Sotheby’s and its auctioneer, Tobias Meyer, did a good job in adversity at the first fall auction of Impressionist and modern art, held on the evening of Nov. 3, 2008. Sotheby’s had ample time to warn its clients that their reserves would need to fall into line or their lots would buy in. As a consequence, many lots that sold were well priced, and nearly all sold at prices below the low estimate, including 25 lots out of 70 that did not sell at all. The sale was orderly and plausible.
The auction totaled $223,812,500 (with premium), with 45 of 70 lots offered finding buyers, or just over 64 percent. In 2007, Sotheby’s totaled $269,741,600, selling 56 of 76 lots, or 70 percent.
With a constituency well insulated from common fortune, last night’s sale at Sotheby’s brought the angst of the general economy into a private enclave. If you buy, will the market let you escape intact, or at a profit? It frequently does if you wait. Equally, is this the opportunity to buy at prices one is unlikely to see again? The unacknowledged elephant in the room was the idea that the upward momentum of the market has stopped for the moment. That had a narcotic effect on the bidding.
Sotheby’s had managed to assemble a respectable sale while financial institutions were imploding during the height of the sale’s consignment period. Lots of marginal quality passed; lots with too ambitious estimates passed and some lots sold against all rational thought, borne by Tobias Meyer’s charm, at least in the auction room. Mr. Meyer also announced a new arcane formulation by which Sotheby’s would calculate the amount of the buyer’s premium at a higher plane (25 percent of the hammer price on the first $50,000, 20 percent up to $1,000,000, and 12 percent on the rest). Prices quoted are the hammer prices, followed by the price with premium.
Lot 3, Maurice de Vlaminck, Le Remorqueur, 1906, est. $4 million-$6 million. Fabulous. Christie’s London sold the smaller, less entrancing Le remorqueur a Chatou, same tugboat, for $4.9 million in February 2007. By contrast, Christie’s London also sold La Seine a Chatou for $10 million in 2002. Sotheby’s reined in its estimate but its Vlaminck was the best of all. Sold for $3.2 million ($3,666,500).
Lot 4, Max Beckmann, Stilleben mit Geige und Flote (Still Life with Violin and Flute), 1942, est. $1.5 million-$2 million. A great period for Beckmann, despite his being a refugee in Amsterdam during the war. Few Beckmanns appear on the market but this is well put together, awkward and alive. It had sold at auction in 1999 in London in a day sale for $585,000. A nice picture, but alas not nice enough. An omen? Passed.
Lot 6, Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition, 1916, estimate on request. A guaranteed lot with an irrevocable bid already in place, reputedly in the neighborhood of $60 million plus. It is the second Suprematist Composition to ever appear at auction. Phillips sold one in 2000 for $17 million over an estimate of $15 million-$20 million. By comparison the one at Phillips was dreary. This is luminous, accessible and devoid of dour revolutionary rigor. A separate catalogue in Russian and English acknowledges Russia’s recent (former?) economic hegemony.
Meyer called out but three bids, and presumably the painting sold to the irrevocable bidder for $53 million ($60,002,500), a new auction record.
Lot 8, Vincent van Gogh, Statuette de plâtre: torse de femme, vue de face, 1887, est. $7 million-$10 million. A workmanlike picture whose unloveliness recommends it, almost. The subject, never a pretty statuette, comes to a gnomic life in paint. Not pretty at all. Passed.
Lot 9, Alfred Sisley, Le chemin dans la campagne, 1876, est. $1.5 million-$2 million. If T-bills represent the flight to safety, these pictures are their Impressionist equivalent. They are well made, enduring and unexciting. Inevitably, they are estimated at $800,000-$1.2 million or $1.5 million-$2 million, and haven’t changed in value in the past 20 years. Enfants jouant dans la prairie, a picture similar in every aspect to the current example, sold in 2004 for $1.2 million. Not tonight. Passed.
Lot 11, Claude Monet, Paysage à Port Villez, 1885, est. $3.5 million-$5 million. See the entry for the above lot, in a higher denomination. Not the most exciting Monet, but one filled with odd contrasts, a flourish of brushwork Monet seemed to enjoy, and a clunky spot within it that makes the picture but was the signal for the fun to stop. He painted essentially the same scene three days running. Bord de la Seine a Port Villez, the second in the series, sold for $4.6 million in May 2007. Paysage à Port Villez sold for $3 million ($3,442,500) tonight as three bidders each made one bid. The winner was New York dealer Jack Tilton, according to the Baer Faxt.
Lot 12, Camille Pissarro, Ferme à Montfoucault, niege, 1874, est. $1.5 million-$2 million. Same as above with a lower rating and higher volatility. It is hard to imagine the romance of painting in the snow; perhaps the love of one’s art keeps one warm. A beautifully made, unexciting painting of a farmyard in winter, horse tethered and ducks marching in a row. Canards sur l’etang de monfoucault, smaller, from the spring of that year, sold at Christie’s London in 2007 for $1 million. Ferme à Montfoucault, niege sold at $1 million ($1,202,500), cheap.
