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Art Market Watch
by Stewart Waltzer

Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale," Nov. 1, 2005, at Christie's New York, 20 Rockefeller Center, New York, N.Y. 10020.

If you don’t know already, Christie’s pillaged the best of this season’s available dead and came away with the estate collections of Long Island lawyer Lee Eastman and Toni home-perm mogul Neison Harris, among several others. Hence, the once meek Christie’s inherited the earth, or a least a substantial chunk of it, and Sotheby’s got stiffed, so to speak. One is predisposed to malign the dead whom the fundamentalist Christian God has so favored. You scourge them for middlebrow taste or commercial sensibilities or unwholesome liaisons with dealers, but their collections gainsay you. It goes to show that with brilliant taste and a lot of money, there is no end to what you can do. Shucks.

Further, with the largesse inherent in Republican sensibilities, everyone is expected to spend more, more than even Christie’s posited in its considerable presale estimates. It is difficult to contain one’s greed these days. The levels of the game have changed. Things are going to cost more in the future. With legendary collections anchoring the sale, assembled ages ago, voluptuary funds everywhere and a puissant market, iconic works of art migrated to Christie’s. The house purportedly gambled against a substantial guaranty to the consignors, reported at $60 million for the Harris collection alone; it seems to have been worth it. Even the normally dodgy opening lots were luscious. Even the normally really dodgy closing lots were, well, decent.

Christie’s, to no one’s surprise, did brilliantly. Good material is scarce.  Much of what Christie’s had was very good. Much of what remained was at least pleasant, that assassin’s word, but still sufficient for a plausible reserve. Who’d know the diff? One saw the appearance of works purchased at the inflated values of the late 1980s early ‘90s, finding new homes in a strong market. It is, as they say, never easy. The estimated values of much of the sale were so high, that Christopher Burge, that Harry Potter of auctioneers, struggled against very thin bidding at the top end, and at the low end too. All prices are reported at the hammer.

Lot 1, Claude Monet, Le panier des pommes, 1880, estimated at $900,000-$1,400,000. A pan-dimensional, brilliant, lovely still life, could not fail to be noticed, asked to dance, so well painted, so well bred. It must have been Monet’s "it’s raining I can’t go out" fruit basket, because in those days all he did was paint landscapes. So, for lot 1, the opening number, the crowd went nuts, and it sold at the hammer for $2,600,000, no longer cheap, demure or understated, but worth it.

Lot 4, Paul Cézanne, Pommes et Gateaux, ca. 1873-77, estimated at $3,500,000-$4,500,000. Given the enormity of expressive force that Cézanne euchred out of a bowl of fruit, Christie’s offering may not have looked all that fresh. Still, it appeared initially at a salad-bar price and it was far from spoiled or sullen. It may have lacked the emblematic warm modeling that brands Cézanne still-lifes, but it was a poignant and felt picture. It was hammered down for $9,200,000.

Great fruit baskets of yore include Jock Whitney’s Rideau, cruchon et compotier (ca. 1893-94), wrapped to take out in 1999 at $60,000,000, and Bouilloire et fruits, sold for $29,500,000, also in 1999. More recently Pichet et assiette de poires sold at Sotheby’s New York for $16,700,000. So at $9,200,000, the present lot was last week’s apples; you have to make do. The buyer, in his usual place near the front of the salesroom, was Paris dealer Marc Blondeau.

Lot 5, Théo Van Rysselberghe, Port de Cette, les tartans, 1892, estimated at $1,500,000-$2,000,000. This 24 x 28 in. jewel from the Museum of Modern Art, complete with artist-painted frame, sold for $2,800,000 at the hammer. There hasn’t been a Divisionist painting of this ilk to appear on the auction market since Sotheby’s New York sold Voiliers sur L’Escault in 2002 for $2,650,000 over an estimate of $1,000,000-$1,500,000. Port de Cette, les tartans broke that record. With the ex-Jock Whitney collection, ex-MoMA provenance contributing to its already substantial allure, it was a dazzling picture. Everyone was having fun in the insanely crowded room.

Lots 16, 13, 8 and 11. In a teasing encomium that seemed more like a side bar lifted out of Architectural Digest, Christie’s auctioneer Christopher Burge told us how nice it was to see these lots from "a Private American Collection" in anonymous situ many times. What joy, what sensibility.

