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by Stewart Waltzer
In the first half hour of the Christie’s New York sale of Impressionist and modern art on May 4, 2010, auctioneer Christopher Burge managed to knock down only six lots, the bidding was so intense. Then he sold the 1932 Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust. The presale estimate of $70,000,000-$90,000,000 was the highest that Christie’s had ever placed on a lot at auction. It hammered down at $95,000,000, which with Christie’s commission totaled $106,500,000, the record for Picasso and any work of art sold at auction. It took nine minutes for seven of the eight bidders to fall away.

The sale’s overall total, with premium, is $335,548,000, with 56 of the 69 lots selling, or 81 percent. Thirty lots sold for more than $1,000,000, and nine lots sold above $10,000,000. According to the house, 36 percent of the buyers came from the U.S., 36 percent from Europe, four percent from Asia and 24 percent "other" (what this means, the auction house has never revealed).

If you look closely at the sales of both houses, you will find that outside of a few good works and the Mrs. Sidney F. Brody collection, much remains that is not exceptional. Good material is hard to find. Art retains its value, for now, so why sell? In December and January, as this sale was put together, the noise of recession was louder and consignors were wary. The market has picked up in the spring, and Christie’s felt it had clientele who are anxious for material, so the firm fought for the Brody collection.

The catalogue notes that Christie’s or a third party guaranteed 33 lots in this evening’s sale (28 are from the Brody collection), including all the Picassos and almost every major work except for the Munch. Using the low estimate as a plausible guide, it totals $178,000,000. The total presale low estimate is $270,000,000; 70 percent by value is guaranteed. In principle, if a third party guarantees a lot and it fails to sell, they have bought it for the guaranteed price. If it does sell, the guarantor splits the upside with the owner and the auction house.

This practice helps the auctioneer to produce a good sale, with important works assured of selling, which acts as a compelling draw for lesser works and a favorable ambit for major works that were not guaranteed, such as Edvard Munch’s Fertility. In addition, companies like Art Assure guarantee the low end for a price, essentially eschewing the upside, and the deal remains closeted as the auction house is not a participant.

At Sotheby’s, which holds its sale tonight, on May 5, the house or a third party guaranteed only one lot, the Picasso Buste de femme. This is quite a difference in policy from Christie’s. In the past, great sales have ended as a net loss to the house when a single guaranteed lot passed. This factor may account for Sotheby’s reluctance to guarantee or Christie’s dexterity at re-allocating risk. You can’t get a credit default swap on an auction lot, but now you can get something close.

Prices quoted in the text are at the hammer; the prices given with the illustrations include the buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the amount up to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of anything above that.

Mrs. Brody was the daughter of Albert and Mary Lasker, collectors of renown. The Brodys bought much of their art in the 1950s and there it stayed with its very nice provenance and limited exposure. The perfect, unknown to the market, auction-house bait.

Lot 2. George Braque, La Treille, 1953-54, est. $3,000,000-$5,000,000. A pretty late Braque of a spindly flower arrangement against an Orientalist room divider. The late, large Atelier VIII from the McCarty-Cooper collection made $8,000,000 in 2002. La terrasse 1948, sold for $5,000,000 at Kornfeld in 2006. Neither appears to be any more interesting. La Treille sold for $9,000,000, a new auction record for the artist.

Lot 4. Alberto Giacometti, Le Chat 3/8, 1951, est. $12,000,000-$18,000,000. A year ago, thinking Giacometti was the artist of the decade, Sotheby’s offered cast 7/8 of Le Chat over an estimate $16,000,000-$24,000,000, and it passed. It was not guaranteed. This February, Sotheby’s sold L’homme qui marche I for $105,000,000, a game changer. It had been estimated at $20,000,000-$30,000,000. Grande femme debout II, a nine-foot-high, very thin woman sold last May for $27,500,000, then the record. The world has moved on. Christie’s took the estimate down a step, guaranteed the work as part of the Brody group and praised its provenance and unique patina as possibly done by brother Diego. Sold for $18,500,000.

Lot 6. Pablo Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust, 1932, est. $70,000,000-$90,000,000. Bought by the Brodys in 1951 from Paul Rosenberg, it was a whereabouts unknown picture for much of its life. It was shown at UCLA in 1961 and known by its presence in a black-and-white photo as it was not in Zervos. The sister picture to this work, Nu au fauteuil noir, same girl, same plant, same size, sold in 1999 for $45,000,000.