Lot 13, Edgar Degas, Le tub, 1888-89, est. $4 million-$6 million. The first lot in an expensive grouping of Degas works, anchored by the following lot, the $40-million-estimate pastel and watercolor Danseuse au repos. Degas left 73 sculptures in wax in his studio at the time of his death. Everything was cast by his heirs. The most renowned is the La petite danseuse de quatorze ans, which routinely sells between $10 million and $12 million, though there are 38 known casts within the official oeuvre of 24. Le tub sold in 2002 for $2 million. The $4 million-$6 million presale estimate on this one seemed buoyant, even for a woman in a tub. Sold for $3.3 million ($3,778,500).
Lot 14, Degas, Danseuse au repos, ca. 1879, estimate on request, around $40 million. A remarkable work, though the right leg looks a bit attenuated; the surface of the pastel and the gouache in a perfect match of just rightness. It sold at Sotheby’s London in 1999 for $28 million. It is one of those fortuitous, wholly alive, prime objects of the universe. At $28 million it was also the most expensive Degas ever. Tonight it sold for $30 million ($37,042,500), a new auction record.
Lot 17, Degas, Le ballet, 1885, est. $7.5 million-$10 million. The prime work in a group of three pastels distinguished by their level of abstraction, tactility and color. This is the most volumetric, hence accessible, and Degas’ touch and color are overwhelming. Not tonight. Passed.
Lot 16, Degas, Femme s’essuyant les cheveux, 1885, est. $1 million-$1.5 million, and lot 18, Femme se coiffant, 1892-93, est. $3 million-$4 million. Both works bordering on modern flatness, the surface inflected by multicolored scumbling and a contained allusion to depth. Lot 16 sold for $750,000 ($902,500). Lot 18 passed.
Lot 21, Edvard Munch, Vampire, 1894, estimate on request (ca. $35 million). Vlad the Impaler, Vlad Dracula (1431-1476), is the origin of the myth. Vladdy impaled 20,000 of Mehmemed II’s crack Ottoman troops in a single hot afternoon and was known to drink their blood. Through time and artistic license he morphed into an attractive red-haired woman in Munch’s picture. Munch countered his father’s "demented piety" with "advanced ideas on sexual morality," i.e. vampirism. Girls on a Bridge, a nice enough picture, sold at Sotheby’s New York for $31 million last May and before that, in 2006, the more sinister Summer Day sold for $11 million. Though not in psychotic, high-Munch style, The Vampire sold here for an astonishing $34 million ($38,162,500), a record for the artist at auction, and one of only two lots to surpass its presale high estimate.
Lot 24, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Bal Masqué, 1888, est. $4 million-$6 million. A deft, well-cadenced, black-and-white composition of people at a ball in formal dress that could make you really like Lautrec. The nearly comparable though slightly more colorful Au bal de l’opera sold at Christie’s New York in November 2007 for $10 million. This one sold in active bidding for $4 million ($4,562,500).
Lot 26, Amedeo Modigliani, Homme assis (appuyé sur une canne), 1918, est. $18 million-$25 million. A tactilely rich, ambitious portrait imbued with Modigliani stillness and painted two years before his death from tuberculosis. It sold in 1996 for $3.2 million. Jeanne Hebuterne (devant une porte), slightly larger and a year later, sold for $31 million in 2004. It was the only other portrait of this magnitude to appear at auction in the past few years. Tonight Homme assis passed.
Lot 28, Pablo Picasso, Nature Morte, 1941, est. $5 million-$7 million. 1941 was the year Picasso painted his most disjointed Dora Maar portraits, including the Dora Maar au chat that sold at auction for $95 million in May 2006. Nature Morte, a more-than-pleasant still life, sold in 1994 for $700,000 and in 1998 for $2.3 million. Oddly, the painting has two hot red pizza Niçoise simulacrums thickly impastoed onto the canvas; it must have taken a year to dry. Passed.
Lot 30, Henri Matisse, Tintine Trovato en robe et chapeau, 1934, est. $12 million-$18 million. Matisse preempting Alex Katz. The artist and subject compete in aloofness. An important-sized portrait of a stylish woman against a geometric background, with flat Matissean color, and an iconic though far from pleasant sensibility. Portrait au manteau bleu was another of these fragile portraits; it sold last May for $22.5 million in three bids. Not this time. Passed.
Lot 36, Matisse, Jeune femme assise au robe grise aux bandes violettes, 1942, est. $4 million-$6 million. A tour de force of tasteful color. It is small, poised, iconic -- a pensive beautiful woman in a chair, perfect, but on second look, lacking sufficient mystery to excite the tired businessman. It was offered at Christie’s in May of 2007 and passed over an estimate of $6 million-$8 million. Sold tonight for $3.7 million ($4,226,500).
