Sotheby's evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 7, 2006, sold 72 of the 83 lots offered, or 86.8 percent, for a total of $238,670,400, including the auction-house premium (20 percent on the first $200,000, and 12 percent on the rest). The total was the highest for a single sale at Sotheby's since 1990. The prices given here are at the hammer.
Eighty-three lots. Interminable, amazing, surprising, gratifying, repugnant, dumbfounding, brilliantly remunerative, to Sotheby's and to most of the consignors. In a good year, it would have been an amazing sale. Alas, Christie's has restituted the Klimt-Schiele dream team from Austria, among other joys, for its sale tonight; hence it is turning out to be a great year.
Sotheby's warehouse approach to the material reflects a season of excess we could not have imagined two years ago, with prices to match. It is a real-estate mentality, gagged on ready cash and cut-to-the-chase transactions. As more people become enormously wealthy, good material has become scarcer, more expensive and less relevant. Prices reflect an ability to pay rather than the cadenced apperception of quality. Much of the art in sale had been recycled from earlier auctions, once an impediment, now moot. And the lots even set a few records.
The sale started in breathless flurry of bids for a scene of a village road by Johan Jongkind. Jongkind was Monet's teacher, and not much the standard fare of a New York evening sale. One sold for $750,000 at Sotheby's three weeks ago -- but in Amsterdam, where Jongkind gets credit as a local lad. It sold for $630,000 last night at the hammer, foreshadowing what was to come.
Lot 2 was Alfred Sisley's Moret, vue de Loing, Apres-midi de mai (1888), which sold in 1994 for $1,652,000. Now estimated at $1,500,000-$2,000,000, it seemed a bit jumped-up for a dreary-to-average picture whose only strength was the violet cast of the clouds. Not worth fighting for. Wrong. It sold for $2,700,000.
Lot 9 was the Monet, La plage à Trouville (1870), 19 x 29 in., estimated at $16,500,000-$20,000,000. A pretty, early Monet of a privileged beachfront. It seemed expensive, but this picture sold at Sotheby's London in June 2000 for $16,500,000. So, cashing out, taking profit should have been. . . okay? Wrong. Passed.
Lot 18, Acquavella Gallery's Cézanne, Nature Morte aux Fruits et Pot Gingembre (1895), 18 x 24 in, estimated at $28,000,000-$35,000,000. Mr. Acquavella pointed out in the New York Times that he bought the picture at Christie's London in 2000 for $18,200,000, a good price. Top Cézannes at the time went for much more. Rideau, curchon et compotier, the perfect bowl of fruit and jug, sold for $60,500,000 in the 1999 Sotheby's sale of property belonging to socialite Betsey Cushing Whitney. La montagne Sainte-Victoire, not the perfect Mount Ste. Victoire but one of the pictures sold by collector Heinz Berggruen at Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg in 2001, sold for $38,500,000. Bouilloiere et fruits, a sensible fruit and jug combo, $29,500,000 at Sotheby's London, November 1999.
Last night, Sotheby's sold the Cézanne to a phone bidder for $33,000,000. It left one thinking about Acquavella's profit, and if there were any other deals like that. There were.
Lot 12, Edouard Degas' La sortie du bain (1900-05), 30 x 31 in., estimated at $1,600,000-$2,000,000, sold in 2001 at Sotheby's London for $1,100,000. It is a pastel of a woman awkwardly lifting her leg out of a bath, but poignant and exquisitely colored, a sunset in the bathroom. It sold to the single bidder, on the phone, at $1,400,000.
Lot 24, the Van Gogh, A Pair of Shoes (1886-87), 15 x 18 in., estimated at $8,000,000-$12,000,000. It was purchased at Sotheby's London in December 1999 for $4,800,000. A preacher's vision, it was painted on the cusp of van Gogh's move to Paris in 1886, and showed none of the impact of high Impressionist thought. It was still enough. Dour, visually moralistic, it brought $8,000,000, and sold slower than 25 pairs of Jimmy Choo's -- for about the same price.
