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christie's 20th century

by Stewart Waltzer  

Hans Hofmann
bought in

Georges Braque
Olive Tree near l'Estaque

Richard Diebenkorn

Amedeo Modigliani
Woman in Plaid Dress

Amedeo Modigliani
Seated Young Girl

Pablo Picasso
Femme Assise Au Chapeau
   Now one gets it! The unifying element, that X factor that mysteriously links Legers and Lichtensteins, van Dongens and Diebenkorns, Picasso and Warhol. It isn't the 20th century, as Christie's vaunted reorganization of its market categories would have it. Rather, it's the money, the price point. By morning light, basking in happy reflections of last night's $61-million auction (Christie's 20th century art, May 12), it seems positively brilliant. Or at least a plausible marketing tool.

The market seems at last to be settling. The Impressionist sales still reflect the damage of the late '80s, and prices remain below the fantasy level. Modern art, however, has been fairly healthy for some time, though, and the sale was not entirely a revelation. Save for the catalogue, which with its myriad luxe fold-outs made thumbing through akin to stuttering visually. Despite the apparent oddity of wildly divergent juxtapositions, nobody really seemed to mind as the lots rolled round the turntable.

The sale did rather nicely, totaling $61,327,500 for 45 lots sold of 52 offered (about 87 percent by lot), in the middle of the presale total estimate of $55.4 million-$75.5 million. The two paintings by Modigliani led the pack, though in reverse order as predicted. The heavily painted, solemn Woman in a Plaid Dress (1916) sold for $5,392,500 (est. $3,500,000-$4,500,000), while the sexier, fresher, more unfinished Seated Young Girl (1918) went for $4,842,500 (est. $6,000,000-$8,000,000). Ah, remember the Ganz Modigliani of only a year ago, bringing over $12 million!

Braque's Fauve Olive Tree near L'Estaque (1906) brought $4,402,500 (est. $3,500,000-$4,500,000), while the same artist's Cubist Violin and Glass (1913) brought $4,182,500 (est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000). Among the other notable lots was the early Mark Rothko from 1951, which sold for $3,632,500, (est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000), the second highest auction price for the artist's work. And Warhol's 1967 Self-Portrait, despite being rather lobby-sized at almost 6 x 7 feet, sold for $2,422,500 (est. $1,800,000-$2,500,000), a record for a Warhol self-portrait. And Richard Diebenkorn's Berkeley (1954-55) sold for $1,817,500 (est. $500,000-$700,000), a new auction high for the artist.

Whether by tea leaves, ouija board, channeling, whatever, for the most part Christie's showed an uncanny knack at valuing the works precisely in their estimates. The auction houses do take healthy commissions for their services, and tenable guidelines ought to be the rule, not the exception. One infers that the house worked hard at beating mewling clients back to economic reality, achieving a level of responsibility that befits the market leader (not to mention further pounding its vaulted competitor into the concrete). It was much more accommodating when it was the proverbial underdog.

Of interesting note was the Hans Hofmann, which was bought in. Not the greatest picture, but old guard contemporary art seems to be very much in eclipse, at least until Greenberg is re-anointed. Be awhile. Louis, Noland, Stella, Olitski, Frankenthaler are all holds for the moment.

The Twombly, lot 36, was also bought in. The Swiss dealer and Twombly guru Thomas Ammann is no longer with us, and his absence has left a void here and perhaps in the Warhol market as well. The structure of the sale itself, combining hitherto unlikely soul mates, may have contributed to the diminished impact of the contemporary pictures.

Yet miracles were made. Picasso's misogynistic Woman with a Fish, pardon, Femme Assise au Chapeau, sold for $2,422,500. Christie's succeeded where exalted others had failed. This widowed bride had been put forward privately with some frequency since it was purchased in May of 1990 for $3.3 million. A deal, all things considered. The majority of the material was fresher than the lady's fish, however, and bought plausible prices.

The statistics show that 13 percent passed, 54 percent failed to make the low estimate, 33 percent landed right between the low estimate and the high, and 13 percent exceeded the high estimate. The sale was more balanced than the statistics indicate insofar as six of the lots were at the borderline. The market is changing, the collector base is changing, and the strategic importance of fine arts is changing. Perhaps Christie's reorganization is a brilliant insight into what's to come in terms of economic realities. It was a good sale, the crowd left happy, but the sense of the market is still an open question.

STEWART WALTZER lives and works in New York.