Is underwhelming acceptable usage in the Chicago Manual of Style? If so, one might use it cruelly to describe Christie’s 40-lot evening sale on Nov. 3, 2009. It didn’t have a lot of lots. Impressionist material is scarcer in a static market where no one wants to sell, and auction houses are not inclined to buy. A lot of Christie’s material had appeared in recent auctions, and few works, here or at Sotheby’s on Nov. 4, are exciting at the level that we’ve become accustomed to in the past few years. Still, brevity has its attractions. Tonight’s sale had a few pretty lots and auctioneer Christopher Burge maximized their value, if not with customary legerdemain then with dogged tenacity.
It started as a happy room. Auctions generate an ambient bonhomie. So some lots found themselves besieged by bidders and Mr. Burge volleyed them. Other lots were under siege and sold to one bidder on a telephone while we listened to the auctioneer bluff his way past the reserve. As the auction wore on, it happened with less frequency. In all, 12 of 40 lots did not find buyers, which wasn’t bad considering the material. The sale slowed to Sotheby’s plodding pace as Mr. Burge worked for every bid.
Overall, the sale totaled $65,674,000 with premium, just below the presale estimate of $68.6 million-$97.1 million; 70 percent of the lots sold. According to the house, 29 percent of the buyers were from the U.S., 42 percent were from Europe, four percent from Asia and a whopping 25 percent from "other," the meaning of which remains unclear. Moon moguls, perhaps? Hammer prices are quoted below; prices with premium are given in the photo captions.
Lot 2, Camille Pissarro, Le Quai Malaquais et l’Institut, 1903, est. $1,500,000-$2,500,000. Painted on a dreary autumnal day but a ravishing picture, and prized, as it is among the last Paris cityscapes that Pissarro painted. It was confiscated by the Nazis in 1938, who turning a blind eye to the painter’s Jewish background, in light of commerce, resold it in 1940. It was restituted in 2008. Le Pont Neuf, naufrage de la Bonne Mere, a larger, more explicit, and cheerier Parisian cityscape, sold for $6.6 million in 2007. Le Quai Malaquais et l’Institut sold tonight for $1,850,000.
Lot 3, Henri Fantin-Latour, Fleurs et fruits, 1865, est. $2,000,000-$3,000,000. This work as well as lots four and five are from the estate of Hannah Locke Cater, who shows in a catalogue photo as a perky blond with great teeth, with Nancy Reagan chic. Her encomium included the Fantin-Latour, a riparian Corot with a cow, and a Rodin, Le Baiser. None are bad, just unimaginably prosaic together. Perhaps, we should subtract the "perky." Fleurs-Hortensia, giroflees, deux pots de pensees, dated much later, sold in 2008 for $2 million.The last Fantin-Latour from the period sold in 1990 for $1,500,000. Fleur et fruits sold tonight to a single bid of $1,450,000.
Lot 5, Auguste Rodin, Le Baiser, cast 1887-1901, est. $1,500,000-$2,000,000. It was the 34-inch version, the one Rodin actually made himself, and it had been polished like a new pair of shoes. The auction had opened with Rodin’s, Trois Sirènes, which sold in a flurry of bidding for $560,000, nearly twice its high estimate. Le Baiser sold in a greater frenzy with no explanation. Comfort art? The most costly 34-inch version of Le Baiser was the one that sold in 2000 for $2,750,000, but it was the rare 1ere etat. An unnumbered Rudier cast sold in 2001 for $2.4 million. Other casts sold subsequently between $1 million and $2 million. It sold tonight for $5.6 million.
Lot 6, Camille Pissarro, Le Pont du Chemin de fer, Pontoise, 1873, est. $3,500,000-$4,500,000. A slick, 1873 picture of railway bridge spanning the Oise river and merging into a summer landscape. A much larger work from the same year and equally charming, Paysage, la moisson, Pontoise, sold in 2005 for $5.2 million. Tonight’s lot, Le Pont du Chemin de fer, Pontoise, had sold at Christie’s in 1997 for $2.3 million, but passed tonight.
Lot 7, Paul Signac, Vieux port de Cannes, 1918, est. $2,000,000-$3,000,000. A Signac where the color, his wacko Pointillism and the structure all comes together with just a tinge of vulgarity from the Cote d’Azur. Contrast it to lot 25, Henri Edmond Cross’ study in Pointillism gone wrong. The Signac sold for $3.3 million.
Lot 8, Kees Van Dongen, La danse de Carpeaux (Bal Masqué a l’opera), 1904, est. $1,500,000-$2,000,000. In 1869, Carpeaux sculpted an ebullient Pan encircled by dancing nymphs who have "put off their fear and unapparelled in the woodland play." Thirty-five years later, this x-rated ring-around-the-rosy has become a real-time feature of the Parisian Bal Masqué and was painted by a Fauvish Van Dongen in 1904. It has the tawdry, dirty air of a French Reginald Marsh. Van Dongen’s much larger Anita-La belle Fatima et sa troupe sold for $3.3 million in 2004. La danse de Carpeaux (Bal Masqué a l’opera) had sold earlier in 2005 for $1.6 million. It sold again tonight in slow bidding for $1.8 million.