La rêve, a better picture than both, sold from the Victor and Sally Ganz collection in 1997 for $48,000,000. There has not been another full-blown Marie-Thérèse picture at auction in a decade, so Christie’s figured it could ask anything it could imagine, and the picture would probably go for more. Right they were. Sold for $95,000,000, or $106,500,000, with the buyer’s premium.

Lot 11. Pierre Bonnard, Impasse or La Ruelle (Le Cannet), 1925, est. $800,000-$1,200,000. Le Cannet is a small town just above Cannes and must have been the sleepiest backwater in 1925 when this was painted. Bonnard rendered an alley in the town in pinks, soft yellows and azure skies with his reassuring conventionality. It is sandwiched into the sale with a bunch of lesser works between the Picasso and Giacometti. Matinee au Cannet, a considerably larger painting, sold for $7,000,000 in 2003. Tonight, Impasse or La Ruelle sold for $700,000.

Lot 13. Giacometti, Grand tête mince, 1954, est. $25,000,000-$35,000,000. By its estimate, this work is meant to sell in an arena of very high Giacometti prices. It helps that it is both handsome and accessible. So while the estimate was colossal, Christie’s had a chance. The last Grand tete de Diego sold in 2002 for $14,000,000. This lot is also guaranteed by the house. To illustrate the change in the market, Buste de Diego, not a grand buste, slightly smaller, sold in 2003 for $2,300,000. It had been estimated at $600,000-$800,000. Grand tete mince sold for $47,500,000. Costly.

Lot 16. Picasso, Femme assise aux bras croisés, 1902-03, est. $200,000-$300,000. One of the small pen-and-ink drawings from 1902 made on the back of a large business card, almost a non-object given its diminutive size and subject, which is its immense charm, hence value. Six such works were in the sale, which the Brodys had framed up as a matching set. Tidy. Sold for $170,000.

Lot 22. Henri Matisse, Nu au coussin bleu, 1924, est. $20,000,000-$30,000,000. A naked, fit-looking young woman in an armchair with her arms raised above her head against a Moroccan-flavored backdrop. Matisse found himself spending more time in Nice working effectively, away from his wife and daughter. Not that unusual. The less compelling La pose Hindoue, same pose but with the woman’s legs folded and crossed fakir style, sold in 1995 for $15,000,000. Nu au coussin bleu is more engaging and a bit overloaded. One might even say homely. Still a languorous odalisque is not to be had and Christie’s only imagined an estimate that the firm expected to exceed. Wrong. Sold, slowly, for $13,500,000.

Lot 30. Giacometti, La Main, 1947/1948, est. $10,000,000-$15,000,000. Giacomettis really cost and arm and a leg. La Jambe sold in 2006 for $8,000,000. La Main, actually an arm and a splayed hand mounted on a post like a souvenir of a fundamentalist dismemberment, sold last in 1985 for $214,000. Tonight it sold for $30,000,000.

Lot 34. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Femme nue couchee, Gabrielle, 1903, est. $7,000,000-$9,000,000. An elongated, nearly life-sized painting of a well-fed woman in the standard odalisque pose, lying aback, with only a towel or sheet between her legs. As Renoirs go, it is well enough, no matter that it is hard to like. There are many better pictures but few as large. Renoir does better with a bit of background to add complexity and there is none here but the demesne of fast food. Sold for $9,000,000.

Lot 39. Picasso, Femme au chat assise dans un fateuil, 1964, est. $10,000,000-$15,000,000. Picasso is 83 and a heavy industry. Jacqueline Roque is 37, and hot. These are not the greatest Picassos but, unsurprisingly, they are charismatic and vital. Femme au chat assise dans un fateuil is complex and painterly without looking like an over-chromed Buick. La peintre et son modele is graphic and linear with the figures sketched out in black and filled in with pale greens, pinks and ochre. Both pictures are from 1964.

Femme nu couchee jouant avec un chat, much of the same cut, sold in 1998 for $2,000,000. Le peintre et son modele, smaller but similar to this evening’s lot, sold for $1,700,000 in 2005. More recently, yet another Le peintre et son modele sold in 2006 for $14,000,000. These are all better than the gypsy tearoom pictures, Homme a la pipe and Mouquetaire a la pipe sold for $17,000,000 and $16,000,000 quite recently and underpinned the present estimates. Lot 39, Femme au chat assise dans un fauteuil, sold for $16,000,000.

