Two Russian oligarchs are sitting in a café. "Nice shirt," says the first. "I bought it at that new boutique for $4,000," says the second. "Oh, Sergei," says the first, "you’re an idiot, I bought the same one and I paid $8,000." A joke? No, a parable about art auctions.
Christie’s New York got the big-ticket November auctions off to a good start with its evening sale on Nov. 6, 2007. The sale totaled $394,977,200 (with premium), with 74 of 91 lots finding buyers, or 81 percent. Prices given below are at the hammer; typically, Christie’s adds on a buyer’s premium of 25 percent of the first $20,000, 20 percent of the amount up to $200,000, and 12 percent of anything above that.
Lot 1, Pablo Picasso, Pomme (1918) (est. $200,000-300,000). It is an apple painted on an 8 x 10 in. piece of canvas -- not brilliant, try charming. The bidding starts at $400,000 -- $100,000 above the high estimate! -- and it sells for $700,000. A lot of the sale was like that and it was a long sale.
These are some points of interest:
Lot 5, Picasso again, Homme à la pipe (1968) (est. $12 million-$16 million). The work was purchased in 1987 for $880,000. It is a late, large, over-the-top picture. It built on the momentum of the first lot, the apple. It represents Picasso as a meretricious pasticheur of himself. Think ‘60s Cadillac with lots of chrome, ghastly -- but it sold for $15 million. Tonight, Picasso is a heavy industry. The buyer was Larry Gagosian, a cell phone to his ear.
Lot 8, Claude Monet, Chrysanthémes (1897) (est. $1.8 million-$2.5 million). Sold for $1.4 million in 2002. Never a well-loved series, it is, however, a brilliant, quietly evolving picture that foreshadows the illusive surface of the water lilies in the softer, demure format of chrysanthemums. Most recently, Massif de Chrysanthemes sold for $2.3 million at Christie’s, in 2004. Last night it went for $2.8 million.
Lot 10, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Jeune fille au chapeau noir des mujahidéne (1897) (est. $1.5 million-$2.5 million). Did Renoir really paint this portrait? He did. What seemed so uncharacteristically straightforward in the catalogue turned out to be in person a small head crushed between a big black hat and a bondage fetish collar. Sold for $1.9 million.
Lot 11, Camille Pissarro, Les Quatre Saisons (1872-1873) (est. $12 million-$18 million). Four panels, sold as a group for $6.8 million in 1991 and more recently for $9 million in 2004, at their low estimate. They are a matched set of faintly awkward, elongated rectangles in a subdued palette and a dry sensibility. In the three intervening years since they last came to auction they don’t seem to have become more exciting. Christie’s guaranteed the lot and housed it like a peep show in a small sanctum at the west end of the showroom. A lot of marketing thought went into that, particularly in view of the efflorescent Pissarro, lot 28, which got stuck in a corner. Les Quatre Saisons sold for $13 million in the same palsied bidding it sold for last time. It is a new auction record for the artist.
Lot 15, Paul Gauguin, Nature Morte aux fruits et piments (1892) (est. $10 million-$15 million). Christie’s contribution to Tahitian Gauguin week. Prettier but not as ambitious as the painting that up at Sotheby’s on Nov. 7. It is a small, 12 x 26 in. picture of lemons and oranges in a bowl and a few small peppers. Sold for $11 million.
Lot 19, Paul Signac, Cassis. Cap Canaille (1889) (est. $8 million-$12 million). Signac has been inching into eight-figure prices this year. Constantinople - Corne d’or sold for $9.5 million in June 2007 and Arriere du tub for $11.7 million in May. Cap Canaille is a beautiful picture and Christie’s expected it to hit a record, as it is debatably better to own a first-rate work by a second-tier master than vice versa. Christie’s guaranteed the lot. It sold for $12.5 million -- a record for Signac.
Lot 21, Marc Chagall, L’evenement (1978) (est. $5 million-$7 million) -- garish, large, late Chagall that migrated from the last-minute end of the sale to prime time. Grim but guaranteed. Passed.
Lot 23, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Nature mort au melon et au vase de fleurs (1883) (est. $1 million-$1.5 million). A picture that will make someone happy for a very long time. Fabulous, early example of his rare still-lifes, restrained, colorful and cheap. . . ish. Went for $2.2 million. The buyer was Daniella Luxembourg, the art consultant and former auction-house hand.
Lot 24, Henri Matisse, L’odalisque, harmonie bleue (1937) (est. $15 million-$20 million). If the catalogues were not sufficiently weighty, this lot comes with its own. There are so many great Matisses -- alas you cannot buy them, nor is this one of them. However, it is for sale. It comes from a period when war was imminent and Matisse’s production was sporadic; it has anemones, fruit, an odalisque -- and its own catalogue. At $22 million, the bidding paused. . . and ascended slowly in $500,000 increments. "One more sir?" says auctioneer Christopher Burge, eyebrows aloft, with a sympathetic, boyish grin, "Yes?" It went on until he admonished, "I’m going slowly, but at some point I am going to have to sell it." It sold for $30 million, a new record.
