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slow start at christie's

by Walter Robinson  

Gustave Courbet
...The Approaching Storm
ca. 1855

Pierre Cecile Puvis de Chavannes
The Childhood of Saint Genevieve

Vincent van Gogh
Boats on the Beach at Saintes-maries-de-la-mer

Claude Monet
Waterloo Bridge in the Fog

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Young Girl Holding
a Bouquet of Tulips

ca. 1878

Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Mother and Child, Maternity
   The spring auction season got off to a decidedly lackluster start last night at Christie's May 5 sale of Impressionist and 19th-century art. The sale totaled $35.7 million, considerably below the presale total estimate of $63 million to $81 million. Of the scant 44 lots offered, only 31 sold -- that's 70 percent by lot -- and only 12 works sold within or above their estimates.

Only in the blue-chip auction market would a $35 million payday for a 90-minute event be considered "modest." Don King should have it so good!

The sale also marked a change in the way Christie's groups its various works for auction. In an effort to broaden its market, the house has included 19th-century academic painting with the Impressionists (as in last night's sale), and scheduled separate sales for 20th-century moderns (May 12) and contemporary art (June 3). The obvious result of this scheme seems to be the low total -- auctioneer Christopher Burge couldn't remember an Impressionist auction that had done worse -- though Burge suggested, with admirable circumlocution, that the low numbers were due to a "slight element of anticlimax in terms of the quality of the material."

On the other hand, the sale did see new auction records for Gustave Courbet and Puvis de Chavannes. Courbet's The Approaching Storm (ca. 1885), went for $2,257,500 (presale est. $800,000-$1,200,000) to an anonymous European dealer. The dramatic landscape was sold in 1875 as The Hurricane and may represent Courbet's pictorial denunciation of the Second Empire, representing the adage, "Who sows the wind, will reap the storm." It had not been publicly exhibited since 1891. The previous Courbet record, $1.54 million, was set in 1992 at Christie's New York.

The sale featured four Courbet works in all -- which met with decidedly mixed results. The spare, 1871 seascape, The Wave, failed to sell (est. $400,000-$600,000), as did the early hunting picture, The Quarry (1858-62) (est. $500,000-$700,000). The Portrait of Countess Karoly (1865) sold for $$717,500 (est. $500,000-$700,000),

Puvis' The Childhood of Saint Genevieve (1874), a 20 x 40 in. study for a mural cycle at the Pantheon in Paris, sold for $937,500 (est. $700,000-$900,000). The patron saint of Paris, Saint Genevieve was believed to have provided divine protection for the city against Attila the Hun. Her cult revived following the ravages of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune in 1870-71, and the mural was widely acclaimed when it was unveiled in 1877. The previous auction record for Puvis, $418,000, was set in 1993.

Top lot of the auction was Claude Monet's Waterloo Bridge in the Fog (1903), which sold for $5,282,500 (est. $5 million-$7 million). Christie's sold another work from the series last November for $8,252,500.

The second-highest price of the sale was paid for a Vincent van Gogh drawing, Boats on the Beach at Saintes-maries-de-la-Mer (1888), which went for $5,062,500 (est. $5 million-$7 million). A study for a painting now at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the drawing has detailed notations as to color. Paul Gauguin's Pont Aven landscape, Les Dindons (1888) sold for $2,862,500 (est. $1.8 million-$2.5 million), taking third place.

"It wasn't entirely Renoir's evening," confessed Burge, noting that two of the top Renoir lots were bought in and a third was withdrawn (the owner decided he wanted to keep it at the last minute, Burge said). Young Girl Holding a Bouquet of Tulips (ca. 1878), estimated at $15 million, could well have been titled Girl with her Hat Pulled Down over her Eyes. "For $15 million," wondered one market expert, "you don't get eyes?" The sale's version of Mother and Child, Maternity (1886), estimated at $6 million-$8 million, also failed to find a buyer. Renoir's Seated Nude (1885) went for $2,752,500 (est. $3 million-$4 million).

One interesting result was the $662,500 paid for William Adolphe Bouguereau's The Rest (1880), a charming -- or saccharine -- allegory featuring a completely dressed girl lying in the grass; it was estimated at $600,000-$800,000. Much of the secondary material failed to sell, including an 1867 Tissot scene of two gossiping women, an 1888 Boldini portrait and a small London scene from 1875 by Giuseppe de Nittis.

Prices include the auction house commission of 15 percent on the first $50,000 of the sale price and 10 percent on the remainder. Complete results of this sale may be accessed from the ArtNet home page.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of ArtNet Magazine.