During the big-ticket art auctions, the main salesroom at Sotheby’s headquarters on York Avenue in Manhattan has been more than impressive, a huge rectangular space thronged with row after row of avid art collectors and dealers, with a dense standing-room-only pack at the rear.
But something happened this time around, as the firm installed a new wall across the back part of the room, cutting out about 400 seats and making the space considerably more manageable. Did Sotheby’s Customer Care Department go into overtime separating the important bidders, who could sit in the first class section with complimentary water bottles, from the interested observers, who got to experience auctioneer Tobias Meyer’s artful ministrations remotely, somewhere? In the reorganization many people did not get tickets. Some dealers were relieved that it was one less sale they had to attend. Some muttered that the wall really masked the paucity of material on offer.
With a smaller room, and fewer lots (61 in all), the sale nevertheless took plenty long. Meyer showed patience as bidders deliberated over each $50,000 increment. The bidding was spare, slow and unsteady, with almost nothing racing past the high estimate. Few lots passed, but few lots sold with any élan, either, and those that did seemed excessive rather than stylish.
In a cash-rich environment, it seemed bidders might have bid more if there was something to bid on. For despite the near-record total of $278.5 million (with premium, now raised to 20 percent of the first $500,000 and 12 percent of the remainder) and the collection of stellar names, the parade of lots seemed rather ho-hum. In the end, the sale underlined the big box marketing efficiency of the auction houses, which have perfected the art of reaching new clients and extracting top prices for marginal work. It also draws attention to the inefficiencies of dealers, who are still working on an older paradigm.
Prices given here are at the hammer. By contrast, the prices accompanying the illustrations include the auction-house premium.
The big news was lot 22, Lyonel Feininger’s 1915 Expressionist Jesuiten III, measuring 29 x 23 in. and estimated to go for $7,000,000-$9,000,000. It sold for $20,750,000 at the hammer to one of two phone bidders. The price was a world record, made all the more extraordinary because the picture is so loathsome. Garish and saccharine both, it was guaranteed by Sotheby’s and chosen for the cover of the catalogue (rather than for a box of chocolates). Previous record prices for works from the same period have included Angler with Blue Fish (1912) at $7.6 million in June 2006 and Newspaper Readers II (1916) at $4.4 million in February 2004. One might speculate that the buyer owns 30 other Feiningers and was shifting the market. Still, it took 15 minutes and was mildly depressing.
Other sensational events included le groupe Cézanne, lots 8, 9, 10, 11 and 15. The first four belonged to Asian art expert John Eskenazi, and were guaranteed by Sotheby’s. Nature Mort au melon vert (1902-06) sold for $22,750,000 at the hammer, above a presale high estimate of $18 million. Back in 1989, as part of the British Rail Pension Fund’s famous foray into art-as-investment, the late still-life sold in 1989 for $4.3 million, making it the most expensive Cézanne watercolor ever sold, both then and now.
A transparent, heavily worked depiction of a melon, a glass, an apple and a basket of something in the background, Nature Mort au melon vert did not scintillate. Most Cézanne watercolors at auction have been washy and dull like the rest of the night’s offerings. Lot 9, Rocher près des grottes au-dessus de château noir (1895-1900), estimated at $2 million-$3 million, sold for $2 million. Lot 10, Amandiers en Provence (ca. 1900), estimated at $1.4 million-$1.8 million, sold for $900,000. Lot 11, La montagne Ste. Victoire (1900-02), estimated at $1.2 million-$1.6 million, sold for $1.1 million.
Lot 15, Groupe de baigneurs (ca. 1900), the best of the lot, sold for $1.4 million. It had been estimated at $900,000-$1,200,000. None of them would set your walls on fire.
Lot 18, Pablo Picasso’s tiny (13 x 10 in.) Tete d’arlequin from 1905, estimated at $14 million-$18 million, sold for $13.5 million, a lot of money. The bidding opened at $11 million, shifted quickly up to the reserve and ended in brief, dispirited bidding. If you spent your waking day making moody little heads, it would be sufficient reason to invent Cubism. Ordinary doesn’t do the picture justice. Sotheby’s described it as the allegorical son of Garcon a la pipe, the Rose Period Picasso that sold for $104 million in 2004. True, but not necessarily a commendation.
On a positive note, Lot 16, Picasso’s Homme a la pipe assis dans un fauteuil (1916) sold for $4.2 million, as the room briefly took flight. It is a tiny (12 x 9 in.), complex, elaborately worked Cubist gouache, restrained, sedately colored and expressive. It had been estimated at $2 million-$3 million.
Lot 23, Wassily Kandinsky’s Weisser Klang (White Sound) from 1908, 27 x 27 in., came up after the Feininger miracle. It was estimated at $6 million-$8 million and barely sold at $4.8 million. Had it not been guaranteed, would it have passed? It is a ravishing, big-dog Kandinsky, something to put on your wall and stare at in blank wonder; it would never have made cover for any box of chocolates. It sold in 1998 for $3.3 million. Kandinsky’s Starnberger See sold for $9.1 million last fall at Sotheby’s.