Lot 28, Pissarro, Les Peupliers, après midi à Eragny (1899) (est. $4.5 million-$6.5 million). It sold in 1989 for $2.4 million. It may not be the best Pissarro but is alive on so many levels that it made Les quatre saisons look like nuclear winter. It scintillated. Its first cousin, Les peupliers, matin, Eragny, sold in June 2006 for $4.5 million, and was sufficient warranty for Christie’s to guarantee this lot. It sold for $4.8 million.
Lot 29, Paul Cézanne, Compotier et assiette de biscuits (1877) (est. $10 million-$15 million), seemed heavy rather than weighty in the catalogue, but in person it was self-assured, with a mounting gravitas. Can one say that about a picture? Most recently at Christie’s in November 2005, Pommes et gateaux sold for $10.3 million over the modest estimate of $3.5 million-$4.5 million -- hence the strong financial projection for this bowl of fruit and dodgy-looking biscuits. It may, however, be the Ur-picture of both sales. It sold for $11.25 million in slow bidding, barely clearing the low estimate.
Lot 31, Cézanne, Portrait de Vallier (1904-1906) (est. $15 million-$25 million). Cézanne’s aging gardener. Cézanne took his time doing it, as well. The most expensive Cézanne watercolor had sold this past spring at Sotheby’s New York for $25.5 million with the premium. That work was part of the British Rail Pension Fund, a prototypical still-life, but it also seemed labored and dreary. Christie’s intended last night’s Portrait de Vallier to be its rival, and guaranteed the lot -- it is an extraordinary work, delicate and radiant. It sold at a very plausible $15.5 million.
Lot 32, Cézanne, Route tournante (1902-1906) (est. $5 million-$7 million) is nearly as good as the portrait, or better -- more abstract and a third the price. These are new values for Cezanne watercolors; this one sold for $6 million. According to the press, these two and a third Cézanne watercolor were all being sold by Museum of Modern Art trustee Donald Marron,
Lot 39, yet another Cézanne, Le Jas de Bouffan (1890-1894) (est. $12 million-$16 million), which would make it a record for woodsy Cézannes without a mountain. It is the 37-acre estate of Cézanne’s father. It sold in 1990 for $7.1 million (the picture, not the farm), which makes it a best-of-breed kind of picture. It is the archetypal Cézanne, red roofs, brushy trees and sky. In May 2005 Les Grand Arbres au Jas de Bouffan, too delicate and less straight-forward, hammered out at $10.5 million over an estimate of $12-16 million, barely escaping its reserve at the time. Tonight, Le Jas de Bouffan. . . passed.
Lot 41, Fernand Léger’s early Cubist abstraction, Dessin pour contraste de formes (1913) (est. $1.8 million-$2.5 million) shimmers from across the room. It is a study that competes favorably with the paintings it planned. One, similar, not as good, sold at Lempertz in June 2007 for $1.4 million. In this sale the work sold in frenzied bidding for $4.2 million. The winning bidder, according to observers in the room, was Dominique Levy of L&M Arts.
Lot 42, Pablo Picasso, Buste de femme (1909) (est. $2 million-$3 million) and Lot 49, Pablo Picasso, Nu debout (1908) (est. $9 million-$12 million). Two brilliant, slightly awkward, early Cubist Picassos, still rough, but approximately the same size, date and quality. Both works are austere, vital and appeared more interesting than the horrible Homme a la pipe. Both passed.
Lot 43, Pablo Picasso, Tete de femme (Dora Maar) (1941) (est. $6.5 million-$8.5 million). A small, 16 x 13 in., bug-eyed Cubist Dora Maar -- not a pretty thing nor a great one, but an iconic image. Sold for $14.5 million.
Lot 44, Léger, Etude pour les constructeurs (1951) (est. $10 million-$15 million) is a large, late Leger that should have been better and sold for $10.5 million.
Lot 51, Léger, La roue rouge (1920) (est. $4 million-$6 million), a quiet, small picture that seemed nearly as compelling and surprising as the Cézanne fruit bowl. It was everything the previous Léger lot was not. Sold, with only two bids, at $4 million.
Lot 47, Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait du sculpteur Oscar Meistchninoff (1916) (est. $18 million-$25 million). Clothed portraits bring higher prices where once nudes held sway. Is that a byproduct of politics? The surface of this picture is a paradigm of perfect touch, with no false stroke. The blue blouse carries the emotional content. It sold in 1995 for $9.35 million. The Fils du concierge, a portrait of a delicate-looking boy, sold one year ago for an epic $31 million, over estimates of $14 million-$18 million. Tonight’s portrait sold in strong, steady bidding for $27.5 million.