The first three -- Monet’s Route à Louveciennes, effet de niege, Pissarro’s Paysage, la moisson, Pointoise and Sisley’s Bords de Seine à Port Marly -- are noted as best-of-year works that are pleasant but not necessarily Ivy League. Lot 16, Monet’s effet de niege, is not very cheery, and was estimated at $4,000,000-$6,000,000, which is quite high for a pre-impressionisme Monet that wasn’t sur la plage or sur les planches at Trouville. It passed. Monet’s Le Givre, an 1875 effet de niege, sold at Christie’s last May for $3,000,000, so maybe they were hoping. Monet’s Les rosiers dans les jardins de Montegeron, same collection, same high estimate, lot 14 in tonight’s sale, is a paradise of flowers in late spring. It passed, too. The presale estimate, $4,000,000-$6,000,000, was too high a target. No one bid.

Lot 13, Alfred Sisley’s Bords de Seine à Port Marly, 1875, estimated at $1,800,000-$2,500,000, was either wan and autumnal or height of mud season. Your call. Was this the time to be offering a fall preview collection, after Katrina and Wilma and a petite inundation in New York wiped out subway lines? Sisley’s Route à Louvecienne, effet de niege sold at Sotheby’s London in 2004 for $2,800,000, but the sale was in June, and it was the most expensive Sisley of this period ever sold. Christie’s obviously had (justifiably?) high hopes for a collection that had hung on private walls for the last 30 years. Estimated at $1,800,000-$2,500,000, the painting brought $1,600,000, just.

Finally, lot 8, the last of the three mousequeteers, Camille Pissarro’s Paysage, la moisson, Pointoise, 1873, was by far the nicest of the three lots -- at least it’s summery. The estimate at $4,000,000-$6,000,000 posited the highest possible value. It sold for $4,600,000.

By way of background, we all remember Pissarro’s Les Quatre Saisons sold last November for a less than heartening $9,000,000 for the four panels. Hopes and estimates had run much higher. Sotheby’s sold the completely enchanting and sunny La route de Rocquencourt for $5,600,000 in May of 2003. 

Lost ultimately, in the midst of these homely offerings was lot 11, Henri Matisse’s Les marguerites, 1919. By virtue of Hillary Spurling’s two-volume Matisse biography, we know that a somewhat less than amiable Henri was toughing it out in Nice, having his morning tea with Renoir while his daughter Marguerite was back in Paris facing tracheal surgery with Mamam at hand. Les marguerites was estimated at the breathtaking value of $10,000,000-$15,000,000.

Once in 1989, Femme à l’ombrelle rouge, assise de profil, 1919, was the most expensive picture ever to sell from this period at auction. It sold for $12,300,000. It is a picture of a woman, seated on a patio in Nice, overlooking the sea seen through the open slatted shutters of southern France. Perfection isn’t in it. Les marguerites is considerably different, a nice bouquet of anemones unknown to any market, adorned by a youthful radiance. Nobody cared, and the picture passed at $8,800,000.

Lot 17, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La blanchisseuse, 1886-87, estimated at $20,000,000-$25,000,000. Previously, the most expensive Toulouse-Lautrec ever sold at auction was a pastel of a sexy little dancer in rose tights, sitting legs apart, backstage. Danseuse assise aux bas roses brought $13,200,000 in 1997. La blanchisseuse is a much larger painting with a far less attractive subject, a laundress. The bidding opened; the auctioneer bid for the house up to $19 million and rested there. One phone bid $19,500,000; one phone bid $20,000,000. Done, thin, two bids. Or so it appeared, because no one really knows.  No one had ever seen a Toulouse-Lautrec painting that big sell that quick. Might have missed it.

Lots 6 to 18, encased in their own catalogue, may have been billed as anonymously owned, but by the time of the sale everyone and their relatives knew the works were being sold by the heirs of the aforementioned Neison Harris. All told, they brought almost $40,000,000 at the hammer, with three works left over. Did the guarantee, whatever it was, pay off?

Lot 20, Gustave Caillebotte, Le parc de la propriété Caillebotte à Yerres. There have been utterly luminous, innovative Caillebottes. This isn’t one of them. It just managed to sell, just, at $1,600,000, over an estimate of $2,000,000-$3,000,000. Caillebotte’s Rougets (1882), a picture of dead fish at the end of the sale, looked more alive.

Lot 22, Claude Monet’s Nymphéas, 1907, estimated at $10,000,000-$15,000,000. It sold in 1989 for around $13,000,000, which was real money then, not like our new digital money. It was resold last night for $12,500,000 at the hammer. It is only half a million bucks one way or the other, what the hell, but it is instructive to note that it took 15 years to recoup from the inflated prices of that era.

