It was a convivial gathering at Sotheby’s New York evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 6, 2008, as people milled about taking their seats, kissing and shaking hands, genial and very much business as usual. These fall sales came on the cusp of the falling markets and on the tipping point of a presidential election, but for seven lots Christie’s auctioneer Christopher Burge made it seem as if art was still immune to the world’s financial disorder. After lot seven, however, one work passed for every one that sold.
Fine art of this caliber sells at a languorous two major sales per year, and what has been a five-year-long rising market euchring great pictures for great returns ended Monday night at Sotheby’s and continued its fall this evening. What had been consigned in hope was sold in dismay. The estimates were still characteristic of high expectations, though the unpublished reserves were pragmatic.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s had sold what they could in interim sales between May and October. The best lots were saved for the night sales, and tawdry van Dongens, obese nymphet Renoirs, and late, nasty Picassos were dispensed at earlier auctions, mostly. The irony is that decent lots came to market when the market was most uncertain.
The odd scheduling of the evening sale, coming after the day sales, gave clear notice that the election of a Democratic administration would not be enough to recapture market momentum and that the night sales would fall below anticipated returns. Some dealers predicted a 40 percent to 60 percent drop in prices in the new economy, and other dealers thought 30 percent off, and business as usual in a realigned market.
It was a long sale, with 81 lots. Thirty-six lots passed. The overall total, $146,715,000 (with premium), was 56 percent sold by lot. The presale estimate had been $250 million. A year ago, Christie’s sold 74 of 91 lots for a total of $395 million. The buyer’s premium now amounts to 25 percent of the hammer price up to $50,000, 20 percent of the price from $50,000 to $1 million, and 12 percent above $1 million. Prices given here are at the hammer, along with the price including premium.
Christopher Burge played hardball, luring bidders past the reserve, acting with Mephistophelian intensity. His script, audible over the phones, coaxed bids from the absent bidders. All he needed was one bid, yet he went on talking to the bidding phantasms in the room that only he could see. “On the right, sir. What, no more sir? Very well. Sold to. . . on the phone.” It was mildly surreal, as lot after lot passed, and the room froze over. Still groups of people bid frenetically on certain lots, some horrible.
Lot 4, Henri Laurens, La lune, 1946, est. $600,000- $800.000. A feminine, biomorphic tour de force, all breasts and haunches in white marble. Christie’s chose to compare it in the catalogue to Ingres’ Le bain Turc, as a more polished metaphor than an all-girl nude beach in Antibes. The sculpture is terrific. It was also cast in bronze in an edition of three, one of which sold for $552,000 in 1997. La lune in marble sold for $1.4 million ($1,874,500), well above its estimate.
Lot 5, Fernand Leger, Nature Morte, 1924, est. $2 million-$3 million. A well made if unexceptional Cubist still-life from 1924 in an edgier late Cubist formulation. A much larger but almost identical version sold in 2004 for $2.1 million. Tonight’s work sold in 1999 for $700,000. Leger effected only subtle changes between the two works. Christie’s posited the increased value of the smaller work in its estimate, but in light of the economy substantially lowered the reserve. The small version sold for an almost plausible $1.2 million ($1,426,500).
Lot 7, Juan Gris, Livres, pipes et verres, 1915, est. $12.5 million-$18.5 million. Large, glossy, tastefully Cubist and a bit overdone. In 1914, Gris calls Picasso “master.” See lot 54 to find out why. Gris dies at 40 and his paintings are hard to find. There is a large $6 million spread in the estimate that may reflect Christie’s own mystification. The similar Le pot de geranium sold in 2002 for $8.5 million and again in 2007 for $18.5 million, a sizable increase in five years. Violon et journal, a comparable work, sold in February 2008 for $7.8 million. Christie’s chose an inclusive estimate, embracing both high and highest values. Mr. Burge broached the high estimate. Livres, pipes et verres sold for $18.5 million.
Lot 9, Henri Matisse, Maternité, 1939, est. $1.2 million-$1.8 million. An unusually poetic drawing in contour and realization, with arcing lines of charcoal emerging from pentimentos and erasures. It shows two women, one nursing, drawn brusquely in charcoal. A nearly identical drawing, same title, sketched an hour before or after, slightly larger, sold at Christie’s in 2006 for $1.2 million over an estimate of $800,000-$1.2 million. Tonight it passed.
Lot 11, Henri Matisse, Deux masques (La tomate), 1947, est. $5 million-$7 million. It is a cut-out of a white hand on a red and green background or something that one might possibly construe as a tomato. A cut-out of a simple black leaf on a red ground sold for $1.7 million last November, so this elaborate gouache and paper collage conjured a very large purse. It is more pat and predictable compared to the nearly identical La Danseuse (est. $3 million-$4 million)that passed at Christie’s Lawrence-Hillman sale on Nov. 5. A complex cut-out, Poissons chinois, sold for $6.3 million in 1995. Since then, nothing costly; Deux masques passed tonight, too.
