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Art Market Watch


May 2, 2012 

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The blessedly brief evening sale of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s New York on May 1, 2012, kicking off the spring auction season, totaled $117,086,000, with 28 of the 31 lots selling, or 90 percent. Yes, that’s right, a mere 31 lots, compared to the 76 due at Sotheby’s the next night. Did the sale even last an hour?

The firm offered no excuses for the small size of the auction, other than to suggest that the department -- newly headed by the youthful but perfectly cool Brooke Lampley, an eight-year Christie’s veteran -- put together a smart, balanced, quality sale. At least most of the estimates were right on, and the sell-through rate was notably high.

Also unusual was the auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkanen, who typically mans the podium in London and was making his New York debut. Pylkkanen is neither as slow as Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s auctioneer, nor as brisk as Christie’s own Christopher Burge. It should be said, as well, that Pylkkanen’s accent is Finnish.

The inimitable Burge, who may or may not be hanging up his gavel (and why not, everyone gets to retire), is due back next week for the evening contemporary sale.

At any rate, many observers considered the offerings at Christie’s a pretty drab bunch, despite the much ballyhooed top lots -- a Paul Cezanne watercolor of a card player (sold for $19,122,500, with premium), an Henri Matisse pot of flowers from the Fauve period ($19,122,500, the same sum as the Cezanne, coincidentally), and an 11 x 18 in. Pablo Picasso head of his sleeping girlfriend Marie-Therese ($9,882,500). If those prices are drab, watch out for the good stuff.

Rumor had the Cezanne Jouer de cartes, an 18 x 12 in. watercolor, going to the Qatari royal family as a match to the Card Players painting bought earlier this year for $250 million from the estate of Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos.

But the buyer was an unidentified man in the second row, who beat out several phone bidders to snag the picture for $17 million at the hammer ($19,122,500 with premium), right in the middle of the presale estimate of $15 million-$20 million.

For the Matisse still life, Pace Gallery director Susan Dunn, her cellphone tight to her ear, fought a valiant battle as the bidding rose in $200,000 and $300,000 increments up towards the eventual $17 million hammer. The room was rooting for her, but seemingly implacable raises came from her anonymous opponent, on the phone with a Sotheby’s staffer.

At each impossible rise in the bidding, Dunn would consult with her client and shake her head “no,” but Pylkkanen coaxed one bid after another from her and her phone, who were in turn only topped once again. The end came when he asked, “Would you say no for a fourth time?” And realized she had suddenly put her phone away. “Oh,” he said. “You hung up.”

Otherwise, the sale went off without much drama (surprising how dull it can be watching anonymous bidders spend millions on artworks). One of the few identifiable dealers in the room who was victorious was James Roundell, who won lot 2, a 1933 watercolor by Picasso of Marie-Therese, for $1,594,500.

Auction-room fixture David Nahmad jumped in several times, usually with the horizontal hand wave signaling a “cut bid,” raising the bidding to $1.65 million, say, rather than $1.7 million, the next step in the approved progression. He failed to take anything home, however.

For people keeping score, Picasso’s Le Repos (Marie-Therese Walter) (1932), which sold for $8,750,000 at the hammer this time, had been bought by the anonymous seller at Christie’s in 2002 for $3,089,500. It basically tripled in value during the intervening decade. Is that a good investment?

Another highlight of the sale was the large and especially vulgar late Picasso, Two Reclining Nudes, painted in 1968 when the artist was 86. A kind of bad dream in green, it sold to what seemed like a lone bid for $7 million ($8,818,500 with premium), just under the presale low estimate of $8 million. It should bring $25 million in 2022.

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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