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June 19, 2009 

The art market is prepared for a sober summer, not least of all at Christie’s International, which has just announced its second round of job cuts. Among those heading for the exit is Guy Bennett, the amiable co-director of the New York Impressionist and modern department (now being run solely by Thomas Seydoux). Bennett leaves of his own volition, for points as yet unannounced.

As was the also case in May, the struggling auction houses have to bear comparison to their boom-addled performances a year ago, when, as Carol Vogel so helpfully pointed out in the New York Times, Christie’s London sold a single Claude Monet painting for a sum -- $80 million -- equal to the estimate for the entire sale this time around.

Slated for June 23, 2009 -- next Tuesday -- Christie’s London Impressionist and modern art sale includes 45 works. Among the choice lots are a Claude Monet park scene from 1878 (est. £3,500,000-£4,500,000), a pointillist Franc Marc painting of leaping horses from 1910 (est. £3,000,000-£4,000,000), and two late paintings by Pablo Picasso, one showing a man with a sword (est. £5,000,000-£7,000,000) and the other a landscape with nude and flautist (est. £3,000,000-£4,000,000).

For currency conversion, the current rates are about £1 = $1.65.

Sotheby’s London sale the following evening, June 24, 2009, is considerably smaller, with 27 lots, carrying a presale estimate of £26,750,000-£37,270,000. Top lots include another late Picasso -- curiously bearing the exact same title, date and estimate (£6,000,000-£8,000,000) as the one from Christie’s! Which is better? The sale also includes another Picasso nude, dating from 1968 and estimated at £3,000,000-£4,000,000.

Contemporary art sales follow hard on the heels, with Sotheby’s London holding its evening auction on June 25, featuring 40 lots estimated at £19,000,000 total. Top lots include Andy Warhol’s silver Tuna Fish Disaster from 1963 (est. £3,500,000-£4,500,000) and a huge 1976 Hammer and Sickle (est. £2,000,000-£3,000,000).

Also of note, and gracing the Sotheby’s catalogue cover, is a painterly and sentimental landscape by Peter Doig from 2000 (est. £1,400,000-£1,800,000). Other works in the sale are by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alexander Calder, Jean Dubuffet, Andreas Gursky and Gerhard Richter.

A rather more psychedelic Doig painting -- Night Playground from 1997-98 (est. £1,500,000-£2,000,000) -- is one highlight of Christie’s London contemporary sale on June 30, featuring 41 lots estimated to realize about £20,000,000.

Other top lots include 1025 Farben by Gerhard Richter (est. £1,300,000-£2,000,000) and Candy Nurse by Richard Prince (est. £1,200,000-£2,000,000). The sale is overseen by Francis Outred, Christie’s new contemporary art expert in Europe.

The mid-season sales of Russian art in London carry on the same story as sales in other areas -- totals are less than 50 percent of the highs tallied a year ago. Christie’s London sale of Russian art on June 9 totaled £4,036,463, with 128 of 198 lots finding buyers, or a rather modest 65 percent. That sum is only a bit more than a third, in fact, of the £11.3 million total from June 2008.

Christie’s top lots were a ca. 1920 pseudo-Cubist painting of a village scene by Vasillii Shukhaev (£680,850), a dramatic academic painting of a shipwreck survivor crawling ashore in a storm by Ivan Aivazovsky (£421,250) and, moving into the 20th century, a still life by the first female Cubist, Maria Marevna, who moved from Moscow to Paris in 1912 (£27,500).

Sotheby’s London did rather better, totaling £7.9 million for its June 8 evening sale of Russian art, within the presale total estimate, for once. Of 27 lots offered, 17 found buyers, or 63 percent. The top lot is Boris Kustodiev’s prosaic painting of a Village Fair from 1920, which sold for £2,841,250, almost double the presale high estimate of £1.5 million and a new auction record for the artist.

The sale also set new auction records for Isaak Brodsky (£937,250), Konstantin Kryzhitsky (£289,250) and Vladimir Lebedev (£115,250). Sotheby’s held a second, daytime sale of Russian art on June 10; the firm’s total for the week was £17.7 million, less than half of its 2008 total of almost £40 million.

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