I, Sotheby's? "I" for Internet? Last night's auction of the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney at Sotheby's New York saw artworks trading for multiples above the projected high values, like stock in AOL, Amazon.com and even … Sotheby's. Is this the brave new world? In all, 50 lots were offered. Eight percent fell at or below the low estimate. Eighteen percent fell above the low but did not exceed the high and 72 percent of the lots exceeded the high. No lots were passed. A few years ago the percentages were reversed and Sotheby's looked like a less than propitious investment, even on the Internet.
Just for the record, in plain English, the Whitney sale was brilliant. The prices were off the charts. No doubt news of the Cézanne selling for $55 million at the hammer is on every front page across the nation.
People were drawn to Jock and Betsey Whitney. Perhaps it was the personal nature of the collection. A lot of the work was quirky, not necessarily brilliant, but very much a reflection of the people who owned it. The collection was assembled at a time when art was an accouterment to the good life and not its focus. Buying an expensive Cézanne and hanging it in the den is one thing. Buying anything for twice the national product of Jamaica and hanging in it your fortress home with 24-hour guards is quite another. There aren't many collections of this magnitude left, and if you missed the boat here, there's no telling when the next one will be.
At the end of the sale people were speculating who had bought the Cézanne. Was it Bill Gates? Was it Paul Allen? Was it the head of e-Bay, who perhaps wants to resell it on his own site? Interestingly, there are probably 50 digital billionaires who could have bought the work. More if Sotheby's would accept payment in shares of stock. Steve Wynn could have bought the painting, installed it in the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas and charged people $20 dollars a head just to see it. It would have paid for itself in year and a half.
The sale began modestly enough with lots by Daumier, Rodin, Courbet and Boudin. All selling nicely, but it wasn't until Berthe Morisot's Cache-Cache (Hide and Seek) sold for nearly twice its low estimate that one sensed that the personable Tobias Meyer, number one auctioneer, was on his way to pitching a no-hitter. The Maillols sold for three to six times their projected cost. A saddish group of Lautrec lithographs sold for $800,000. I know it is rare to find the set unbroken but not $800,000 rare.
Then the next thing you know, up steps Mr. Seurat and in 15 seconds the bid is at $25 million. Jumping the bid in million-dollar increments, the whole thing was over in less than a minute. The piece was hammered down for $32 million and no one even clapped. "Well, we didn't love it," one dealer told me. "It is an intellectual painting. It belongs in a museum." Oh.
Back to business. More Maillols, more tiny little pictures that must have hung in one upstairs loo or the other now fetching distinctly non-loo prices. A very ordinary Monet knocked down at $2.6 million, a million more than Sotheby's Impressionist chief David Norman's presale fantasy price of $1.6 million.
And then the Cézanne, Rideau, Cruchon and Compotier. It is a brilliant, totally lovely painting. There are not more than a few left in private hands. It is now or never. The sale virtually opens at the low estimate. No coaxing this crowd off their hands. At well-bred intervals of a $1 million the bid rises in a stately cadence. $55 million, last stop. What is the sound of gloved hands clapping?
It is going to be a bit anticlimatic after that, isn't it? A couple of Cubist Picassos, ex collection Gertrude Stein no less, sell for $7 million and $6 million, respectively. But with the crowds pouring out of the room, it is tough going. More works sell, every thing sells in fact. Manzus, Moores and Miros, all for more than they should.
The Whitneys are magic tonight. They were just a bunch a regular rich folk, and other regular rich folk like what they see. The Whitneys didn't have chi-chi de Menil taste. Just pictures of dogs and horses and the odd minor de Kooning. Much of the art was decorative in its taste. You got a problem with that? Sotheby's didn't.
After the sale I met one of the Whitney grandchildren in the parking lot across the street. A bit glum, he remembers playing around the work at Grandma's house and finds it sad to witness the passing of an era. I like the Whitneys.