Lot 25, Pablo Picasso, Buveuse accoudée, 1901, estimated at $6,000,000-$8,000,000. This was the nasty 1901 portrait of a nasty woman. The nasty self-portrait, Yo Picasso, sold in 1989 for $48,000,000. The noticeably unpleasant 1901 portrait Femme aux bras crossé once brought $55,000,000. Christie’s was the soul of restraint not asking for more, demanding more. Buveuse accoudée did, however, sell quickly at $5,600,000, not like the other Picassos.

Lot 30, Pablo Picasso, Buste de Femme, 1939, estimated at $3,000,000-$5,000,000. This reasonably undistinguished, 1939 portrait of Dora Maar looking particularly fractious and unwelcoming sold for $6,000,000 as Christopher Burge gave a creditable imitation of Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer’s drawn-out selling style. The bidding plateaued around $4,000,000 and slowly, ponderously worked its way up in deeply considered $100,000 increments as new bidder after new bidder piled in and the exhausted ones left, till Burge finally said, "Let’s wrap it up, shall we?"

Lot 36, Fernand Léger, Esquisse pour Le grand déjeuner, 1921, estimated at $3,500,000-$4,500,000. See Le petit dejeuner at the Tremaine sale at Christie’s New York in 1991, which sold for $7,700,000. Outside of the obvious (one is in color, the other is grisaille), it is like one of those trick comparisons on diner placemats -- can you spot the difference between these two pictures? This girl has a face, this one doesn’t. The Petit dejeuner is twice the size, with predictably less to eat and no dog on the right. 1921 is way past the beating heart of Leger’s mastery. But Sotheby’s sold a 1954 picture the size of a Mercedes Maybach for $6,800,000 last May; why shouldn’t Christie’s ask $3,500,000-$4,500,000? It’s half the price of the car. They got $4,300,000, no leather seats.

Lot 39, Joan Miro, Le soleil rouge ronge l’araignée, 1948, estimated at $6,000,000-$8,000,000. Used as the end paper of the catalogue and worth mentioning in that it sold for $6,900,000, just above its presale low estimate but at a ferociously high price both for the painting and for any dealer trying to get a check out of a client for like to like in a back room. The buyer was someone from the Helly Nahmad family, using the comically unorthodox paddle number 2,000.

Lot 44, Amedeo Modigliani, Moise Kisling seduto, 1916, estimated $6,000,000-$8,000,000, it seems a lot for a Modigliani painting of an autistic-looking Moise. The Paul Guillaume portrait only brought $4,600,000 back in 2000, albeit for a picture half the size. This painting hammered out at $5,000,000, which was a record for a clothed man by the artist (did he paint unclothed men?) but nowhere near the $31,000,000 Jeanne Hebuterne (Devant une porte) brought last November at Sotheby’s.

Lot 52, Pablo Picasso, Sylvette au fauteuil vert, 1954, estimated at $4,000,000-$6,000,000. What is with these people and their Picassos?  If one had this kind of money, wouldn’t one want to spend it with a bit more verve? It was a pleasant portrait of Sylvette that came late in the sale. It opened slowly and stayed that way. "Fair warning, last chance, I am going to sell it. . . ," then Zorro would appear frantically waving his paddle from an obscure corner of the room, and the business would go on for another three minutes and then. . .  we got to watch it all again. The picture sold for $7,200,000. Four people clapped and stopped immediately, embarrassed.

Lot 58, Claude Monet, Aiguille d’Entretat, marée basse, 1883, estimated at $700,000-$1,000,000. Monet must have had a good time working on the beach at Entretat in the spring and summer (?) of 1883. Coming out around sunset, no doubt with a bouteille of something tucked into the ebbing surf, he made about 30 pictures all told, some at the beach, some on the rocks, some in the village. This picture was so lovely that the $700,000-$1,000,000 estimate seemed charitable. It sold for $1,700,000 And it sold quickly.

The sale had 64 lots all in. The sale was unbelievably lucrative. The only other people spending more money on anything anywhere work in the Bush administration and they appear to have their problems. Christie’s did not.

Christie’s New York Impressionist and modern art sale, Nov. 1, 2005, totaled $160,931,200 (including premium), with 63 of 58 lots offered finding buyers, or 92 percent by lot. The presale estimate was $134.9 million-$189.3 million. Twenty-six of the lots, or 45 percent, sold for above their estimates, and the same number sold for within their estimates; 10 lots sold for less than their presale estimates. The buyer’s premium is 20 percent of the first $200,000 and 12 percent of the remainder.

STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.