What happened at Sotheby's Impressionist and modern sale Tuesday night -- many passed lots, a few stellar ones -- has to be considered the norm. The twice-annual Impressionist and modern sale drives the economy of the auction house. Collectors, dealers and shareholders (can't afford to leave them out anymore) use it to test the waters of the market -- and it turns out that those damned Whitneys used all the hot water.
After the Whitney's brilliant sale Monday night, the taste of success turned to ashes as a disaster of biblical proportions began to build in the auction room. The dealers were beside themselves with delight.
Of 48 lots offered, only 30 sold. The sale total was $55.5 million, well below the presale estimate of $74 million-$102 million.
The episode accurately reflects the market and the economy on many levels. In the last 18 months, most of the companies of the S&P 500 are actually down. Only 33 of the 500 listed companies were responsible for 80 percent of the gain in the market. The other 467 were down or even.
The art market parallels the stock market. Business is not as brilliant as it might be. We have not returned to the speculative climate of the late '80s. It is healthy when things go up and down. It is the manifestation of the collective regard for what is valuable and what is not -- despite what some people spent for Jock and Betsey's family pix.
Sotheby's Impressionist sale was also oddly constructed with many of the important pictures stacked toward the front. An important Rodin, a Monet drawing and a Sisley landscape all sold well, within or the near the top of very plausible estimates. When the fifth lot, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Les Rosiers a Wargemont (1879), was hammered down at $5.6 million over an estimate of $4 million-$6 million, the room was still cold.
The next series of works -- a Cézanne, the Bonnard piece on the catalogue cover, the Vuillard, the Rodin marble Frére et Soeur, the Monet Cabane des Douaniers and the Maillol all did well. The next two lots, a gray Pissarro and an outright homely Degas, Femme à sa toilette, were passed. Then the tiny Seurat drawing, still lit from last night's magic, sold at the top of its estimate for $700,000, and a charming Signac of a sailboat by the bridge at Asnières sold well for $1.8 million.
The high point of the evening was the sale of Monet's Haystack (1891), which was owned by the Nahmad family of dealers, who have galleries in London and New York. It had been offered in 1990 at Sotheby's London over an estimate of $10 million-$14 million and was bought in. Now it sold for $10.9 million in the middle of its estimate.
Then it started to rain on the parade. In order of appearance, the Sisley passed, dull. The Renoir Maternité passed, really dull. The Degas, Danse Basculant, passed, too costly. The Monet of Rouen Cathedral's side door passed, cheap but really dull. The Lautrec that looked like Rosa Kleb (the woman with the dagger in her shoe in From Russia with Love) passed, scary looking. The Pissarro Rodo Reading, passed, yawn. Monet by the cliffs, passed, bigger yawn.
It went on. The big Klee was passed and both large Vuillards were passed. Eighteen lots in all. Just like the old days. Mr. Meyer, number one auctioneer, had lost a bit of last night's ebullience by the end of the ordeal. Indeed in his haste to be done, the word "passed" gradually became softer and more evanescent than a fairy's touch. Builds character.
In the midst of it all he sold the Monet Waterloo Bridge, effet de brouillard for a healthy $8.5 million. People poured out of the room laughing with relief. It wasn't going to be one of those '80s things starting again. Wait 'til tonight, when Christie's sells its 19-century and Impressionist works.
By the numbers: 48 lots were offered in all. Three were withdrawn. 28 lots or 58 percent failed to exceed the low estimate. 11 lots or 22 percent exceeded the low but not the high, and nine lots or 18 percent exceeded the high estimate. 18 lots or 38 percent were bought in. 62 percent sold.