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Art Market Watch
by Stewart Waltzer
"Impressionist and Modern Art Part I," Nov. 2, 2005, at Sotheby's New York, 1334 York Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021

Last night's sale at Sotheby's was akin to watching the grass grow. No one had high expectations for the offered lots. The works were less than exalted and "pleasant" would have been a reach for many of them. It certainly must have seemed to auctioneer Tobias Meyer, as he stepped on to the rostrum last night at Sotheby's, that the glass was half empty. Christie's had stolen their thunder and everything else that wasn't actually nailed to the walls or screwed to the floor. Sotheby's catalogue weighed a pound and a half less than Christie's. By any empirical standard there was going to be a whole lot less to contest and there were certainly fewer people in the room to contest it. On the bright side, it looked like we were going to play the short course and be home for an early dinner.

Instead, however, Sotheby's experienced a brilliant night, selling marginal goods for astonishingly high prices. Yes, there was an apparent $30 million difference in the yield between the two houses, but Sotheby's did very well with what it had, which admittedly wasn't much. But where there's wealth, there are buyers. It may be that the lack of material on the market sustains it. Why trade in your pictures for Bush dollars? Why not get some more pictures. But any pictures? Prices are given here at the hammer, without the 12 percent premium added on after.

Lot 4, Pablo Picasso, Nu Jaune, 1907, est. $3,000,000-$4,000,000. Though a watercolor study for a figure in Les Desmoiselles d'Avignon, the work has an uncanny resonance with music-video Madonna in a yellow bustier. It sold for $12,500,000 at the hammer, after a weird bidding contest. The first buyer bid $8,000,000; the second bid $8,100,000; the first buyer then bid $8,500,000; the second bid $8,600,000; the first bid $9,000,000; and so on, setting a bizarre tone that lingered all evening. Christie's sold a Picasso watercolor, Famille de l'Arlequin, in 1989 for $15,400,000, but nothing of the like has approached this value since. The buyer was Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt curator Olivier Berggruen, who is son of the famed Berlin-based art dealer and Picasso collector Heinz Berggruen.

Lot 5, Alexej von Jawlensky, Sicilian Woman with Green Shawl, 1912, estimated at $3,000,000-$4,000,000. A Fauve Expressionst portrait of a woman glaring out at the viewer with rabid intensity, the painting sold for $4,600,000, not inexplicably, but surprisingly. Sotheby's had sold a sedate, measured portrait of a woman in a hat in November 2003 for $8,200,000. Again, nothing else in the sales records could account for the house's optimism.

Lot 6, Pablo Picasso, Guitare, Verre, Bouteille, de Vieux Marc, 1912, estimated $2,500,000-$3,500,000. A late Cubist painting that is pleasant, not brilliant. A year ago, however, Sotheby's New York sold the 1914 Dés, verre, bouteille de Bass, carte a jouer, et carte de visite for $4,250,000 while the $100,000,000 Picasso, Garçon à la pipe, was still fresh in everyone's mind. They were hopeful; Guitare, Verre, Bouteille, de Vieux Marc sold for $3,300,000 (to New York dealer James Roundell).

Lot 9, Berthe Morisot, Cache-cache, 1873, estimated $3,000,000-$4,000,000. An inordinately attractive picture with a provenance that begins with Manet, touches upon the Whitneys and ends at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. Cool. It is the most costly Morisot ever sold at auction. Originally collected by Steven Wynn at Sotheby's New York in May 1999 for $3,800,000 and then sold again at Sotheby's New York in November 2000 for $4,400,000, a boost of $600,000 in 18 months. The 18 x 22 in. painting sold again this evening for $4,600,000 at the hammer, a price that leaves the seller a bit out of pocket but nothing compared to the loss of the picture. The price was a new auction record for the artist, all three times.

Lot 10, Claude Monet, Le Pont Japonais, ca. 1918-24; estimated at $1,500,000-$2,000,000. Emblematic of Sotheby's success last evening, Le Pont Japonais as a type trades in the estimated range. One sold for $2,000,000 in 2002, one sold for $4,300,000 in 2000 and one BI'ed in 1997 over a high estimate. This Le Pont Japonais was a nice picture, pleasant and sold expensively for $4,600,000, hammer.

Lot 12, Claude Monet, Le Grand Canal, 1908, estimated $12,000,000-$16,000,000. Sold at Sotheby's New York for $11,500,000, in 1989, it sold again last night for the same price, $11,500,000. Draw conclusions. Link the dots. Other Monets sold in 1998 for $12,000,000 and Santa Maria della salute et le grand canal, Venise (same view) brought $11,400,00 at Sotheby's London in 1989. Monet painted six pictures of this view in 1908 but none as precious as Sotheby's catalogue photo of Claude and Alice Monet standing in St. Marks Square decked with pigeons looking like targets for an outreach program. Speaking of which:

Lot 11, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Gabrielle a la rose, ca. 1899, estimated at $3,500,000-$4,500,000. Renoir as a repeat offender painting the apparently 14-year-old Gabrielle with her shirt off. They wouldn't let him live in New Jersey today. He'd have to go on the list. Passed. . . even Renoir collectors have limits, just.

Lot 15, Amedeo Modigliani, Buste de Manuel Humbert, 1916, estimated at $4,000,000-$6,000,000. One cannot help but draw comparisons between Christie's Modigliani portrait of Moise Kisling and Sotheby's portrait of Manuel Humbert. True, Kisling looks autistic but it is a great, rich, colorful painting twice the size of the Sotheby's portrait. Manuel Humbert looks dullish, along with the picture. It sold for $4,900,000, $100,000 less than Christie's took in. So the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which was the vendor, did good (relatively speaking).

