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Art Market Watch
May 2, 2006 


Christie’s and Sotheby’s kick off their major spring auctions in New York this week with a pair of dueling $50-million pictures, promising still another round of art-market drama.

First up is Vincent van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne, Madame Ginoux (1890) at Christie’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on May 2, 2006, which carries a "cautious" presale estimate of $40 million-$50 million. The country café proprietor -- she and her husband owned the establishment van Gogh had painted in his famous Night Café (1988) -- wears a bemused expression as she holds her hand to her cheek, sitting at a table that is bare save for two books, French translations of Charles DickensChristmas Stories and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (van Gogh’s own reading material, rather than that of Ginoux, according to scholars), and posed against a background that has a fanciful Japanese-style pattern of flowers on crosshatching, suggesting a wall covering of woven rushes.

The painting, which was included in the Art Institute of Chicago’s "Studio of the South" exhibition in 2001, is one of six portraits of Marie Ginoux by van Gogh, and the only one remaining in private hands (the seller is Peter Bakwin, heir to the celebrated 1930s collector couple, Dr. Harry Bakwin and Dr. Ruth Morris Bakwin.)

Other top lots in Christie’s sale are Pablo Picasso’s Le Repos (est. $15-million-$20 million), a 1932 portrait of his ballet-dancer wife Olga Khokhlova, showing her grimacing in the same armchair in the same room occupied by his blissful mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter in Le Reve, which was painted the same year, and Picasso’s Blue Period painting Portrait de Germaine (est $12 million-$18 million) from 1902.

Also notable is Georges Braque’s high Analytical Cubist La Tasse (1911), which is being sold by the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art. The work was given to the museum -- which focuses on art made since 1940 -- by the daughter of Dada artist Morton G. Schamberg in 1982. The little picture -- 9 x 13 in. -- carries an impressive presale estimate of $1,800,000-$2,500,000.

The following evening at Sotheby’s, May 3, 2006, the star lot is Pablo Picasso’s 1941 portrait of Dora Maar au chat, which has a presale estimate of $50 million. Picasso paints his Surrealist-photographer lover "like a pagan goddess on a throne," in a flowered hat, garishly striped blouse and spotted skirt, with a cat on her shoulder -- and Dora is said to have disliked the animal. The painting was bought by Chicago industrialist Leigh Block in 1947 for $14,000, and sold to its present (anonymous) owner in 1963. "We offered a guarantee on the picture," said Sotheby’s expert David Norman. "It is a painting we were ready to own ourselves."

Another top lot in Sotheby’s Impressionist sale is Henri Matisse’s Nu couché vu de dos (1927), the first major "Nice period" Matisse painting to come up for auction since 1995. The model for this view of an odalisque from the back, depicted against a decorative screen with a samovar, was probably Henriette Darricarrère, one of the artist’s favorites and a woman who would soon stop posing because of declining health.

A few years ago, the market action in Russian art was limited to a dozen paintings inserted into the 19th-century sales. The first all-Russian sale was launched two years ago in London, and now, in complementary New York auctions, Sotheby’s and Christie’s offered perhaps 1,000 lots of Russian art (including decorative arts) between them.

The price appreciation has been astonishing. Nikolai Petrovich Bodganov-Bel’sky’s 1939 painting of eight naked urchins playing Tug of War, for instance, sold for the equivalent of $31,000 in Copenhagen on Sept. 8, 2004, and then sold for about $217,000 a little more than a year later, at Sotheby’s London on Dec. 1, 2005. 

What happened? Once the new Russian oligarchs got their feet on the ground and started buying artworks -- their national patrimony -- for their palaces, the momentum of their acquisitions soon sparked a frenzy, with dealers seeking inventory and collectors coveting pictures. The last few years have even seen the creation of Russian-art-focused investment vehicles like the Aurora Fine Art Investments Fund.

Christie’s New York sale of Russian paintings and works of art, including property from the collection of diplomat Ambassador Charles R. Crane (1858-1939), on Apr. 24, 2006, totaled $15,046,680, with 136 of 193 lots finding buyers, or 70 percent. Top lot was from the Crane collection, Alphonse Mucha’s The Abolition of Serfdom I Russia, 1861 (1920), an independent version of one of 20 works from Mucha’s "The Slav Epic," which sold for $1,472,000, a world auction record for the artist.

