"Where's the beef?" In this latest round of auctions, we see the contest between the two great auction houses, like the battle between Burger King and MacDonald's, putting ever-increasing spin on an ever-smaller patty. It's only a matter of time until they pass out "highly collectible Star Wars glasses" as we take our seats. How else are you gonna bring 'em in -- put up a playground for the kids?
In a coolly staged performance in the new salesroom, Christie's sold approximately $59 million at the hammer in its May 12 sale of Impressionist and 19th-century art. Only four lots out of 40 were passed. It was a triumph. Auctioneer Christopher Burge earned his salt many times over, almost physically pulling lots out of the muck before they could disgrace themselves.
Tobias Meyer, auctioneer at Sotheby's Tuesday night, had to pass 18 lots -- nearly one out of three, practically extinction level -- and still sold nearly $56 million worth of art (almost as much as Christie's triumph). Well, Tobias is new to the game and Sotheby's salesroom isn't quite so pretty as the one Christie's has built at Rockefeller Center (yes, that's 49th Street with all the Town Cars double-parked under the "No Standing Any Time" signs). And Christie's did not have that extra 24 hours to chase after its clients, saying, " If you don't lower your reserve…."
The high point of the sale came at the end, when the auction house found it had managed to sell a very mediocre selection of pictures at pretty good prices. On the way, in order of approximate interest, Vincent van Gogh's proto-Fauvist view of an Arles canal lined with washerwomen, La Roubine du Roi, (1888) sold for $18 million. It was estimated on request at $20 million and was purchased in 1984 at Sotheby's for $1.7 million.
On the way, the Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Portrait of Madeleine Adam (1887), looking very much like the hoochie mama of Avenue A, failed to find a buyer despite having the honor of the catalogue cover. Perhaps it was the pink eye shadow.
On the way, Claude Monet's darkly overgrown Le Jardin de Vétheuil (1881) sold for $2.5 million over an estimate of $2.5 million-$3.5 million. It had sold for $4.9 million in 1990, a fact that offers a bit of perspective on the current market. Monet's moody Soir à Argenteuil (1976) sold for $1.6 million, very healthy. Monet's Bords de la Falaise à Pourville (1882), a plain view of a rocky bluff, sold for $800,000, a miracle.
Monet's bright, pastel-colored Pont dans le jardin de Monet (1895-96) was knocked down for $5.4 million over an estimate of $7 million-$10 million. How does one trim $2 million off a client's reserve? What honeyed words do you use? "Or else"? Patty Hambrecht must have called them herself.
Monet's pale La Seine près de Giverny (1885) sold expensively for $2 million. The first Monet Charing Cross Bridge was bought in at $3.8 million, the second one sold for $900,000. The Monet Antibes vu de la Salis (1888) sold high at $4.8 million. Needless to say, there was rather a lot of Monet in the market place. The artist's works made up nearly 20 percent of the sale. In hard times you take what you get.
Christie's new salesroom must seat 800 people. Along one side is a mahogany dais with 24 telephones to accommodate people who like to stay home and shop. There are two other ancillary rooms, complete with rostrums and turntables, that can act as independent auction rooms or be used to catch the spillover from large events. Each holds perhaps 250 people or more. Christie's can luxuriously house 1,500 people to sell 40 objects.
The new plant is corporate, a powerful and effective sales tool. Christie's has positioned itself for the new millennium, when it will try to sell everything to everyone. No longer a hapless group of gentlemen selling art, an erudite and exclusive club, Christie's is now Sam's Club -- or Pinault's. But the strategy to keep this juggernaut afloat will have more in common with corporate America than not. There's the beef. Now show me the art.
A total of 40 lots were offered for sale. 15 lots or 37 percent failed to exceed the low estimate (from lots or 10 percent failed to find buyers), eight lots or 20 percent exceeded the low but not the high estimate, and 17 lots or 43 percent exceeded the high estimate (four lots or 10 percent of the sale failed to find buyers).