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artnet auction report
Christie's New York
Nov. 18, 1998

by Stewart Waltzer

Gustave Courbet
Vue d'Ornans et son clocher
ca. 1858

Claude Monet
Vue du bassin aux
nymphéas avec saule

$5 million

Alfred Sisley
Le barrage, canal du
Loing à Saint-Mammès


Edgar Degas
Le pas Battu
ca. 1879
bought in

Georges Seurat
Casseur de pierres
ca. 1882
bought in

Pierre Bonnard
Goûter au jardin
ca. 1891
$1.5 million
   48 Hours. Remember the movie? Nick Nolte springs Eddie Murphy from jail and gives him 48 hours to catch the killers and find the money before he goes back to the slammer.

When Christie's 19th-century art specialist Franck Giraud walked out of Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art sale on Monday, Nov. 16, he was faced with a similar challenge. He had 48 hours to work on his sale or suffer the same fate that Sotheby's had.

Sotheby's sale had gone down with almost 30 buy-ins. The only solution for Christie's was to contact its cosignors and lower the reserves. Everyone at the auction house was dialing for dollars before dawn, from Patty "The Duke" Hambrecht to Christopher "The Demon Barber of King Street" Burge, convincing clients to trim their reserves to fit with a new reality. And it worked, to some degree.

Take the first Courbet, for instance. Please! Vue d'Ornans et son clocher (ca. 1858), sold for $550,000, well below the printed presale estimate of $800,000-$1,200,000. The second Courbet, Falaise d'Etretat, La Porte d'Avale (1869), went for $450,000, again below its low estimate of $600,000. Monet's Vue du bassin aux nymphéas avec saule (1917-1919) sold for $5 million (est. $6 million-$8 million). And finally, Redon's Bouquet de fleurs dans un vase bleu sold for $350,000 on an estimate of $500,000-$700,000.

Two works by Signac also sold below their estimates, as did works by Cézanne, Vuillard, Bonnard and Renoir. Sisley's Le barrage, canal du Loing à Saint-Mammès sold for $550,000 (est. $600,000-$800,000), far below its outings in 1989 at $1.76 million and in 1997 at $1.1 million. God have mercy on the phone bidders, who play the part formerly taken by the chandeliers, which at least used to glow brighter with each bid.

In one's worst Dadaist fantasy, one can imagine Christie's auctioning everything in the world. The house has leased acres in Rockefeller Center. It has changed traditional schedules and departments to comply with this ubervision of the 21st-century auction business. Only at present, it seems like one, long, elaborately catered affair.

The contemporary sales were the hors d'oeuvres, with a tasty bouche amuse of expensive Basquiat passed around and admired. And now an appetizer? "Something to begin with? 19th century perhaps and very reasonable as of this morning." Not the main event, not the entrée, that's Nov. 19 with a lovely side of van Gogh, already waiting on a groaning board, but the appetizers were pleasant and palatable though uninspired.

Christopher Burge, with the tuxedoed charm of a maitre'd, led us through 43 courses, with some elaborately prepared dishes returned to the kitchen untasted. The catalogue cover lot, Degas' Le pas Battu (ca. 1879) was bought in over an estimate of $2 million to $3 million. Seurat's Stone Breakers (ca. 1882) also passed (est. $600,000-$800,000), though it was a lovely small work.

Stone breakers seem to be a subject many artists have identified with, from Courbet to van Gogh. I wonder why? Frustration? Could it be greater than that of an auction house making one more attempt to sell a Venetian Monet for big bucks? Doesn't seem to work. Monet's "Death in Venice," officially titled Le Palais Ducal vu de St. George Majeur (1908), was bought in at $2.7 million, in spite of a $3.5 million-$4.5 million estimate. Looks like somebody didn't get a phone call.

There were bright moments, though they were few. Bonnard's Goûter au jardin (ca. 1891) sold well and expensively amidst Bonnard mania for $1.5 million (est. $800,000-$1,200,000), $300,000 more than Christie's greatest hope. The 1874 Monet, Canotiers a Argenteuil (1874) went for real money at $8.2 million (est. $6 million-$8 million). Vuillard's Conversation (Le pot de grès) (1895) barely exceeded the reserve, selling at $4,300,000 (est. $4,500,000-$6,500,000), as much as anyone had a right to hope for.

As these affairs go, it was pleasant if not joyous, and lots more fun than Monday's extravaganza that brought out the worst in all of us.

All prices are at the hammer, and do not include the auction house commission of 15 percent on the first $50,000 and 10 percent on the remainder.

STEWART WALTZER writes on the art market.