Lot 25 was Henri Matisse's Figure Decorative (1908), cast in 1950, 29 in. high, estimated at $12,000,000-$18,000,000 and no stranger to the auction block. To add perspective, La Serpentine sold for $14,000,000 in 2000, which was the highest price for one of the rarest of Matisse sculptures. In 2002, another, identical cast of Figure Decorative sold for $8,250,000, and before that a similar cast sold for $12,000,000 in 2001. Last night it hammed out at $11,500,000. The buyer was Swiss dealer and art-fund director Daniella Luxembourg.
Lot 27, Wassily Kandinsky's Murnau-period Starnberger See (1908), 25 x 38 in., estimated $6,000,000-$8,000,000. "Summer surprised us, coming up over the Starbergersee; With a shower of rain," wrote T.S. Eliot in The Wasteland. Notwithstanding Eliot, this was a fun lot and a beautiful picture, selling slowly in $100,000 increments over the period of what seemed like a fortnight -- but it was worth it. It brought $8,100,000 at the hammer, from a phone bidder. A later picture, closer to the heart of Kandinsky's oeuvre, once brought $21,000,000 in 1990, but the auction houses have had nothing close since then. Nor have there been comparable pictures in terms of date and size and market.
Lot 29, Chaim Soutine's Nature mort à la raie (1923-24), a still life of a stingray hung in a fish shop, 36 x 32 in., estimated at $5,000,000-$7,000,000. After the artist's Le boeuf écorché, which sold for $14,000,000 at Christie's London this past February to some astonishment, we are now served skate at a lesser price. It sold for $4,800,000, below the estimate but a very good price.
Soutine's Le patissier de Cagnes sold for $9,300,000 in February 2005 at Christie's London, and was the dream picture that started every Soutine owner thinking he was in Vegas Heaven. It proved not to be so; good Soutines were even BI'ed in the intervening sales. Still, as Tobias Meyer noted, with a market that's driven by the economy and not by the art, anything can go right (He has also pointed out that de Kooning is the new Rothko.)
Lot 38. The first of two Modiglianis. Le fils du concierge (1918), 36 x 23 in., estimated at $14,000,000-$18,000,000, sold at Christie's for $5,000,000 in 1997. The second, lot 54, Paul Guillaume (1916), 21 x 15 in., estimated at $5,000,000-$7,000,000, sold at Sotheby's New York for $4,600,000 in November 2000. Some auction facts about Amedeo Modigliani: Jean Hebuterne (devant une porte), pretty woman, huge picture, 51 x 32 in., sells at Sotheby's NY in November 2004 for $31,000,000, the record; Jean Hebuterne (au chapeau), pretty woman, dress off the shoulder, sells at Sotheby's London in February 2006 for $30,300,000; Nu Couché (sur la coté gauche), naked, pretty woman from behind with the aforesaid tipped toward the viewer, sells at Christie's NY for $27,000,000; Nu assis sur un divan, (la belle Romaine), pretty woman wearing what passed for a thong in 1919, sells in 1999 for $17,000,000.
Last night, Sotheby's, with two immoderately puissant shits batting the bid back and forth with their paddles, sold a painting of a reasonably attractive young boy for $27,750,000. With the commission, it just comes short of a new record. One of the phone bidders was with Sotheby's own Charlie Moffet, the other on a cell to Swiss dealer Doris Ammann, who won in the end.
The second Modi lot, number 54, Paul Guillaume (1916) -- sadly not so fetching -- brought $4,300,000.
Lot 39 was Egon Schiele's Nude Girl, Scantily Dressed in a Blue Blouse, Kneeling on a Cloth (1913), 13 x 19 in., estimated at $1,000,000-$1,500,000, a brilliant, minimalist version of what is to come tonight at Christie's (though at six times the anticipated cost). Christie's is offering two, more finished Schiele watercolors with estimates of $5,000,000-$7,000,000 and $6,000,000-$8,000,000. The Sotheby's Schiele sold in seconds to one bidder for $900,000. Amazing. 'Think Bill Acquavella bought it?
