With art selling steadily, few professionals expected the evening sale of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s New York on May 6, 2008, to be anything other than more of the same. Estimates were very high and not all the 58 lots in the auction were of the best quality. However, the market had reached a level where anything goes, and in fact anything did.
One could finally divest oneself of expensive horrors. One could risk going back to auction to roll the dice on a decent lot. Sometimes it paid off, but quite a few lots passed; many that were even more repugnant than their excessive estimates.
In a rising market, pictures that had been around for years finally reached parity with the seller’s delusional fantasies. Easy art and big-brand art did well. More recondite pieces suffered. Even Picasso was not immune. And if you hadn’t noticed, Giacometti is the flavor of the season.
Christie’s sold 44 of 58 lots offered, or 76 percent by lot, for a total of $277,276,000, the third highest total for the category at the firm. New auction records were set for Alberto Giacometti ($14.6M), Joan Miró ($17M), Claude Monet ($41.5M) and Auguste Rodin ($18.7M).
Prices given in the text below are "at the hammer"; prices given above and under the accompanying illustrations include the auction-house premium of 25 percent of the first $20,000, 20 percent of the remainder up to $500,000, and 12 percent of the rest.
Lot 1, Alberto Giacometti, Homme (Apollon) (est. $800,000-$1.2M). It is a small, delicate work from his early Surrealist period, appealingly vulnerable in plaster. Homme et femme. Le couple couche, another work, sold this past June at Kornfeld in Switzerland for $2.2M. Perhaps it is a better piece than Homme (Apollon), but it set new values for Giacometti work in plaster. Until tonight. Homme (Apollon) sold for $3.2M
Lot 3, Georges Braque, Verre et pipe JOUR (est. $3M-$4M). It is a tiny oval in its odd wood frame. It is difficult, spectacular and a more intensely resolved Cubist masterpiece than Sotheby’s 1912-13 Fernand Léger coming tomorrow. The Braque had sold at the Stanley Seeger sale in 2000 for $2.1M. It barely found a buyer tonight at $3.4M. It was too good for the crowd.
Lot 6, Henri Matisse, Portrait au manteau bleu (est. on request, $20M-$30M). Last November Christie’s sold L’odalisque, harmonie bleue, for $33M, which was not by consensus, save the buyer’s, the most enchanting Matisse, though it cost $10M more than any other. It was emblematic inasmuch as it held all the Matissean cues: odalisque, anemones and fruits. Portrait au manteau bleu, is the same; easy subject, a bejeweled woman amid powerful coloration, but too pat. It has a brittle French chic, too good not to be fragile. Mr. Burge labored hard. It barely sold at $20M. Three bids?
Lot 11, Paul Signac, La Corne d’or (Constantinople) (est. $5M-$7M). Are we in a Signac bubble? This is the economic translation of a secondary master. The 1889 Cassis. Cap Canaille broke the record last November, selling for $14M. The later 1909 version, Constantinople -- Corne d’or sold last June at Christie’s London for $9.5M. Are there are no more elite Monets left in the market (see lot 21), that we must enlist Signacs? This picture looked more like Baghdad baroque than Constantinople. Sold at $5.9M
Lot 12, Kees van Dongen, Anita en aimee (est. $12M- $16M). See the estimate? Seem high? Sold in 1995 for $1.6M. Recently, Christie’s sold L’Ouled Nail, the 1910 gypsy queen portrait that predates Andy Warhol’s Liza Minelli by 50 years, for an astonishing $11.2M, in London, in February, the record (though still considerably less than Warhol’s). This meretricious van Dongen is so good that it should have been a Matisse, but alas it is a van Dongen in tawdry ways, midriff, breasts and harem panties notwithstanding. Justice over greed. Passed at $10.4M.
Lot 15, Auguste Rodin, Eve, grand modèle version sans rocher. (est. $9m-$12M). The perfect woman; the first cast of the large Eve purchased by Pellerin in 1897 and sold in 1999 for $4.5M, which was the record until the unique and explicit Iris, messagere de dieux sold for $9.1M last June. Christie’s theatrically illuminated the sculpture at the exhibition, more pole dancer than uber mother. It sold for $16.9M.
Lot 21, Claude Monet, Le pont du chemin de fer a Argenteuil (est. on request, $35M-$40M). This is the 1873 landscape picture of the railway bridge destroyed during the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, remade anew as part of the juggernaut of 19th-century French industrialization. It has that clear, almost prosaic articulation of subject that makes early Monets so popular. It is the Terrasse a Sainte-Adresse for trainspotters. Believing it is a seminal Impressionist masterpiece as opposed to commercial auction propaganda requires more faith than some Old Believers will manumit. Twenty years ago, the picture sold for $12.5M in 1988 dollars. Three of the other four 1874 pictures of the bridge are more interesting. Who cares. Sold for $37M.
Lot 26, Vincent van Gogh, Route aux confines de Paris, avec paysan portant la bêche sur l’épaule (est. $13M-$16M). This luscious pre-Arles landscape from 1887 predates van Gogh’s voyage of discovery into the south of France. Everything else from this period is not quite good and reappears at auction every five years. This picture foreshadows how the paintings will evolve in the south after March 1888. It is fabulous. Femme dans un jardin, 1887, same date but lacking any comparable nuance, sold for $5.4M in 2005. Tonight, Route aux confines de Paris passed at $11.5M. Too early for such a high estimate.