Lot 43. Picasso, La peintre et son modèle, 1964, est. $10,000,000-$14,000,000, sold for $9,500,000.

Lot 42. Giacometti, Torse de femme, 1932/1948-49, est. $3,000,000-$5,000,000, is one of four early, Surrealist sculptures that are unique and both predate, and foreshadow many of the spatial concerns that were to occupy Giacometti’s creative oeuvre. Taking a page from Rodin’s notebook, Torse de femme is the torso of Femme sans tete or alternatively Femme qui marche that sold respectively in 1986 for $400,000 and in 1994 for $1,000,000. Passed tonight.

Lot 47. Edvard Munch, Fertility, 1899-1900, est. $25,000,000-$35,000,000. Christie’s carefully crafted an estimate between functional and dysfunctional Munch, not knowing which would have the bigger play. Girls on the Bridge sold in 2008 for $30,000,000 and Vampire sold in 2008 for $38,000,000. Fertility is a lyrical, well-crafted, beautifully painted picture of a man and a woman beneath a tree. A metaphor for Adam and Eve or, if you prefer, for Munch and his girlfriend, Tulla. It didn’t work out with them, and, though the picture is sensational, it didn’t work out tonight. Only dysfunctional Munch sells. Passed.  

Lot 48. Paul Signac, Marché de Veroné (La place aux herbes), 1909, est. $1,500,000-$2,000,000. Not a Baghdad Baroque picture. Pleasant and ingratiating. It sold in 1994 for $900,000. Signac prices are mercurial, unless it is garish Signac, which are proof against any incursion of good taste; Venise le nuage rose sold in 1988 for $2,000,000, and in 1998 for $1,100,000. Marché de Veroné (La place aux herbes) sold tonight for $1,800,000.

Lot 50. Kees Van Dongen, La bottine jaune, ca. 1909-10, est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000, is a picture of a woman in a yellow dress, kohl-eyed and cool, with her leg cocked behind her on a chair. She is brittle and tawdry more from the touch of the artist than her mien. The texture of the painting itself is labored, almost annoying, but the picture is much better than okay. Femme au grand chapeau, a tits and hat picture, sold in 2005 for $9,000,000; Femme fatale, a more decorous t&h picture, sold in 2004 for $6,000,000. La bottine jaune is better than both. But tits and hats rule. Passed.

Lot 55. Picasso, Tête, 1969, est. $6,000,000-$9,000,000. A too late Picasso. Imagine Picasso as a special ed. student. You lavish praise but don’t pin the picture to the fridge. Awful. Sold for its low estimate, $6,000,000, probably to the guarantor.

Lot 62. Paul Cézanne, Forêt (rector) Arbres et buissons (verso), ca. 1890-95, est. $700,000-$1,000,000, is a very pretty watercolor esquisse of a forest presumably at Jas de Bouffan. It was owned by Henri Matisse, sold by his son Pierre and came to auction in 2008 where it sold again for $713,000. Tonight with the same estimate it sold for $825,000. Just.

Lot 70. Salvador Dali, Décor pour Labyrinth II, 1941, est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000. Dali illustrating the sets for Pirates of the Caribbean, kitsch voodoo and desolation. Christie’s sold Nu dans la plaines de Rosa in 2009 for $4,000,000, the recent record holder; so Décor pour Labyrinth II was meant to be expensive, and break records. Passed.

It was essentially two sales. The Brody material consisting of the first 28 lots, which all sold and totaled $224,177,000, and the general sale, which totaled $111,370,000. Christie’s total for the evening, $335,547,000, is probably close to the largest evening sale in its history.

The first part of the auction demonstrated how robust the market really is. The second half showed how thin the material is, with a third of the lots passing from lack of interest.

Risk management within the framework of lots guaranteed by third parties was a decisive factor in Christie’s success. Officially, third-party guarantors can bid on lots and may or may not have knowledge of the reserve. But guarantors would inevitably know the reserve as they factor the risk of the guarantee. They are further advantaged as they will receive a financing fee whether or not they are the successful bidder. This is not a level playing field. It is an impenetrable black box that should cause considerable consternation among other bidders on high-value lots. Is there any way a third party guarantee can be equitable? No.

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

STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.