Lot 14, Henri Matisse, Rosace, 1954, est. $3,000,000-$4,000,000. A six foot round paper cut-out that was the model for the Rose Window in the Rockefeller Family church in Pocantico Hills, this work seems more of an architectural drawing than a work of art, though the architect was Matisse. Les quatre rosaces aux motif bleu, another cut-out, but more painterly and better, sold in 2004 for $2.6 million. Rosace, supposedly his final work, was dreary, and passed.
Lot 17, Camille Pissarro, Pommier à Pointoise (La maison de pére Gallien), 1868, est. $400,000-$600,000. Grey and dour in both subject and sensibility, painted in 1868. Five years made a world of difference in Pissarro’s poise (see Pissarro lots previous and following). Bords de L’Oise a Pontoise, same time, same place, same station, sold in 2009 for $750,000. Tonight, Pommier a Pointoise passed.
Lot 19, Claude Monet, Vétheuil, effect de soleil, 1901, est. $5,000,000-$7,000,000. Monet is in Lavacourt before his easel looking across the Seine at the town of Vétheuil. In the course of 1901, he will paint 14 pictures of the same town, from the same spot, urinating on the same tree, from spring to autumn. A sort of pastoral Rouen Cathedral. This picture is not the most distinguished in the group, a bit washed out by the sun, the warmly colored land against the cooler river, summery, less assertive, but nice-ish. The more robust Vétheuil, après midi sold in 2005 for $6.6 million. The heavily worked, dappled, and slow, all on the back palette, Vétheuil après midi d’automne sold for $5 million in 2004. Vétheuil, effect de soleil, sold tonight for $4.8 million, just above the reserve.
Lot 22, Edgar Degas, Danseuses, 1896, est. $7,000,000-$9,000,000. The incomparable Danseuse au repos, a larger and earlier pastel of a similar pose, sold last November for $37 million ($30 million at the hammer), over an unpublished estimate of about $40 million. Less fortunate was the beautiful Le ballet, same sale, a few lots later, flat and modern looking, of an enervated chorus line, that BI’ed. More than a dozen lots from the period have sold over $7 million. Danseuses is almost perfect, not incomparable, but less spatial with a modern allover touch; it sold for $9.5 million, the top lot of the auction, pursuant to this year’s restitution settlement with the heirs of Ludwig and Margret Kainer, as noted by the auctioneer.
Lot 23, Camille Pissarro, Le Cours-la-Reine à Rouen, temps gris, 1898, est. $1,000,000-$1,500,000. Like Tuesday’s child, full of grace, effortless and likable. Match de Cricket a Bedford Park, Londres, painted the year before, sold for $2.3 million in 2008, and Le Verger du manoir d’ango, Varengeville, matin, painted a year later, sold for $3.3 million in 2007. Le Cors-la-Reine a Rouen, temps gris sold tonight for $1,750,000.
Lot 26, Kees van Dongen, La blouse noire, 1910, est. $1 million-$1,500,000. It is a picture of a earnest young woman, buxom and vulnerable in a black sweater and a Madeira School headband. Nu au Chapeau Noir, coming up tomorrow night at Sotheby’s, is way more fun. A nude woman in only a black hat, it had been with one collector for 38 years, and is the antithesis of Dorian Gray, staying deliciously young while its owner did not. La blouse noire had sold in 1999 for $442,000 despite its sincerity and sold again tonight, for $1.3 million
Lot 27, Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de photographe Dilewski, 1916, est. $3,000,000-$5,000,000. With close-set eyes and a long untrimmed beard, Dilewski looks out with discomfiting Slavic intensity and an uncanny resemblance to everyone in ZZ Top. The picture sold in 2000 for $2 million. The Portrait du sculpteur Oscar Miestchaninoff, same year, same inbred, feral expression, sold in 1995 for $9.5 million and again at Christie’s in 2007 for $31 million. Christie’s hoped, given an estimate in multiples of the original value, that lightning might strike twice. There is second portrait of Oscar, possibly even less flattering, by Soutine in the Pompidou Centre. Alas, Dilewski was never heard of again, and certainly is not as juicy as Modigliani’s nudes. Passed.
Lot 29, Piet Mondrian, Composition II with Red, 1926, est. $4,500,000-$6,000,000. Sold in 1989 for $3.5 million and in 2004 for $3 million. In 1926 Mondrian had the juice, imperceptibly fabulous but too austere for current palettes. Passed.
Lot 33, Pablo Picasso, Tête de Femme, 1943, est. $7,000,000-$10,000,000. A large, 1943 canvas of a Cubist head that has little to recommend it except that it has not been to auction. Painted in the depth of WWII, as Dora Maar’s attractions were waning and François Gilot’s were unknown. Tete de femme, Dora Maar, painted in 1941, seemingly the day she had reconstructive surgery, and they were still in love, sold for $16 million in 2007. Tonight, Tete de Femme passed.
Happily, two lots by Tamara Lempicka, one by Dali and three out of four van Dongens sold. No one could call it a good sale, regardless of the material. The house gross of $65.5 million is like a late ‘90s result. The bubble is still kaput. Sotheby’s is up later today. They must be having the vapors.
For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.