Lot 21, Alberto Giacometti, Trois homes qui marchent I, 1948/50, est. $14 million-$18 million. A plinth with three tremulous stick figures walking past each other sold in a different cast at Sotheby’s London June ‘08 evening sale for $18.5 million, more than $6 million above its expectation. Never again. This particular cast, 4/6, sold in 1999 for $5.7 million. Christie’s sold L’homme qui chavire, a more eloquent sculpture, in May 2007 for $18.2 million. Christie’s may have questioned whether the higher value would be sustained in the new economy, but why not try? It sold well below the low estimate for $10.2 million ($11,506,500).
Lot 27, Paul Cézanne, Le pont et le barrage à Pontoise, 1881, est. $7 million-$10 million. It is a painting of the dam and the bridge across the Seine and the surrounding shore at Pontoise, executed in a deft hatched stroke in muted earth colors. It is heart-stopping. La Cote du Galet à Pontoise, another stunner from 1881, has come up for auction twice, selling the first time in 1996 for $11 million at Sotheby’s and again in 2000 for $8.5 million at Phillips de Pury & Co. Le pont et le barrage a Pontoise sold in a brief flurry of bids for $7 million ($7,922,500).
Lot 30, Claude Monet, Vétheuil au soleil, 1880, est. $5.5 million-$7 million. A picture of Vetheuil from the fields in early spring, the town in the distance, and the hills still farther behind are bathed in sunlight from a light blue sky. These Vetheuil pictures are desirable Monet works that appear in strong markets to garner their full due. La Seine a Vetheuil sold at Sotheby’s in 2006 for $4.7 million. Plain Vetheuil painted in early summer of the same year sold for $7.5 million in 2002. Vetheuil au soleil must have been consigned before Lehman Brothers melted into the same blue sky. Passed. No one bid, not even on the phone.
Lot 34, Gustave Caillebotte, Roses jaunes dans une vase, 1882, est. $1.4 million-$1.8 million. A small, poetic picture of a vase of yellow roses with the petals fallen onto a marble table against a dark background. It had sold at Christie’s New York in 2006 for $1.5 million over an estimate of $600,000-$800,000, now asking more. No answer. Passed.
Lot 36, Caillebotte, Le pont d’Argenteuil et la Seine, 1883, est. $8 million-$12 million. A luminous painting of five slender steel arches linked to stone piers supporting the bridge at Argenteuil. All light, shadow and blue reflections off the water -- an uber-Caillebotte hoping for a record price. L’homme au balcon, boulevarde Haussmann, a top-hatted man in a frock coat standing on a balcony under a striped awning amid coruscated ironwork, a quintessential, French picture, sold for $14.3 million in 2000, the record. Only six lots by Caillebotte have eclipsed $4 million. Le pont d’Argenteuil et la Seine sold to one of two bidders for $7.5 million ($8,482,500).
Lot 43, Alexej von Jawlensky, Abstrakter Kopf: Andante, 1933, est. $1.2 million-$1.6 million. Not one of his ghoulish, Fauve-colored portraits from 1909 or 1910 that bring the big bucks but a pleasant enough late-Cubist head of great calm and deliberation. Abstrakter Kopf: Ostern sold for $1.5 million in 2005; a 1919 version sold for the same price in 2007. Abstrakter Kopf: Andante sold well below the low estimate for $950,000 ($1,142,500).
Lot 48, Wassily Kandinsky, Studie zu improvisation 3, 1909, est. $15 million-$20 million. Kandinsky’s oeuvre is brilliant between 1909 and 1910, as he discovers abstraction and transforms the focus of his landscapes from objective reality to an unknown and ever more exciting pictorial reality. In 25 years, six of these pictures have come up at auction. This is the seventh and it is very pretty, tactile and expressive. In February 2008, Herbstalandschaft mit Baum, half the size and not as good, sold for $5.8 million. The 1908 Starnberger See, grounded in landscape, sold for $9 million in 2006. Christie’s imagined a record price for this Kandinsky. Christie’s had also annotated its interest in the lot in the catalogue and it sold in a pantomime of bidding to a phone for $15 million ($16,882,500).
Lot 51, Juan Gris, Moulin à café et bouteille, 1917, est. $1.5 million-$2.5 million. The antithesis of the lot 7 Gris, not all stuck up and airy-fairy. A Cubist tabletop in black, white and brown, simpler, less derivative and more felt. La nappe blanche sold June 2006 for $2.2 million. Bouteille de Beaune et Compotier sold November 2006, same price. The estimate encompassed a plausible market range. Sold for $1.2 million ($1,426,500).
