With the May Impressionist and modern art auctions in New York, it is clear that there wasn’t enough material to make two good sales. Since Sotheby’s lost the bidding for the Mrs. Sidney F. Brody estate, the firm ended up with the less exciting sale -- but also with less financial exposure.
Last November, Christie’s had a benighted sale of 40 lots and Sotheby’s ran away with all the best pictures. Perhaps that memory augured Christie’s greater risk this time around. Sotheby’s had a brilliant February sale in London, where the firm sold the Giacometti for the record-setting $105,000,000, and now its cupboard is depleted.
According to dealers, business is brisk and if you have good material it sells quickly at high prices. The problem is finding the material.
Sotheby’s was forced to assemble a sale from unexciting properties, with a Matisse and a large Monet tossed in for leavening. Even though it had no showstoppers, the sale contained some very nice pictures. Some lots brought record prices (Noguchi and Dali); others sold in very weak bidding.
Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer was often able to cozen out the one bid needed to meet the reserve. He auctioned slowly and deliberately all evening, making the most of his chances. It took a while. Sotheby’s grossed almost $196,000,000, with 50 of 57 lots selling, or almost 88 percent, so it was a respectable sale.
Forty-three lots sold for over $1 million and four works sold for over $10 million (compared to 30 and nine, respectively, at Christie’s sale the evening before, which had a much higher total of almost $336,000,000).
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.
Lot 4. Isamu Noguchi, Undine (Nadja), 1926/1927, est. $600,000-$900,000. In 1926, in the heart and spirit of Art Deco, Noguchi produced a life-sized, lifelike plaster of a water sprite, with an incredible body and seashell hair, posed with evocative sinuosity. Only one was cast in bronze. Noguchi is known as a rigorous abstract sculptor. The highest price paid for his sculpture is $1,200,000 for a large, austere, white marble donut poised on a steel column. In a paroxysm of marginal taste, Undine sold for $3,700,000. A new record for the artist.
Lot 5. Kees van Dongen, Femme au chapeau de roses, ca. 1910-11, est. $2,000,000-$3,000,000. The Jeune Arabe set the record at nearly $14,000,000 last November at Sotheby’s, demonstrating how good van Dongen could be, though more often he wasn’t. The wasn’ts are often slutty and formulaic. Femme au chapeau de roses is somewhere in between. Le chapeau bleu, more rigorously structured and much more felt, sold in 2007 for $4,800,000. Femme au chapeau de roses sold tonight for $3,300,000.
Lot 7. Amedeo Modigliani, Jean Hébuterne au collier, 1916-17, est. $8,000,000-$12,000,000. There are 14 portraits of Jeanne Hébuterne that have appeared at auction. Most recently JH (Au chapeau) sold in 2006 for $30,200,000. They are all thinly painted and polished. JH au collier is densely impastoed, but imbued with a delicacy that makes the picture fresh and attractive. In the catalogue, however, it looked like a skin disease. Sold for $12,250,000 (to a Japanese buyer, according to Sotheby’s).
Lot 8. Auguste Rodin, Le penseur, moyen modèle 1889-81/1916-17, est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000. A more desirable lifetime cast, done in May before Rodin died in November. Rodin did not number his casts so it can be uncertain whether the artist actually saw the work. This cast was sold at Baron Ribeyre in Paris in 2009 for $3,500,000. A posthumous cast sold in 2007 for $3,000,000. Rodin made so many, both before and after he died. Does the market notice? Care? Yes. It sold tonight, eleven months after the last time, for $10,500,000.
Lot 9. Pierre Bonnard, Le boulvarde extérior: Boulevard de Clichy et angle de la rue de Douai, ca. 1904, est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000. Bonnard invented the term intime as it applied to his cozy interior paintings so you wonder why the cityscapes are so sought after and costly. This evening’s picture is attractive. It sold in 1995 for $1,400,000. The similar Place Clichy sold in 2006 for $7,600,000. The streetscape from Le Cannet, which sold at Christie’s only a day ago for $700,000, brought Bonnard’s subtle interior sensibility onto the street. Le boulvarde extérior: Boulevard de Clichy et angle de la rue de Douai, however, passed.
