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christie's new era

by Stewart Waltzer  

Theodule Augustin Ribot
The Mandoline Player

Edouard Manet
The Spanish Singer
not for sale

Edgar Degas
Danseuses au foyer

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Young Girl Holding a Bouquet of Tulips
ca. 1878
bought in

Gustave Courbet
The Quarry
   The news at Christie's Impressionist and 19th-century sale on the evening of May 5 was that the French LBO artist Francois Pinault had bought out Joe Lewis, an equally accomplished financial adept, and now owns a controlling state in the illustrious art vendor. And there was also an auction.

The sale marked the beginning of a new era at Christie's, wherein 19th-century works were combined with Impressionist paintings in a manner that nearly everyone found either confusing or irritating. The merchandising of each work was also kicked into high gear. The modest Theodule Ribout picture of a mandolin player was likened to Manet's The Spanish Singer, at the Metropolitan Museum. The extremely modest Degas, Danseuses au foyer (ca. 1900-05), was likened to the remarkable Degas, La lecon de danse, which hangs in the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.

It reminds one of an old Ford campaign that compared the Crown Victoria to the S Class Mercedes, capitalizing on a superficial resemblance between the two vehicles. Alas for Christie's, no one bought it. At all.

With only 44 lots to sell, justice came sure and mercifully swift. Thirty percent of the lots were passed and 75 percent of the lots (32) failed to exceed their low estimates at the hammer. The remaining quarter of the lots were evenly split -- half falling between the high and the low estimate and half going above the high. Estimates, purporting to serve as a "guide" to bidders, might be more aptly construed as the literal evocation of the consignor's prayers, and as for their expertise....

Let us revel in some of the low points. The Renoir, Young Girl Holding a Bouquet of Tulips (ca. 1878), estimated at $12 million to $15 million on request, failed to meet its secret reserve (the purported high bid was $11.5 million) -- and by past experience ought to be worth a good deal less the morning after. Perhaps something closer to its true value.

The aforementioned Degas Dancers suffered a similar fate, with bidding stopping at $4 million, and observers wondering about the medication of whomever set the estimate at $5 million-$7 million. Even the charming Courbet painting, The Quarry (1858-62), showing the artist himself as huntsman, two hounds and an upended deer spiked to a tree, did not find a buyer. It's estimate was $500,000-$700,000. Just goes to show, things ain't what they hoped they'd be.

On a high note, one is filled with admiration for those dealers, as listed in the provenances in the catalogue, who managed to sell some of these works of art in the first place. No doubt for considerably more that they brought here. The list for Renoir's Mother and Child, Maternity (1886) reads like a who's who in the art business. Durand-Ruel, Vollard, Knoedler, Chester Beatty, Arthur Tooth, Sam Salz, Acquavella, Norton Simon. Now that's expertise.

Next week should prove even more interesting, as Legers are sold check by jowl with Lichtensteins. Contrary to the buzz, however, Seinfeld does not air its last episode on the night of the auction. Still, those who attend the sale may enjoy a somewhat drier, if no less amusing, New York based sitcom. Once again, our sincerest congratulations to M. Pinault on his auspicious purchase.

STEWART WALTZER lives and works in New York.