Lot 54, Amedeo Modigliani, Jeune fille assise en chemise (1918) (est. $9 million-$12 million). A painting of a young woman, looking a little postcoital with her chemise fallen off her shoulder and her eyes without pupils, that sold in 1998 for $4.8 million. Not an epic value at the time. Sotheby’s posted the qualitatively similar Jeune fille en bleu last spring at $12 million-$15 million and failed to find a buyer. Christie’s sold Venus, Nu debout in November 2006 for $16 million, but that was an engaging portrait of a woman covering her sex with her left hand and offering her breast with her right -- typical, but also of vastly more interest. Plus she had eyes. Perhaps they thought no one would notice. No one did. It sold for $15 million, and she looked a lot better after the sale.
Lot 62, Alexej Jawlensky, Madchenmit Zopf (1909) (est. $3.8 million-$4.5 million). Christie’s must have been wondering, as they set the estimate, how an abstract Jawlensky would fare. Most of them have the paint-by-numbers simplicity of a Russian icon, école de Novgorod. This one is a beautiful picture. Most recently, Thinking Woman (1912) sold at Sotheby’s London for $4.25 million in June of 2007. In June 2006, Lola bought $4.5 million. Both works were a departure from Jawlensky’s death-mask portraits. Sold for $4.6 million.
Lot 64, August Macke, Paar im Wald (1912) (est. $15 million-$25 million). An artist who died in 1914, in action in WWI, at the age of 27, Macke visited Paris in his early 20s and came away with an étouffeé of Orphism and Fauvism. In 1910 he met up with Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc and joined them in the Blaue Reiter. The last major painting to appear at auction sold at Sotheby’s in London for $3 million in 2004. The most expensive sold, same venue, in 2002 for $4.3 million. Christie’s believed it had floated the Uber-Macke in a buoyant sea of Euros. By the micro-asterisk preceding the entry in their catalogue, Christie’s declined responsibility in regard to authorship. I think that’s interesting for $20 million worth of strudel. The picture looked tired in spite of its rarity. See the Marc at Sotheby’s tomorrow. Last night, the Macke passed.
Lot 65, Lyonel Feininger, The Proposal (1907) (est. $4 million-$6 million). Inasmuch as Feininger made brilliant Cubist-like paintings, transparent and ethereal from 1914, the current vogue for his heavy, earlier work is mystifying. In 1994, this picture hammered down for $350,000 (its reserve?) over an estimate of $450,000-$650,000. It was a dull picture and even the $20-million sale of Feininger’s Jesuiten III last May couldn’t save it. Passed.
Lot 68, Pablo Picasso, Femme nue (1965) (est. $3.5 million-$4.5 million). One searches for language to describe something that is immediately and unremittingly awful. Did someone say, "Pablo, I think the face is nice, why don’t we just crop that?" Crop the whole thing. Wrong -- it sold, in laborious $100,000 increments, until it reached $5.4 million.
Lot 69, Chaim Soutine, Paysage (1923) (est. $3.5 million-$5.5 million), a beautiful Cagnes landscape. Portraits are more valuable, but this May, Christie’s sold L’escalier rouge à Cagnes for $7.8 million, a record for a Cagnes picture. In February, it sold L’homme au foulard rouge, a perfect portrait, for $17 million. Between the two, one would expect. . . one would expect wrong. It passed.
Lot 73, Pablo Picasso, Femme accroupie au costume turc (Jacqueline) (1955) (est. only on request!). Not exactly a flattering portrait of Jacqueline, with her mid-section folding over itself and a faintly farbissina expression on her viz, but high ‘50s Picasso all the same. It sold in 1995, at Sotheby’s, at the end of a sale where they isolate fractious pictures, for $2.35 million at the hammer -- on an estimate of $3 million-$4 million. It must have just escaped its reserve. Six months later, a prettier femmes d’Algier picture, Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil, sold for $4.6 million.
Now, it has its own catalogue and an estimate reputed to be $20 million. The lot opened at $20 million and sold for $27.5 million.
The sale went to 91 lots. Packed tight in the salesroom, it was like going to Miami in coach. Christie’s guaranteed or had an interest in about one third of the lots, including some that were passed. Christie’s took in somewhere in the neighborhood of $395,000,000, which is a record for any one sale, save for last year’s blow-out with the four Gustav Klimt paintings.
The material was not that exceptional, yet still values escalated, and some in a very short span. Do buyers actually go to sales rooms to look at the work or just shop online? They’re going to be surprised. Post-war and contemporary sales are yet to come, and we hear there is even more substantial and expensive material there. See you next Tuesday.
For complete, illustrated auction results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Database.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.