Lot 37, Boris Dmitrievich Grigoriev, Shepherd of the Hills, 1920, est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million. With Russia awash in cash, oligarchs are sending forth their scouts to reclaim their patrimony, such as we have. Three works by Grigoriev are being sold by the Berkshire Museum of Art, which no doubt marvels at its good luck. The pictures appear as third-generation Russian Cubism and Sotheby’s hung them in the exhibition room with the Chagalls, a more famous Russian. Grigoriev’s Harlot of Marseille sold at Christie’s London in November of 2007 for $2.6 million. Shepherd of the Hills is an elaborate, more accomplished picture, though no Russian work has ever been included in an Impressionist and modern evening sale; it sold for $3.25 million ($3,722,500).
Lot 49, Konstantin Alexeevich Korovin, By the Window, n.d., est. $800,000-$1.2 million. Another Russian impressionist whose work has never been included in an Impressionist and modern evening sale. On the veranda, painted in 1921, similar size and setting, sold at Sotheby’s London in November 2007, Russian sale, for $1.8 million over a comparable estimate. By the Window sold tonight for $750,000 ($902,500).
Lot 50, Théo van Rysselberghe, La valle de la Sambre, 1890, est. $1 million-$1.5 million. This picture traded at Sotheby’s New York on Nov. 4, 2004, for $736,000, the day after George Bush was elected for his second term. It had not been a good night for Sotheby’s, despite the firm’s sale of Picasso’s Garcon a la pipe in May for $104 million. La valle de la Sambre is a nice picture. Van Rysselberghe saw Seurat’s La Grande Jaffe at the eighth Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1886, and was smitten by Pointillism. Four years he painted La valle. Passed.
Lot 51, Paul Cézanne, Paysage des bord de L’oise, 1873-74, est. $8 million-$12 million. A sizable, engaging picture by the youthful artist, but ambiguously Cézannesque, such that a large nameplate, P CEZANNE, was added to the frame. Cézanne was 34 at the time. It sold at Christie’s in 1988 for $5 million. Entrée de ferme, rue Remy, a Auvers-Sur-Oise, presumably the same farm on a different day, but not as lovely or as large, sold in February 2008 for $3.5 million. Passed. Ah, justice.
Lot 54, Claude Monet’s La cathédrale dans le brouillard, 1893, est. $16 million-$20 million. Sotheby’s had high hopes -- or high anxiety -- for this picture, for the firm tagged it for the cover of its catalogue wrapper. Monet painted 16 pictures of the cathedral in 1893, leaving behind a monument on the timeline of art. Put generously, this picture is the least simple of them all. The cathedral is diaphanous almost to the point of invisibility, easier to see at a distance, and still a considerable piece of work. It is not coy in the fog, it’s dreary. On an economic note, the early Le pont du chemin de fer a Argenteuil sold last May for $41 million. A high return for what was bruited as an average picture. Le portail (Soleil), a defining picture in the cathedral series, sold in May 2000 for $24 million. La cathédrale dans le brouillard passed. What a surprise.
Lot 61, Salvador Dalí, Premier portrait de Gala, 1931, est. $500,000-$700,000. It is a collage with Gala’s photo inlaid among Dali’s bestiary on a "nacreous card," conceivably a rigid doily. As atrocities go it has the benefit of being quite small. Dalí works seem to appear at auction in portentous times, like comets. Metamorphose paranoiaque de visage de Gala sold for $135,000 in 1991. Christie’s sold La naissance des desires liquide, also 1932, for $300,000 in 2008. Premier portrait de Gala sold for $450,000 ($542,500). What a surprise!
Lot 65, Dalí, Venus de Milo aux tiroirs 0/5, 1936 (editioned in 1964), est. $600,000-$800,000. In white painted bronze with white mink pompoms on the forehead, nipples, solar plexus, navel and knee. Dalí predated Jeff Koons by decades, and here appointed no less than Marcel Duchamp to supervise the casting. Christie’s sold cast 3/5 in 2007 for $470,000, and this particular cast, 0/5 sold in 2000 for $316,000. White mink inevitably seems gauche. Passed.
Lot 69, Emil Nolde, Stormy Sea II (Two boats sailing together), 1914, low est. $1.5 million. As Sotheby’s liner-notes indicate, Nolde painted the sea continually in his career to almost postmodernist effect. This has a quality of American abstractionism, although not to the same degree as Sonnenuntergang, 1909, which Christie’s sold in 2006 for $3.5 million. Tonight? Passed.
To its credit, Sotheby controlled the clientele and thus the market. There was no morbid sensation of free fall as lots collapsed one atop the other unexpectedly. It was not unexpected and Mr. Meyer manifested no pique or dismay. Sotheby’s made money though arguably not very much. The last time there was a sale like this was when George Herbert Walker Bush was about to leave the White House. Let us hope for a better day tomorrow. Literally?
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.