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Art Market Watch


Nov. 2, 2011 

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Sometimes the auctioneer calls out the bids very quickly, and other times he goes rather more slowly. At Christie’s New York Impressionist and modern sale yesterday evening -- which totaled $140.7 million for 51 lots sold out of 82 offered (a large sale), or 62 percent -- the fast bids were bad news as often as not.

Take lot 18, for example, the famous Petite danseuse bronze by Edgar Degas, which carried a $35 million presale high estimate, and which had sold at Sotheby’s London in 2000 for $11.5 million. Another cast had sold more recently, in 2009, for $18.8 million.

Ace auctioneer Christopher Burge paused for a moment before launching right into it at a rapid pace -- $15 million to start, $16 million, $17 million, $17.5 million, $18 million, $18.5 million against you, $18.5 million, $19 million on the phone, no? What is it then, $18.5 million, not yours, last chance, fair warning. The hammer comes down and. . . .passed. Not a single bid.

A valiant show, all the same, and one we haven’t seen for some time, with so many major lots bought in. The estimates were simply too high, the consignors too greedy, or too optimistic. It wasn’t the Euro-crisis, Christie’s expert Conor Jordan assured us after the sale, as plenty of the bidders were European (its clientele is so global, the firm said, that it no longer breaks down buyers by geography).

But, to repeat, so many lots bought in. The indolently wishy-washy La robe violette (1942) by Henri Matisse, est. $4 million-$6 million; the dynamic Fauve Soliel d’hiver (1905) by Maurice Vlaminck, est. $5 million-$7 million; the 22 x 18 in. portrait of Marie-Thérèse, Femme endormie (1935), by Pablo Picasso, est. $12 million-$18 million; a Femme de Venise VIII (1956/57) by Alberto Giacometti, est. $10 million-$15 million; another Picasso portrait of another woman, this one with a chapeau, est. $12 million-$18 million. And more.

Did any of the Picassos sell? Yes, lot 2, one of the auction triumphs was La femme qui pleure, I, (1937), a combination drypoint, aquatint and etching of a weeping Dora Maar made in conjunction with Guernica, which sold for $5,122,500. The work is from an edition of 15, and was sent to auction by an “important Mexican collector.” Its sale price was double the presale high estimate, and is a new auction record for a print.

Christie’s second triumph was the auction of The Stolen Mirror (1941) by Max Ernst, a dreamy paysage animé with two figures (Leonora Carrington? Gala Eluard? He loved them both) who in their decalcomania are clearly kin to the creatures in the more famous 1940 painting The Attirement of the Bride at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Three phone bidders competed for the “Surrealist tour de force,” as the house had it, underestimated at $4 million-$6 million, which sold for $16,322,500 to a European private collector, a new record.

Among the optimists this month are several museums, unloading choice items from their collections at the auctions. The Art Institute of Chicago sold a Camille Pissarro landscape for $1,202,500, below its $1.5 million presale low estimate, and it sold a Barbara Hepworth alabaster biomorph for $650,500, above the $400,000 presale high estimate.

The Museum of Modern Art did better, flogging Paul Delvaux’s large Les Mains (1941), which sold for $6,578,500, near the presale low estimate. The artist’s auction record is north of $9 million. How many Delvaux works does MoMA have? This one came in a 2007 bequest, and the museum’s online collection lists only four. Can that be right? One shudders to think of the contemporary art these museums will buy with the proceeds, but what can you do?

Other triumphs -- when the action slows to a crawl as the auctioneer drags cut bids from reluctant billionaires -- included Constantin Brancusi’s shiny bronze Le premier cri (1917), which sold for $14,866,500, the artist’s fourth highest price at a auction; Rene Magritte’s Hegel’s Vacation (1958) -- a painting of a glass of water sitting on the top of an open umbrella -- which sold for $10,162,500, the artist’s second highest price at auction; and Amedeo Modigliani’s La blonde (ca. 1918-19), which went for $8,162,500.

Christie’s $140.7 million total this time around is a definite drop from the already modest $156 million total from May 2011. Did someone say double-dip?

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 Art Auctions Report.

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