bought most of them in the early 1960s. Collector Jerry Davis (accompanied by his advisor, the Alma-Tadema expert Vern Swanson) bought two Gérômes. He won the Wailing Wall, Jerusalem (ca. 1875) (est. $400,00-$600,000) for $2,312,500 against a very persistent phone bidder. And he paid $552,500 for The First Kiss of the Sun (ca. 1885) (est. $400,000-$600,000), an early morning view of the Pyramids that was atrociously and misleadingly illustrated in the Christie's catalogue. (The illustration was washed out compared to the picture itself, in which the pyramids were a deep, almost electric pink and the sky was still dark.)
By contrast, the beautiful and rare early "Neo-Grec" Gérôme painting of Socrates Seeking Alcibiades at the House of Aspasia ($250,000-$350,000) was sold to an anonymous buyer for just $200,500.
A Hungarian active in Paris, Mikaly de Munkácsy is today not considered among the leading figures of late 19th-century Salon painting, but The Flower Arrangement (1882) from the Isaacson collection may help change that. A delightful depiction of two little girls spellbound by their Momma jamming yet another blossom into an already overstuffed Theodore Deck vase, it sold for $431,500 to Richard Green (est. $200,000-$300,000).
Isaacson's lovely Albert Moore A Workbasket (1879) -- a typical esthetic "medley of apple greens and salmon" (est. $150,000-$200,000) went to a phone bidder for $233,500. A more interesting work by this underrated Victorian Matisse, Forget-Me-Nots (ca. 1880) (est. $150,000-$200,000), sold for $321,500.
A less lucky consignor was New York socialite Nancy Richardson, whose disconcertingly Keene-like Henri Lehmann Portrait of Leo Faustine (1842) (est.$200,000-$300,000) barely eked out a bid, but sold for $123,500.
PAUL JEROMACK is a New York critic and journalist.