Pablo Picasso, Demi-nu à la cruche, 1906
Berthe Morisot, Après le déjeuner, 1881
Claude Monet, Coin du bassin aux nymphéas, 1918
Pierre-August Renoir, Jeune femme se baignant, 1888
Constantin Brancusi, Mademoiselle Pogany II 1920-25
by Stewart Waltzer
May 14, 1997 -- In day-to-day, Prufrock gray existence, does good ever really triumph over evil? No. Does brilliance see its way clear past the bêtise, past the myrmidons of esthetic uniformity? Not really. Does Christie's beat Sotheby's? You betcha.
This was a power sale. With the laurels of the Loeb sale still green upon their brows, Christie's offered 62 strong lots that held high promise for the assembled body esthetic. And with a few exceptions, the house delivered.
To the nervous amusement of the audience, and to Christopher Burge's probable horror, the first lot, an innocuous Rodin, was passed. Still, Burge stepped out smartly and by the fifth lot had knocked down a particularly lovely Caillebotte for $1 million. Cézanne's L'Estaque vu à travers les arbres (1878-79) followed and was hammered down at $5,000,000. Both lots sold well above their high estimate. Mondrian's Composition No. III (1929) sold for $3.8 million at the hammer, a more than respectable price. Picasso's Demi-nu à la cruche (1906) sold for $7.2 million. Giacometti's Trois hommes qui marchent II sold for $3.2 million. The Leger Composition à la fleur sold for $1.6 million, and Gauguin's Gauguin devant son chevalet (1884-85) sold for $3.5 million, more than twice its high estimate. These were good prices; prices that did not overreach themselves or the market.
The very attractive Morisot Après le déjeuner (1881) sold for $3,250,000, well over an estimate of $900,000 to $1,200,000. Not only is it gorgeous but it is a superb picture. The San Francisco MOMA's Monet, La Seine à Argenteuil (1875), sold for $7.6 million, and the Nymphéas (1918) sold for $6,100,000. It was that kind of an evening.
Yet, the excesses of 1989 and 1990 are not easily forgotten, and there was a palpable reserve as the lots bid higher. One doesn't want to set a record at auction. It might never be broken.
Jardin de fleurs, the virtually great 1888 reed-pen drawing by van Gogh had previously appeared at Christie's on Nov. 14, 1990, and sold for $8,360,000 with commissions. It was reoffered this evening over a cloaked estimate of $9 million and hammered out at $7 million, unsold. The dollar volume of van Gogh's work in 1990 was $110 million. In 1996 it was only $21 million. End of parable.
Nevertheless, the Renoir, Jeune femme se baignant (1888), sold ten minutes later for $11,300,000. An extraordinary price for a saccharine, less-than-extraordinary picture. But she was a babe and babes sell. Just ask Ms. Pogany. Brancusi's polished bronze head, Mademoiselle Pogany II (1920-25), set a record for the artist in an exquisitely slow auction that had the room holding its breath. It ended at $6.4 million.
The only other lot offered under a cloaked estimate of $8 million to $10 million was the Picasso, Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (1932). It sold down for $6.8 million. Did anyone believe it would go even that high?
Other notable prices, both good and bad, included the Lipchitz Marin et Guitare for $590,000, a very high price for that piece. The Matisse Odalisque assise (1929) for $3.6 million and the Modigliani Le fils du concierge (1918) for $5 million, selling at its likely reserve.
The sale had balance and stability, as well as a whopping great gross. Much of the work was fresh to the market and prices were realized that would have been beyond the capacity of most dealers save for the largest and most important. It demonstrated Christie's formidable power at the retail level. Still, discernment, value and respite from the esthetic monotony that comprise many of the lots are not inherent in the auction process. What this bodes for the future is anyone's guess but the market is, for the moment, palpably stronger.
Total volume at the hammer: $107,970,000. 63 lots offered. 46% of the lots (29) failed to exceed the low estimate at the hammer. 24% of the lots (15) exceeded the low estimate but not the high. 30% of the lots (19) exceeded the high estimate. 11 lots were passed (17%). Prices given here do not include the auction house's commission, which is 15 percent on the first $50,000 and 10 percent on the remainder.