Lot 10. Lyonel Feininger, The Red Fiddler, 1934, est. $5,000,000-$7,000,000. The most expensive work from this period, 1934, sold for $273,000 at Villa Grisebach in 2006. In 1934, Feininger is hijacked briefly by Surrealism before he leaves for the states. The real Feininger value, the $7,000,000-$10,000,000 pictures, shows up for works dating from 1909 to 1916. These are elaborate, saccharine-colored vignettes more at home on the lid of a chocolate box. By 1920 Feininger had evolved the luminous, planar cubism that is iconically his. So why the high estimate for a 1934 canvas? Because it resembles the candy-cover paintings? It was made after a watercolor from 1917. Even that was a year too late. No matter. Feininger redux was apparently good enough. Sold for $6,500,000.
Lot 14. Henri Matisse, Bouquet de fleurs pour le quatorze juillet, 1919, est. $18,000,000-$25,000,000. This is the cover lot and nominally the best picture in Sotheby’s sale. It is enormous for a Matisse, ca. 46 x 35 in., and where will you find another? You won’t. The glamorous Femme a l’ombrelle rouge, which sold in 1989 for $12,400,000. Intérieur à Nice, which is but a shadow of Bouquet de fleurs,sold in 2007 for $6,300,000. So by reference, $18,000,000-$25,000,000 for Bouquet de fleurs pour le quatorze juillet did not seem like much of a stretch. Though it took Meyer ten minutes to get there, the picture sold for $25,500,000.
Lot 16. Pablo Picasso, Portrait de Sylvette, 1954, est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000. In 1954 Picasso was a sexually active 73-year-old who developed a compelling letch after the sympathetic, small-boned, and demure 20ish girl next door. He had charmed Marie-Thérèse Walter, albeit 30 years before, why not give it a go with Sylvette? However, he was in an engrossing period working on the Femmes des Alger series, and Sylvette was always chaperoned by her fiancé. Had Sylvette been more accommodating, would Picasso have tried harder on her picture? Another, more elaborate, portrait of Sylvette, also en grisaille, sold in 2007 for $3,000,000. In 2008 a high colored portrait of Sylvette, more related to Picasso’s mainstream work of the time, sold for $6,000,000. Portrait de Sylvette passed.
Lot 17. Alberto Giacometti, Figurine, 1961, est. $1,400,000-$2,000,000. With L’homme qui marche I selling at Sotheby’s London this past February for $104,000,000, Figurine seems out of place in an evening sale. An equivalent Femme Debout sold in 2008 for $2,300,000, but few small sculptures from the early ‘60s have appeared at auction in 20 years. Figurine sold for $2,000,000.
Lot 19. Picasso, Femme au grand chapeau. Buste II, 1965, est. $8,000,000-$12,000,000, is conceivably a drawing with paint on it. Christie’s sold Nu au chapeau, buste I in 2008, a year and a half ago, for $3,700,000 over an estimate of $3,000,000-$4,000,000. Sotheby’s asks a much higher value for Femme au grand chapeau, buste II, the second picture of that Monday, made in the afternoon. They are not peas in a pod, but same size, same image, and equally as unlikable. They are Nos. 142 and 143 in Zervos, with the latter being the more costly. Sold for $8,500,000. One bid up from the guarantor?
Lot 22. Fernand Léger, Les quatres personage (2ème esquisse), 1944, est. $3,000,000-$5,000,000. Painted while Léger was in America during the war, the figures lack that proletariat chic that lightens the Paris pictures. It is small and peopled with pals of Popeye the Sailor. It sold at Christie’s in 2002 for $900,000. Sotheby’s felt it could do considerably better. Sold for $3,000,000, in very thin bidding.
Lot 23. Picasso, Nature mortes – fruits, compotier, carafe sur une table, 1938, est $1,800,000-$2,500,000, is a luminous 1938 picture with a background of lavender and violet behind hot colored fruits and a carafe. The image originates from the period when Picasso is painting baby Maya and wacky Dora Maar, one of the larger stations on his oeuvre. Compare it to the $8,500,000 Femme au chapeau. Buste II, a few lots before. Nature mortes – fruits, compotier, carafe sur une table sold for $2,000,000.
Lot 25. Salvador Dali, Spectre du soir sur la plage, 1935,est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000. The purpose of Surrealism, according to Andre Breton, was to resolve the previously contradictory condition of dreams and reality into an absolute reality, a super reality. This, however, may not be the picture he had in mind. It is a scene of a very large beach with a pierced Barbara Hepworth-like form in its Surrealistic midst. Echo nostalgique, same year, same tentative grip on Freudian metaphor, sold in 2005 for $2,300,000. Spectre du soir sur la plage sold tonight for $5,000,000, a new Dali auction record.