Lot 53, Henri Matisse, Anémones et grenades, 1946, est. $4.5 million-$6.5 million. Matisse with all the trappings: anemones and pomegranates in a florid bowl on a tabletop against an ochre wall with a palm tree on a black ground in the corner. It is quickly and deftly touched throughout, and not too sweet. So what? Passed.
Lot 54, Pablo Picasso, Femme en corset livrant un livre, 1914, est. $15 million-$20 million. Compared to the larger Gris of the same year, the Picasso is spatially more expressive with greater economy. The surfaces are tactile and alive. The colors are matte, in a muted Cubist palette of grays and browns. Not the best but very well done and important. The last picture of the period to appear at auction sold for $8 million in 1999. The considerably more elaborate Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Eva) (1913) sold for $25 million in 1997. So Christie’s reached out and set an estimate that had nothing to do with present values and it passed.
Lot 58, Picasso, Deux Personages (Marie-Thérèse et sa soeur lisant), 1934, est. $18 million-$25 million. Life with Olga not being an erotic Bain Turc, Picassso, age 53, installed Marie-Thérèse, age 26, nearby in Normandy and imported her sister to keep her company while he contrived to send Olga back to Paris. Christie’s thought so much of Two Naked Young Women Reading a Book that they wrapped it around the slipcase of the catalogue. Previous sales include Nus (1934) of two naked young women frolicking, which sold for $5.5 million in 1997, but nothing else depicting the genial depravity of that summer. While Picasso had a pleasant time, the work is not as exploratory or formidable as his first portraits of Marie-Thérèse from 1932 that sold (Le Repos) for $35 million in 2006. Christie’s set the estimate for Deux Personages between high and higher. Regardless, it sold for $16 million ($18,002,500).
Lot 63, Picasso, Mouseqetaire et femme à la fleur, 1967, est. $8 million-$10 million. Picasso never did anything age appropriate but by 1967, at 87 years, he was catching up. The eroticism of the Mousequetaires is impalpable: a mildly demented, naked woman contemplates a dandelion; her 18th-century companion looks on. It is turquoise and gray but has little esthetic ethos other than its authorship. Sotheby’s sold Le baisser (1969), an ithyphallic tropical fish copulating with an eyed coral head, and the nadir of late Picasso, in May 2008 for $17.4 million. Le peintre (1967) sold for $6.5 million in 2007. Mousequetaire is tame by that ignominious standard. It sold anyway for $8 million ($9,042,500).
Lot 64, Paul Signac, Le voiles au sec, Saint-Tropez, 1916, est. $3.5 million-$4.5 million, and lot 72, Signac, La Dogana, Venise, 1923, est. $4 million-$6 million. Two boat pictures. Signac spent a good part of his life yachting about the south of France in a succession of ever larger sailboats and Venice as the small-boat capital of the Med must have held him in thrall. Pont de Arts Paris, a landscape, sold for $6 million last February, but has less to do with these lots than the marine Petit port de Bacon, Antibes, which sold for $1.8 million last May. Christie’s argues through its estimate that Constantinople-Corne D’or (1909), which sold for $9 million in 2007, and Constantinople-Corne D’or (1907), which sold for $6 million last May, should be the ruling grade. Those pictures were such colored paradigms of garishness; these, on the other hand, are quite nice. Subject to presumed high reserves, both passed.
Lot 68, Henri Matisse, Nu au feuillage vert, fond noir, 1936, est. $12 million-$18 million. The naked Lydia Delektorskaya reclines on a patterned couch with an ankle cocked over her knee. Christie’s deflects the notion that Matisse spent his evenings further delectating upon Lydia’s parts. Lydia, who served as both model and assistant, photographed the painting after each day’s work over the period of a week, proving that what seemed effortless was not. The painting is so pictorial that Lydia seems almost an irrelevance. Christie’s hoped for a repeat of last November, when the firm sold the marginal L’odalisque, harmonie bleue (1937) (est. $15 million-$20 million) for $30 million, but that picture had an odalisque with ripe fruits and anemones. Nu au feuillage vert, fond noir, a much better picture but lacking the saccharine ambit of the harem, passed.
Lot 73, Pablo Picasso, Homme assis sur une chaise, 1956, est. $10 million-$15 million. Picasso did a trial version of this picture called L’homme au maillot raye, dated one day earlier, that was half the size, half as nice and that sold in June ’08 for $3.6 million. This picture, then titled Le marin (L’homme au maillot raye), sold at Sotheby’s London in 1988 for $1.3 million. It is pleasant enough. It too passed.
The room was not packed as it had been on Monday evening at Sotheby’s, but with 81 lots there was still ample room to pass. The estimates were high and the sale prices were low. Christie’s had assembled a good collection. With quality at such a level, it should have been a big success. It is an endless struggle for collectors, dealers or auction houses to get quality work at an affordable price. It was there this evening. In 18 months the people who sat through this sale will regret their caution.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.