Lot 17, Max Ernst, La Mer, 1925, also a LACMA painting, estimated at $140,000-$180,000. One notices this small picture because it sold for $850,000, to everyone's astonishment except perhaps the buyer. Underestimated by half, it brought twice its true value. Or perhaps not. No more than a dozen Ernst painting have ever sold at auction for more than $1,000,000, but Ernsts of this refinement are quite rare.

Lot 20, Pablo Picasso, Tete de Femme, 1921-22, estimated at $800,000-$1,200,000. An esquisse (outline) of his first wife, barking dog Olga from 1922, dwelling on her "Apollonian beauty." It sold for $3,000,000. Woof.

Lot 24, Fernand Leger, Les Constructeurs, 1921-22, estimated at $5,000,000-$7,000,000. Billboard sized, 101 x 126 in., bigger than a new Hummer, and just as pretty. It sold for $4,800,000 in very light bidding (two bids?). Fresh in Sotheby's mind was Les Campeurs 1er etat, 1950, which the house sold last May for $7,600,000.

Lot 29, Paul Klee, Young Garden (Rhythms), 1927, estimated at $1,400,000-$1,800,000. It sold for $2,800,000. It was an attractive Klee larger than the Bescheidene Heimat that Christie's sold in 2002 for $2,200,000. Of other period works, Einsame Tanne, sold for $2,000,000 in 1990, and Entelegene Landschaft sold for $1,500,000 in 2001. That's a pretty big spread. The buyer was the golden-haired French dealer Catherine Couturier.

Lot 32, Henri Matisse, Robe jaune et robe harlequin, 1941, estimated at $9,000,000-$12,000,000. Last night's money picture. There was that tottering moment when no one even fidgeted with their paddles, then a very few bids later it was gone (like Christie's Toulouse-Lautrec). The picture sold for $9,750,000 at the hammer. It had been to Sotheby's before in 1999 and had sold then for $11,300,000. Le Robe Persane (Nice, 1941), superficially similar, not a problem here, sold at Sotheby's New York in 2000 for $17,000,000.

Lot 38, Paul Cézanne, L'enfant au chapelle de paille, ca. 1902, estimated at $5,000,000-$7,000,000. Withdrawn. Few Cézanne portraits have sold at auction. The far more developed Fillete a la poupeé that Sotheby's cites in its catalogue sold at Phillips in 2001 for $16,500,000. The similarities are remarkable, in that they are both portraits of women and were both painted by Cézanne in and about 1902.

Lot 39, Pierre Bonnard, Paysage du Cannet, 1928, estimated at $4,000,000-$6,000,000. It was not best of breed, but it was lovely; it was luminous and above all it was the largest Bonnard to appear at auction in ten years. It sold for $4,400,000 at the hammer to Guy Wildenstein, who bid without a paddle and resolutely refused efforts by house employees to give him one. The expensive Bonnards are all interior scenes. In recent memory, Matin au Cannet, sold at Sotheby's London in 2003 for $7,000,000; Interieur avec des fleurs, at Christie's New York last May, for $5,400,000. Landscapes had not seen this money.

Lot 40, Pablo Picasso, Femme dans l'atelier, 1956, estimated at $1,500,000-$2,000,000. One hears rumors of lost Picassos and wonders why this wasn't one of them. The dreary foldout shows a basement apartment of a grey winter's day. You wouldn't put it in a real estate insert. It sold for $2,650,000 at the hammer, well above its estimate. I was so smug, and wrong.

Lot 47, Claude Monet, Le Fjord, Près Christiania, 1895, estimated at $800,000-$1,200,000. A Norwegian Monet. Dreary, yes thank you. Could have hung in Picasso's basement apartment. Sold for $1,200,000 at the hammer. Wrong again.

Lot 53, Camille Pissarro, La Côe des Grouette, Pointoise, temps gris, 1875, estimated at $700,000-$1,000,000. A pleasant picture that sold for $700,000 at the hammer and should have been in the day sale.

Lot 54, Claude Monet, Le petit bras de la Seine à Argenteuil, 1876, estimated at $1,200,000-$1,800,000. A pleasant picture that sold for $1,300,000 at the hammer and should have been in the day sale.

Lot 55, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le Déjeuner à Berneval, estimated at $3,000,000-$5,000,000. If there are any precedents for paintings of structured, peopled interiors scenes selling at auction they were not to be found. And this was noticeably where Renoir shined. It sold for $3,000,000 at the hammer in dispirited bidding, but a really good Renoir. At last.

Wisdom doesn't pass for knowledge and by the same analogy, a successful sale does not mean a great one. However, what Sotheby's lacked in charm it recouped in value. Rumor has it that Christie's failed to meet its guaranty to the private American collection and ended $20,000,000 to $30,000,000 short, having forced the sale of the Toulouse-Lautrec. To someone close to the house. To M. Pinault, perhaps. Quelle surprise. Well it is only a rumor, but it changes the relative values of each sale and it takes some of the varnish off the auction season.

Sotheby's New York sale of Impressionist and Modern Art Part I, Nov. 2, 2005, totaled $130,126,000, just above the presale high total estimate of $125,000,000, with 52 of 60 lots finding buyers, or almost 87 percent. 19 works sold for more than their presale high estimates, and 32 works sold for more than $1 million.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet's signature Fine Arts Auction Report

STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.