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sotheby's impressionist and modern

by Stewart Waltzer  

Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier
Silver tureen, cover and stand
$5.2 million
at the hammer

Camille Pissarro
L'Etang de Montfoucault

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Gabrielle a sa Coiffure
$3.1 million

Claude Monet
Le Grand Canal
$11 million

Gustave Courbet
Portrait de Jo,
la Belle Irlandaise

$2.7 million

Pablo Picasso
Casagemas dans son Cercueil
   If you had retired to Petaluma Wednesday evening for your post auction repast and hung about sponging in the Chianti, you would have seen the soldiers of Sotheby's troop in en masse, full of good humor and joie de vivre. All ranks were present, from Generalissimo Diana D. Brooks and her adjutants, Mssrs Tannock and Moffett and the silver-tongued Henry Windam, to the lowest minions that grease the wheels of fortune. They were happy, they were charming, they felt lucky. Why?

Two hours earlier, more than a bit of the underdog, they were about to do the Light Brigade run into the darkening valley of Christie's, forgive me, 19th-century sale. Where there had been no survivors. Now here they were, out the other side, having unloaded a considerable amount of tatty baggage en route. No wonder they were elated, glad to be alive, ready to crow. The videotape please.

First, the sale begins with a soup tureen, albeit the mother of all soup tureens, the Thyssen Meissonnier Tureen. It had everyone scrambling through the catalogue looking for the lot, which of course wasn't there. Estimated at $8 million to $12 million, it sold for $5.2 million at the hammer via telephone to London dealer Titus Kendall, as we were told later. With the premium, the price is $5,722,500, second only to the $10.3 million paid at Sotheby's in 1996 for the Louis XV tureen.

Still, it was not an auspicious way to begin the big night. Unhappily, much of the Sotheby's material had been seen before, but the high-tongued Henry bravely soldiered on.

He sold lot 5, Pissarro's 1874 picture of ducks on a pond, L'Etang de Montfoucault, for $700,000. It had sold for $800,000 in 1989. He sold lot 17, the Renoir Gabrielle a sa Coiffure for $3.1 million. It had sold for $8.8 million in 1989. He sold the Monet Le Grand Canal for $11 million. It had sold for $9.9 million almost a decade ago, in 1990. He even sold a very early Blue Period Picasso portrait of a man lying in a coffin for $3.5 million, just after he sold an incomprehensible etude from the Desmoiselles for $120,000.

Consignors were making money. Windam was good. The new-age man sensitively wheedling another $100,000 with every breath. "Make it eleven? What? No more? Are you sure?" If only I could put his tenderness into type. He even sold Courbet's 1865 Portrait of Jo, La Belle Irlandaise, that not all the world agrees was by the hand of Master Gustave, but down it went for $2.7 million -- a record for a work by the artist at auction. Christie's material had been better, marginally, and nobody bought that.

A brilliant sale? No. A bunch of stuff unsold? You betcha. Twenty five percent, not an outrageous number after all. The market and money are loose. I don't think it is the shape of things to come. I even intimated a modicum of discernment amid the captive body of collectors at the sale -- but those words would come back to haunt me. After all, Warhol's Marilyn went for $17 million the following night.

Of the total lots, 46% failed to exceed the low estimate, 35% exceeded the low but no the high, and 19% exceeded the high. Reasonably balanced. The top prices follow below, with the auction house's commission figured in (that's 15 percent on the first $50,000 and 10 percent on the rest).

$12,102,500 for Claude Monet's 1908 Le Grand Canal (est. $8 million-$10 million).
$6,602,500 for Degas' 1896 Apres le bain (est. $6 million-$8 million).
$4,072,500 for van Gogh's 1890 Flowers in a Vase (est. $4 million-$6 million).
$3,622,500 for Bonnard's 1916 La Cheminee (est. $3 million-$4 million).
$3,522,500 for a 1971 cast of Rodin's Balzac (est. $2 million-$3 million).
$3,412,500 for Picasso's 1901 oil on cardboard, Casagemas dans son Cercueil (est. $3 million-$4 million).
$3,412,500 for Renoir's 1910 Gabrielle a sa Coiffure (est. $3 million-$4 million).
$3,412,500 for Renoir's 1892 Baigneuses (est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million).
$3,192,500 for Picasso's 1934 portrait of Marie-Therese Walter reading, La Lecture (est. $3 million-$4 million).
$2972,500 for Courbet's Portrait de Jo, la belle Irlandaise (est. $2 million-$3 million).

STEWART WALTZER is a New York dealer.