Lot 25, Henri Matisse’s Odalisque gris et jaune (1925), 31 x 46 in., estimated $15 million-$20 million. The residue of a quietly vicious argument with Madame Matisse over the highest and best use for Lydia Delectorskaya? Dreary colors, plainly composed, without ambition, purposeless, and evidence that great painters can make lousy, large pictures sold for $13 million to one phone bidder. Nu couchee vu de dos, half the size but a better picture, sold for $18.5 million last May at Sotheby’s. Hence, the firm presumed to give it a run at cum laude value or as Abba put it, “Take a chance on me.”
Lots 26 and 38, Amedeo Modigliani’s 1918 Portrait de Jean Hebuterne, 18 x 11 in.,estimated at $8 million-$10 million, and his 1919 Jeune fille assises, les cheveux denoues, 39 x 25 in., estimated at $12 million-$15 million. The first is a small, uninteresting portrait that looks like Popeye’s girlfriend, Olive Oyl. The second is worse as it is larger. Red hair on a red wall, pale blue dress on a pale green wall, Modigliani was a great painter and one wants to believe, but. . . . Both passed.
Picasso was the flavor of the night. Lot 29, Les Amants (1932), 38 x 51 in., estimated at $10 million-$15 million, sold for $13.1 million, with the bidding cadence of a Chinese water clock. It came with a bizarre and washy yet affecting surface. This picture sold in 2000 for $6.3 million. In 2004, the considerably larger Femme couchee a la meche blonde, a complete fantasy of that sinuous Marie-Therese Walter line wrapping around her amatory parts, sold for $9.3 million at Sotheby’s London. Here, Picasso Mini-Me sits regarding his teenaged lover. It has the linear joie of a subway map but the picture itself still carries considerable force.
Lots 30 and 33 were both by Fernand Léger, his 1918 Les Usines, 27 x 21 in., estimated at $5 million-$7 million, and the 1918 La Gare, 25 x 31 in., estimated at $2.5 million-$3.5 million. The first was a great picture and sold for $12.75 million. The bidding opened at $3.5 million and moved up in $250,000 increments. The slow action made it seem like a duller market. The second, La Gare, sold for $4 million.
Léger’s 1918 Le moteur sold at Christie’s New York in 2001 for $16.7 million, over a presale estimate of $4 million-$6 million. It was, however, more than twice the size. Les deux acrobats (1918), a painting that more closely approximates the size and quality of La Gare, sold for $5.5 million in 2002. Sotheby’s modest estimates cause a certain uneasiness. Only the second picture was guaranteed.
Lot 42, Giacomo Balla’s Velocità d’automobile + Luci (1913), 19 x 26 in., was estimated at $3.5 million-$4.5 million. Brown Futurist marking on gold paper celebrating dynamism and low tech are disappointing. They are also rare. It sold for $3.5 million, a record. Balla’s Velocita astratta (1913) sold in 1996 for $1.1 million. The auction audience was beginning to fidget.
Lot 49, Pablo Picasso’s 1965 Femme nue assise, 45 x 35 in., was estimated at $8 million-$10 million. The sale included 15 Picassos out of 61 lots. Not to be prudish, but this one depicted a naked woman seated in an armchair with a side by side at the top and an over and under at the bottom. It was plain nasty if you compare it to lot 16, the early Homme a la pipe assis dans un fauteuil, and still nasty if you don’t. It sold for $7.25 million.
The anonymous buyer was certainly hardcore. Bidding on the phone with paddle 0055, he snagged the record-setting Cézanne watercolor, the sale’s Gauguin village scene, the Balla and the rude Picasso -- a total of more than $42 million.
Lot 52, Paul Delvaux’s Le nu et le mannequin (1947), 61 x 88 in., was estimated at $2 million-$3 million and sold mid-estimate at $2.7 million. Sotheby’s shored up Delvaux’s esthetic by illustrating in the catalogue paintings of nudes by Bouguereau and Cabanel, two of the wealthiest and most reviled members of the French Academie, at least by avant guardistes like Manet and his crowd. Cabanel’s La Naissance de Venus, showing the kitschy dishy Venus floating atop the waves guarded by putti, is the perfect antecedent of Delvaux’s soft-core pandering. Le nu et le mannequin previously sold at Christie’s London in 2003 for $2.8 million.
People were getting logy by the time the Balthus twins hit the block. Lots 53 and 54, Nu au Foulard and Nu au Mirroir, both 1981-83, 64 x 51 in., were estimated at $1.5 million-$2 million and $1.25 million-$1.75 million, respectively. Sotheby’s should have shored up the Delvaux with these beauties, earth-colored preteens in an earth-colored room with a strong undertow of pedophilic eroticism. Your living room? Nu au Foulard sold for $2.6 million and Nu au Mirroir sold for $2.1 million. Very good prices for what they were.
A few lots later we were racing for the elevators, through the doors and breathing the night air, absolutely none the wiser. Values soared. Records were set. Sotheby’s will crow atop the $278.5 million worth of art it sold, but if the market sustains itself it will not be on the Impressionist and modern sales of either house. This spring, post-war and contemporary is where the real money will be.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.