Lot 28, Paul Gauguin, Te fare Hymenee (est. $10M-$15M). This is not the most iconic painting from his first tour in Tahiti, too many figures, too cluttered; besides it had been around for years. It had sold in 1989 for $11.2M. Christie’s sold L’homme a la hache, a young man in tight trunks, bare-breasted woman behind, the stuff of 19th-century French rapture, for $40.3M in 2006. Te fare Hymenee sold for $7.5M.
Lot 30, Matisse, La danseuse (est. $8M-$12M). Barely pretty enough pastel on paper returning to the market. Sold in 2001 for $5.2M. Nice, must have been nicer in 1927 than the admixture of SoCal and Atlantic City it became. Sold for $7.5M, just.
Lot 31, Paul Klee, Dunenfriedhof (est. $800,000-$1.2M) and lot 39, Ausserdem ein Manchen (est. $800,000-$1.2M). Two Klees. The first, an austere opening act to the Giacomettis that follow. The second, the epilogue. Blithe and lovely. The Klees seemed overwhelmed in the kitsch atmosphere surrounding the sale though both were brilliant. Kornfeld sold a comparable and equally attractive watercolor for $1.1M in 2005. Here, Dunenfriedhof sold for $750,000. Ausserdem ein Manchen sold for $950,000
Lot 32, Giacometti, La Place II (est. on request, $13M-$16M). How much has the market altered in the past few years? La Place #1, same year, 1948, same place, same five figures on the marche, sold for $4.5M in May 2000. These are small, diminutive works of art. Tonight’s bidding was moribund, the work too costly. Sold for $13M, just, again.
Lot 35, Matisse, Femme assise au livre ouvert (est. $5M-$7M). Matisse journeyed south leaving his wife and daughter for the moment in chilly wartime Paris, while he painted deminudes in the hot sun of Nice. Not so nice, the picture, not Matisse. Ordinary. Femme a l’ombrelle rouge, assise de profil, same period, with shuttered French doors and a view of the sea, sold for $12M 20 years ago. Femme assise au livre ouvert sold in 2001 for $4M. Tonight, it passed.
Lot 36, Giacometti, Grande femme debout II (another est. on request, $18M-$25M). Astonishing. Recent sales of tall, important women, Femme de Venise VII, although half the size, sold in 2002 and 2004 for $4M and $3.5M, respectively, marginally above the high estimates. In May of 1987, Christie’s sold Grande femme debout numbers I and II in two consecutive lots for $3M and $3.5M. It was an inescapable juxtaposition but reeked of entitlement. Two years later, number one sold again for $5M. Tonight, Grande femme debout II sold in fervid $500,000 increments for $24.5M.
Lot 37, Fernand Léger, Les femmes a la toilette (est. $9M to $12M). This was the perfect Léger, great subject, great size, great painting. The estimate was completely impossible but underlined that great work still sells in competitive bidding. It had been sold in 2002 for $3.5M. La roue rouge, composition a la roué I, sold in 2007 for $4.5M. It isn’t as good. Les femmes a la toilette sold for $9M.
Lot 38, Pablo Picasso, Trois femme a la fontaine (est. $3.5M-$5.5M). A neoclassical Picasso, contemporaneous with his late Cubist works, and lovely. Sold in 1996 for $2.5M. The sale had no overtly geek Picasso works mortifying our sensibility or our purse. That’s tomorrow. Trois femme passed tonight, another victim to an overweening estimate.
Lot 42, Picasso, Partition, guitare, compotier, (est. $12M to $16M). A perfect Picasso. It had everything, clear brilliant color, a complicated subject circling into simplicity, perfect scale and commanding size. It sold in 1988 for $4M and was nearly a victim of its bloated estimate tonight. Sold for $11M.
Lot 46, Monet, Nympheas (est. $10M-$15M). There are prettier Nympheas but this is neither better nor worse than most, self-effacing and restrained, it might be great, might be ordinary. Still, Monet is a name brand. Christie’s sold a nearly identical picture of like esthetic ilk in November of 2005 for $14M. This Nympheas sold for $10.4M in dispirited bidding.
Lot 50, Egon Schiele, Stehender weiblicher Akt (Gerti Schiele) (est, $600,000-$800,000). Schiele quit painting naked, slutty looking children after he got arrested and turned his gaze upon his sister. Here "Gerti," his favorite sister, is aggressively nude, tanned, self assured and projecting eroticism in green eye shadow. It went over the high estimate but not as much as Elliot Spitzer. Sold for $900,000.
The auction saw fierce competition from everyone holding a stronger currency, which was everyone. Fourteen out of the 58 lots in the sale passed, including Picasso’s phallo-centric Busted’homme, horrific; a 1901 grayed portrait of his sister Lola, scary dreary; Monet’s Le Rio de la Salute, bilious; Renoir’s nude Gabrielle wiping, looked like she had eaten a Botero; and Gauguin’s miniscule Le rêve, Moe Moea, scenes from the hospice. All at prices that would really make you shudder.
The sale was dull and labored, as Christopher Burge had to haul uphill to high reserves. The market seemed sound inasmuch as nobody was tempted to buy these things at unconscionable prices and wait for inflation and a market resurgence in 10 years time to resell them. I wouldn’t say it was fun but nobody left looking anguished.
For complete, illustrated auction results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.