The sale also set new auction records for Zinaida Evgenievna Serebriankova ($1,416,000), Grigorii Ivanovich Gabashvili ($1,136,000), Nikolai Konstantinovich Rerikh ($856,000), Vladimir Donatovich Orlovskii ($464,000) and Aleksandr Nikolaevich Benois ($441,600).

Sotheby’s two-day New York sale of Russian Art on Apr. 26 and Apr. 29, 2006, totaled $54.4 million, the highest total ever for a Russian art sale. Top lot was Nikolai Roerich’s Lao-Tze, which sold for $2,200,000, more than seven times the presale high estimate of $300,000, and a record for the artist at auction.

Auction records were also set for Alexander Evgen’evich Yakovleff ($1,808,000), Nikolai Petrovich Bogdanov-Belski ($1,360,000), Boris Izrailevich Anisfeld ($604,000), Petr Petrovich Vereschchagin ($1,472,000) and Aleksei Petrovich Bogolyubov ($828,000).

In the decorative arts, a Russian gilded silver and champleve enamel tea and coffee set brought $1,808,000.

The stock for the New York photography sales was bolstered by two substantial corporate collections, from 7-Eleven at Sotheby’s and from the bankrupt futures broker Refco Inc. at Christie’s. Is the typically sleepy business of corporate art collecting entering its twilight?

Sotheby’s New York sale of photographs on Apr. 22, 2006, totaled $6,297,500, well above the presale high total estimate of $4.7 million, with buyers snapping up 195 of 218 lots, or 89 percent. The sale included 58 lots from 7-Eleven, which totaled $1,908,800 and included the top lot, Ansel Adams' Surf Sequence, San Mateo County Coast, California, a later printing of a series of five pictures originally done in 1940, which sold for $352,000 (est. $150,000-$250,000), a record for the artist at auction, to Weston Gallery of Carmel, Ca.

Other top lots included a 1987 photograph by Peter Beard of a naked African model feeding a giraffe at night, which sold for $156,000 (est. $70,000-$100,000), and a soft-focus black-and-white image of the Guggenheim Museum’s spiraling exterior by Hiroshi Sugimoto -- from a 1994 edition of five -- which sold for $114,000 (est. $70,000-$100,000).

More auction records were set at Christie’s New York sale of photographs on Apr. 24-25, 2006, with 365 of 413 lots selling, or 88 percent, for a grand total of $7,471,480. The sale included the first tranche of the Refco holdings, a group of some 500 contemporary photos being sold by creditors of the former futures trader. The collection was assembled by Frances Dittmer, the now-ex-wife of former Refco chairman Thomas Dittmer (who isn’t implicated in the fraud that drove the company out of business). The Refco material totaled over $1.9 million.

Top lot was Irving Penn’s dramatic and glamorous -- look at those eyebrows! -- portrait of his model-wife, Harlequin Dress (Lisa Fonssagrives-Penn), a print from a 1979 edition of 30 of a photo that was originally taken in 1950, which went for $352,000, well above the presale high estimate of $150,000, to a bidder that the Baer Faxt identified as New York photo dealer Peter MacGill. The Penn price reset the firm’s own world record, noted Philippe Garner and Joshua Holdeman, the directors of Christie’s bicephalous photo department.  

A new auction record was also set for William Klein’s equally iconic Smoke and Veil, Paris, 1958 (Vogue), which sold for $144,000 (est. $40,000-$60,000). The buyer this time, according to Baer, was German photo collector Clemens J. Vedder.

The photo sale at Phillips, de Pury & Co. on Apr. 26, 2006, totaled $6,160,083, with more than 400 lots put on the block. The total is up substantially from the $4.3 million sold last October, another sign of growth for both Phillips and the art market. The top lot was a 1926 Man Ray Rayograph of a deliriously spiraling cord, which sold for $296,000.

Another highlight was Dora Maar’s Les annees vous guettent (Nusch Eluard) (1932), a double exposure of the face of the celebrated Surrealist beauty overlaid with the image of a spider in its web (!), which sold for $102,000 (est. $70,000-$90,000). Phillips also set new auction records for Tina Modotti ($216,000), Lisette Model ($36,000) and Robert Adams ($36,000).

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