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Art Market Watch

by Andrew Decker
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Bring on the blockbusters. That’s the message of the spring 2011 Impressionist and modern auctions, as first Sotheby’s New York on May 3, 2011, and then Christie’s New York on May 4 scored significant successes with steeply priced major works but few blockbuster offerings, and none by the titans of the 1865-1945 art world.

A case in point was Maurice de Vlaminck’s Paysage de banlieue, a drop-dead gorgeous Fauvist oil of 1905 consigned by hedge fund manager and major collector Steven Cohen. Cohen had bought the painting at the auction house in May 1994 for $6.8 million. Seventeen years later, Cohen put it back on the block, estimated at $18 million-$25 million, where it became the centerpiece of a joust between New York dealer Guy Bennett, formerly head of Impressionist art at the auction house, and the current head of department, Conor Jordan, who was bidding by phone on behalf of Acquavella LLC. The seasoned competitors cut bids and then jumped increments as the offers climbed from $18 million to $20 million, with Acquavella winning out in the end. The final price was $22.5 million, including Christie’s commissions and fees.

Paysage de banlieue was one of the few blockbusters of the season, not because it’s both beautiful and historically significant, which it is, but because it’s a work by an artist at the top of his game in the years that counted most. And bidders reacted accordingly: the price more than doubled the auction record for a Vlaminck.

And then there’s the case of Maximilien Luce (1858-1941), the Neo-Impressionist painter who contributed little to art history aside from some quite lovely paintings. One of his best, the Pointillist Notre-Dame de Paris (1900), fetched $4.2 million, beating out his previous record of $2.8 million.

More interesting still was Pablo Picasso’s Les femmes d‘Alger, version L, from 1955. The painting was one of 15 variations on the theme of Eugène Delacroix’s Les femmes d’Alger and painted in memory of Picasso’s long-time and deeply admired rival, Henri Matisse, after the artist’s death. Other works in the series have come up for sale in the past 15 years, with the sweeping and brightly colored version O reaching a high-water mark of $31.9 million in the legendary 1997 auction of the collection of Victor and Sally Ganz at Christie’s.

Les femmes d‘Alger, version L featured not three women, as in the Delacroix and other versions by Picasso, but one, and the Cubist-influenced rendering was almost exclusively in grisaille. It wound up selling to an anonymous phone bidder for $21.4 million following brief bidding by Larry Gagosian of the Gagosian Gallery and dogged bids by dealer David Nahmad, who at the Ganz Sale had purchased the similarly monochromatic Les femmes d’Alger (version M) for $11.0 million. The price for version L, sold this season, may well be an auction record for a grisaille painting.

The price was remarkable. It’s not the the Cubist works that send prices into the stratosphere, nor are paintings in muted tones of gray in the market’s sweet spot. Still, Christie’s took the bet that a buyer or two would go after an exceptional painting, and the gutsy move was vindicated, just as Sotheby’s had been the night before with the less compelling Femmes lisant.

Christie’s took another risk with Claude Monet’s Les Peupliers (1891), one of 24 paintings Monet made of poplars on the bank of the river Epte in 1891. None of the other works in the series had sold for more than $11 million (the last back in 1999), and the painting at Christie’s had fetched $7 million in 2000, according to the Artnet price database. Tall, at ca. 46 inches, the painting is certainly beautiful, and it fetched $22.5 million from an unidentified private collector.

The auction house wisely saved its final $10-million-plus bet for last, Monet’s Iris mauves (1914-1917, est. $15 million-$20 million). The previous top price for a Monet iris painting was $4.6 million, achieved in 2007 at an auction by Artcurial - Briest - Le Fur - Poulain - F.Tajanthe, and Iris mauves itself had sold for $3.9 million in 1997. This season, not a single bid was offered for the work with the aggressive estimate.

In terms of strengths and weaknesses in various segments of the market, Jordan noted that of the top three lots, each above $20 million, were a late Impressionist painting, an early Fauvre, and a 1950s Picasso: a broad spectrum where buyers stepped up.

Other sale highlights included a stunningly beautiful 1911 Matisse, La fenêtre ouverte, a thinly painted oil over pencil on canvas that Matisse deliberately left unmarked in certain areas, save the pencil, as he did in a number of later works. Owned by Pierre Bonnard until his death, the painting carried an estimate of $8 million-$12 million and sold for $15.8 million to an unidentified European private buyer bidding by phone.