Lot 29. Matisse, Nu au fauteuil, jambs croisees, 1920, est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000. In light of Matisse’s aphorism that he painted to provide pleasure to a tired businessman, Nu au fauteuil, jambs croisees would need a particularly tired businessman. Compared to lot 14, Bouquet de fleurs pour le quatorze juillet, a tidy complex of harmonies and ambition, this is tepid. Intérieur à Nice, femme assise avec un livre, a larger and more intricate picture from the same period, sold in 2002 for $4,000,000. Nu au fauteuil, jambs croisees sold for $3,200,000.
Lot 30. Picasso, Buste de femme, 1940, est. $1,500,000-$2,000,000. Picasso paints wartime Dora Maar in dreary brown and earth greens, high breasted and gowned with the prognathous jaw line and simian brow at home on the set of Planet of the Apes. It could have not made her happy. Sold for $1,350,000 to the guarantor.
Lot 32. Claude Monet, Fin d’après-midi, Vétheuil, 1880, est. $2,800,000-$3,500,000. The 40-year-old Monet seems to have spent a nice, focused day on the river in his floating studio. He made two pictures of Vertheuil at this time from the same approximate view, this and Les Coteaux de Vetheuil, where the town is off center, and the foreground and middle ground are more articulated. The latter sold in 1988 for $3,000,000 and Fin d’apres-midi, Vetheuil sold in 1992 for $1,700,000. In a well-to-do brawl between two bidders, one raising the bid by $100,000 and the other by $500,000, it sold for $5,500,000.
Lot 34. Monet, Effet de printemps à Giverny,1890, est. $10,000,000-$15,000,000, is a very grand picture painting in 1980 between Monet’s first and second series of haystack pictures. It is stagy and stiff. In 1891, Monet started painting poplars by the Seine and in 1892 he began the Rouen Cathedral series. Nothing from this period has been at auction in nearly 10 years. This is the first of four almost identical pictures (Wildenstein 1245-1248). Sold for $13,500,000.
Lot 46. Van Dongen, Jeune fille au chapeau fleuri, 1907-09, est. $4,500,000-$6,500,000. A pretty enough picture of a young girl in a restrained floral hat, wearing pinks and lavenders and holding a garnet bouquet. It must have come as a disappointment to van Dongen when the golden age of millinery passed. It is a picture of uncharacteristic delicacy of color and subject, particularly after the queue of van Dongen’s naked women in big hats and black stockings that have appeared at auction. Barely sold at $3,500,000.
Lot 49. Auguste Macke, Rokoko, 1912, est. $1,200,000-$1,800,000. Macke has auctioned for $4,000,000+ for the highly colored Cubist pictures from 1913 and 1914. This is a 1912 Expressionist painting of a wealthy couple, on the balcony of their villa listening to the shepherd play on pan pipes in the foreground. It must resonate with contemporary collectors. Better than a Derain or a Vlaminck from the same period. Macke died in 1914 at 27. Sold tonight for 1,900,000.
Lot 58. Robert Delaunay, Homage à Blériot No. 2 (fragment), 1913-14, est. $600,000-$800,000. These Orphist paintings must have been extraordinary when they first appeared in 1912, appearing alien to their time in content and scale. It is 42 x 71 in., huge. Homage à Blériot No 1, a small 10 x 10 in. oil on paper, sold in 2001 for $215,000 and again in 2002 for $450,000. This work is an oil-on-paper study for a painting. It comes with an even more prescient Sonia Delaunay on the verso painted in 1930. It was sold as a Sonia Delaunay in 1987 for $312,000. It sold again tonight for $580,000.
The May 4 sale at Christie’s New York took nearly three hours. Tonight’s May 5 sale at Sotheby’s was smaller but took almost as long. Buyers spent upwards of a half a billion dollars in retail sales in two days for an admittedly mixed bag of material. Prices for work are inflated by the demonstrably false promise that profit-driven markets can point to true value (Raj Patel). Is this an art bubble? With third party guarantees put up by wealthy individuals from the financial markets, the playing field is no longer level. How will you short your Monet?
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.