Claude Monet, L'arbre en boule, Argenteuil, (detail) 1876
Auguste Rodin, Eustache de Saint Pierre Vetu, Grand Modèle, 1884-1886
from The Burghers of Calais
Auguste Rodin, Anrieu d'Andres Vetu, Grand Modèle, 1884-1886
from The Burghers of Calais
Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne Con Cappello c. 1919
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Fleurs et Fruits c. 1889
by Stewart Waltzer
May 13, 1997 -- If you were expecting a kinder and gentler art market, think again. Tonight's auction at Sotheby's New York emphasized the rarity of an event like the Loeb sale at Christie's on Monday evening, May 12. The joie de vivre, the eclat, the esprit, were all absent. In its place was the bid `em and buy `em of the everyday art business. But visions of dancing dollar signs were quickly put aside as Simon de Pury passed lots two and three. It was an omen of things to come.
One can't fault the auctioneer. De Pury was playing to a cold room. After the Loeb sale, any act would have seemed second rate. Sixty-six lots were offered with a total hammer value just short of $75,000,000. It was indicative of geo-tectonic changes going on in the art market.
Monet was off this night as well. The Palais Dario (1908), previously unsold at auction in 1995 with an estimate of $3,000,000 to $4,000,000, barely found a buyer this time around at $2,000,000, the low end of its projected price. His 1876 picture, L'arbre en boule Argenteuil, was not as lucky and passed at $3.4 million. Le Pont Japonais (c. 1818-24) was also passed at $2.4 million in spite of its inclusion in the forthcoming exhibition of late Monet. The Monet from Bordighera in the South of France, La vallée de Sasso, effet bleu (1884), sold at its presumed reserve of $1.3 million over an estimate of $1.5 million to $2 million. Monet, an economic mainstay of the market, was way off.
Works by Cezanne, van Gogh, Sisley, Degas and Pissarro were either passed or sold off at low prices. Though many of the pictures were less than first quality, the room showed an uncharacteristic discernment as it let them go unsold.
The room also made mincemeat out of the five late, life-size casts offered of the individual Burghers of Calais. Issued by the Musee Rodin in 1982 (rather than the Rudier foundry 50 years earlier). The work failed to find a buyer at $2.4 million bid, under its presale estimate of $3 million to $4 million.
The Modigliani, Jean Hébuterne con Cappello (c. 1919), sold in lackluster bidding for $8.7 million.
The high point of the evening came when the Degas Danseuses (1899) sold for $10 million in very warm competition. It was a pastel of the corps de ballet, exquisitely drawn, and de Pury drew it out to its full value.
The surprise of the night was the sale of the Klimt landscape, Litzlbergerkeller am Attersee (1915-16). Estimated at $5 million to $7 million, it seemed as if de Pury would hammer the work down at the low estimate. But in his typical "just in time" style, he drew the work out to $9 million in $100,000 increments. The bid then advanced in $200,000 increases until it was finally sold for $13.4 million. Two men in eyeshades could have counted out the money faster.
A Renoir still life, Fleurs et Fruits (c. 1889), sold at $3.3 million, more than twice its presale estimate.
In the second half of the sale, de Pury settled down to sell works of lesser value at full prices. He was forceful if not fast, and made up the evening's value in the more ordinary lots. He went on unchecked until the blown Chagall market brought the sale to an end.
$75 million is a respectable total. And if the high fliers augered in, they had only themselves to blame for putting on airs and fancy estimates. The crowd was genial as it left. They had seen the end and this wasn't it. One becomes familiar with the ways of the new market. Sotheby's did an excellent job, given the material available to it.
Total volume at the hammer: $73,790,000 on 66 lots. 56% of the lots (37) failed to exceed the low estimate at the hammer. 35% of the lots (23) exceeded the low estimate but not the high. 9% of the lots (7) exceeded the high estimate. 16 lots were passed (25%). Prices here do not include the auction house's commission, which is 15% on the first $50,000 and 10% on the remainder.