Lot 47, Pablo Picasso, Le Sauvetage aka Femmes et enfants au bord de la mer (1932), 32 x 39 in., estimated at $12,000,000-$16,000,000. It was the cover picture of the unbelievable Stanley Seeger "All Picasso Sale" catalogue in 1993 and sold over an estimate of $2,500,000-$3,500,000 for $4,000,000, with only a single-page pull out. Last night, the picture had a compendious six pages in the catalogue, a shorter title and, hopefully, a larger price. Sotheby's had guaranteed it. A fabulous picture. Whoops, passed.
In May of 2004, four sale cycles ago, on the madcap night of the $100,000,000-plus Rose Period Picasso Garcon a la pipe, the similar, vibrantly wonderful Les Sauvetages -- different picture, same name, and related, though not as good -- sold for $13,200,000. So what's with the audience?
Lot 52, Tamara de Lempicka's La Dormeuse (1923), 34 x 56 in., estimated at $2,000,000-$3,000,000, is a money shot of a naked, muscle-bound woman, like a deflated Lachaise. It sold for $1,900,000. Had this been a reality show, it would have been voted off the sale.
Lot 58, Max Beckmann's Girls Playing with Dogs (1933), 25 x 38 in., estimated at $2,500,000-$3,500,000, barely managed to sell at $1,500,000. Super picture, could Acquavella have bought that too, you think?
The last Beckmann to come on the block, back in May 2005, the 1938 Self-portrait with a Crystal Ball, sold for $17,000,000. It was one of those rare, large, self-portraits that appear only every five years. The 1943 Lady with a Mirror sold in London in February 2005 for $5,200,000. There just aren't that many Beckman paintings.
By lot 59, the strength of many of the pictures was their ability to look exactly like what they were. It was enough to preserve some from ignominy. Almost.
Lot 59, the Picasso, Femme Assise, 17, April, 1958 I, 57 x 44 in., estimated at $5,000,000-$7,000,000, is a large, bland, Picassoesque picture that featured a prominent vagina. Passed. Sotheby's sold the sister picture, same features, presumably, 17, April 1958 II in May of 2004 for $11,800,000. The only time they added the price to the caption.
Lot 60, the Léger, Composition aux deux papillons (1943) estimated at $1,250,000-$1,750,000, sold at Sotheby's New York in May of 2004 for $960,000. It was a Léger for trading, not keeping. It had seen too many booths in too many art fairs, it looked exactly like a Léger but without any other redeeming virtue. Sold -- $1,750,000.
Even with the end finally in sight, and the audience noticeably thinning, marginal work was moving off the turntable at respectable values. Lot 72 and 73, the Picassos Mousquetaire et Nu, 19, April 1967, III, estimated at $3,000,000-$4,000,000, and Mousequetaire aux oiseau, 13-1-72 II, 57 x 44 in., estimated at $2,250,000-$3,250,000, were both finalists in the Ugliest Painting of the Fall Season pageant and sold for $3,400,000 and $2,350,000, respectively, to the stupefaction of everyone except perhaps the buyers.
Matisse's Swamp Gollum, aka Le Peintre (1923), a 23 x 29 in., estimated at $2,500,000-$3,500,000, sold for $2,300,000 to someone who hadn't noticed the predatory black creature arising from a creek on the right that might also have been a tree trunk. . . but wasn't.
In the final blur of lots, Sotheby's chief auctioneer Tobias Meyer went on to pitch the Vanthourout collection of outsized sculptures that carried a degree of difficulty 9.9 and sold them all without a splash. New auction records were set for Barbara Hepworth ($2,648,000, with premium) and Lynn Chadwick ($1,864,000, with premium).
It is a lucrative market. It mooted the question of Everybuyer: "How do you know how much to pay, if you don't know what it's worth?" Now we ask, "How do you know how much to pay if you don't care what it's worth?" How long can this last? Six more months? Forever? Until Christie's sale tomorrow?
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STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.