Among the singular and unusual works in the sale were a unique Picasso steel cutout with black crayon, Homme au mouton (1961), of a bearded shepherd with staff carrying a lamb around his neck. Standing at 21 inches, the raw sculpture sold for $7.1 million, above its high estimate, with Gagosian the underbidder. On a far more modest scale in terms of price and dimension was Joan Miro’s Le numero de music-hall, a small (10 by 7-1/2 inches) gouache and pencil on cardboard that fetched $458,500. Dated 1938, towards the end of the Great Depression, during the Spanish Civil War, and with World War II approaching, the seemingly tossed-off painting at first glance appears ribald and exuberant but is in fact a chilling commentary on hedonism and escapism.

As they had at Sotheby’s, Surrealist works continued to fare well. Two reasonably estimated works by Dada co-founder Hans Arp -- the white marble Torse, 19 inches tall and executed in 1960, and Homme-moustaches, a unique oil on cut-out board -- both sailed beyond estimate, at $986,500 and $1.2 million, respectively. Yves Tanguy’s Entends-tu (1937) sold for $2.1 million to San Francisco dealer Rowland Weinstein, according to Art & Auction’s Judd Tully, over both underbidder Nahmad and the high estimate of $1.5 million.

Other Surrealist works -- by Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí and Paul Delvaux -- also went over estimate, though Dali’s raucous Chevaliers en parade (1942), fetched $1.4 million, with an estimate of $1.2 million-$1.8 million. According to a report in the New York Post -- not confirmed by other observers in the room – the buyer was Leo DiCaprio, who attended the sale with his fellow actor, Lukas Haas.

A number of the works on offer -- or, at least the sold total -- seemed to benefit due to the fact that Christie’s sale followed Sotheby’s: by practice and tradition, staff members of the auction house that goes second spend the daylight hours before the auction imploring consignors to lower their estimates. Following the sale, a Christie’s staffer said, “Most consignors were very responsive to lowering reserves.”

Perhaps as a result, a number of lots sold for prices significantly below their low estimates. Giorgio de Chirico’s Ettore e Andromaca, with Hector largely faceless, was knocked down at $4.2 million (with premium, $4.8 million) against an estimate of $5 million-$7 million. Fernand Léger’s Nature morte à la clé, from 1929, sold for $4 million against a low estimate of $5 million. And Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Portrait de Jeanne Samary pastel on paper of ca. 1879-80 sold to Nahmad for $1.1 million; its low estimate was $2 million.

Christie’s noted that Europeans topped the buying, at 47 percent -- the dollar is cheap relative to the euro -- with the United States second at 36 percent, people of seemingly indeterminable nationality at 13 percent and Asia at 4 percent, which means, presumably, two lots.

Overall, the sale totaled $156 million, just shy of its $162.3 million-$231.8 million aggregate presale estimate, which does not include Christie’s commissions, while the reported sold total does. By lot, 47 of the 57 works offered sold, for a very respectable unsold rate of 18 percent. Still, the shortfall between the sold total and the low estimate seems striking.

Following the sale, a Christie’s staffer cited one aggressive estimate -- that on the unsold Monet Iris mauves -- and put it in context. “Every day you see things that you don’t take in for sale” because the owner wants an excessively high reserve and estimate. “You’ve got to try and walk that tightrope that satisfies the owner and tempts the market and assess where to take the gamble.” On the night, Christie’s was three for four with its big bets and even better with its biggest bet of all: that buyers are ready and waiting.

Exactly what are collectors waiting for? Why aren’t they selling? Jordan, Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department head, echoed the comment made by David Norman of Sotheby’s the previous day, saying, “Yes, not knowing what to do with the cash, but,” he added, “there’s a feeling that the market is on the way up.” No one wants to sell too soon.

Dealer comments afterwards were essentially upbeat. London dealer James Roundell termed the auction “pretty good, with more energy -- people seemed a little more prepared to spend money tonight.” New York dealer Edward Tyler Nahem noted that the auction house “overreached” with a few things but that, on the whole, Christie’s “did quite well given what they had. Clearly, there are buyers if you have the material.”

Prices given here include the auction-house buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the amount between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12 percent on the rest.

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

ANDREW DECKER is a communications consultant for cultural organizations and businesses.