There has seemed, of late, to be no end of art, or money -- but both proved to be finite at Sotheby’s New York evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 7, 2007. The auction was a surprise, and a not unhappy one, though Sotheby’s may differ. It was a much smaller sale than Christie’s the evening before, 76 lots opposed to 91. It did not have Christie’s range; instead it had a number of high-profile lots where the house expected to make a killing. The estimates were high, good material was larded sparingly in with the mediocre, but it was not a palatable mixture and 25 percent of the lots did not find buyers. It was still fun, though the shortfall was richly deserved: Sotheby’s tried to sell seven Kees van Dongen paintings in one evening sale. C’mon.
The sale totaled $269,741,600 (with premium), below Sotheby’s presale low estimate of $355,000,000 and rather less than Christie’s total of $394,977,200 the night before. With only 56 of 76 lots finding buyers, Cassandras in the press were quick to call an end to the five-year-old art-market boom. Indeed, Sotheby’s stock dropped from about $50 a share on Wednesday to $35 a share on Thursday morning. Now that’s volatility.
Prices given below are at the hammer; typically, Sotheby’s adds on a buyer’s premium of 25 percent of the first $20,000, 20 percent of the amount up to $500,000, and 12 percent of anything above that.
Lot 1, Egon Schiele, Standing Nude with Large Hat (1910) (est. $1,200,000-$1,800,000) is a provocative charcoal portrait of a woman. Her camisole has been dropped to expose her breasts, her arms wrap suggestively around her supple body and, haloed by the brim of a large hat, one knowing eye looks back at the artist. It is Gertrude Schiele, not the artist’s wife but his sister; Schiele was 20 at the time, and she was his only available nude model. The equally lubricious Kneeling Half Nude Bending to the Left, same outfit, similar body, is thought to be his sister-in-law. It sold at Christie’s one year ago for $10,000,000. Standing Nude with Large Hat sold for $1,600,000. Turn-of-the-century family values.
Lot 3, Schiele, Self Portrait with Checked Shirt (1917) (est. $4.5 million-$6.5 million) was the main event of the four Schiele lots that opened the sale. It was a reptilian Schiele slinking across a page, more iconic than ravishing. Sold for $10,100,000. The other Schieles, a portrait of a demented-looking male and a drawing of a woman with a big behind, did well enough, but started no stampede.
Lot 9, Vincent van Gogh, The Fields (1890) (est. $28 million-$35 million), painted in Auvers sur Oise, where van Gogh moved to be closer to Theo after the latter’s marriage. In the last 70 days of his life, van Gogh painted 70 paintings, 68 of which are masterworks, arguably the longest run of brilliant painting in the history of art, after which he shot himself. This work was painted two and a half weeks before his death, and is quintessential van Gogh. Two oligarchs should have duked it out. Sotheby’s guaranteed the lot. Christie’s sold L’Arlessiene, Madame Ginoux in May 2006 for $40.3 million. This was more abstract and better. Fish in a barrel, right? Wrong. Passed.
Lot 13, Claude Monet, Le palais Dario (1908) (est. $8 million-$12 million), in spite of its saccharine palette slowly reveals itself as a beautiful Monet. It was offered at Christie’s in 1995 and failed to sell over an estimate of $3 million-$4 million. It was reoffered in 1997 over an estimate of $2 million-$3 million and barely sold at $2 million. Monet painted this palais four times. It seems it had been overshadowed by more ambitious Venetian pictures, but it’s in the sunlight now. Sold for $9.2 million.
Lot 15, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Femmes dans une jardin (1873) (est. $8 million-$12 million). A pretty picture of two women in shadowed background, with a foreground of Giverny-like abundance. Bewilderingly, this picture sold at Sotheby’s London in June 2006, just a year and a half ago, for $9.1 million. Perhaps compulsion or greed sent it back to the block so soon. Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer was like a Chinese water clock, ticking out the bids drip by drip, until the lot finally sold for $10.9 million.
Lot 18, Paul Gauguin, Te Poipoi (1892) (est. $40 million-$60 million). A Tahitian-period Gauguin in one illustrious collection for the last 60 years, the Charles S. Payson family, who also sold the van Gogh Irises, not cutting-edge van Gogh, but lovely, and sold it at the top of the market. The compositionally more direct, and perhaps more desirable, L’homme à la hache sold last November for $40 million over an estimate of $35 million-$45 million in slow, labored bidding. The Paysons did not buy cutting-edge pictures, but neither do Russian oligarchs, so Sotheby’s set an estimate reflecting the Payson imprimateur and possibly a wistful hope, inasmuch as the picture features a tahitienne squatting unpleasantly in the river, stage left. On the verge of passing, a telephone bidder made one bid. Sold for $35 million. The buyer was later revealed to be Hong Kong collector Joseph Lau.
Lot 19, Renoir, Enfant assis en robe bleue (1889) (est. $9 million-$12 million), which, as noted, once belonged to Greta Garbo and is the most expensive picture ever sold from Renoir’s "Insipid Children Series." It sold in 1990 at Sotheby’s for $7 million. In May 2007, Christie’s sold Grande baigneuse aux jambes croisees contemplant la carte du jour for $9 million, sustaining at least theoretically the high estimate. The best of them, Leontine et Coco (1909), a painting of a demure Leontine reading to Renoir’s son, Claude, sold for $5.7 million in 1990, back in the day. This child looks as if she might have some cognitive issues. Passed - though wait a sec, David Norman said it sold directly after the auction.
Lot 21, Gauguin, Paysage aux trois arbres (1892) (est. $9 million-$12 million), another Tahitian-period picture, though without the bare-breasted maidens of Te Poipoi. It has the comfortable surface both pictorially and texturally of his Brittany landscapes. With the clothed women and specific flora, the picture was initially titled Paysage de la Martinique, dated 1887, and ascribed to his stay in Martinique. Wildenstein & Co., however, generously catalogued the work as a first-visit Tahitian painting. Whatever the date it looked quite clean at the previews. Only a few Tahitian landscapes have sold at auction. This wasn’t one of them. Passed.
Lot 22, Pablo Picasso, Tête de femme, (Dora Maar) (1941) (est. $20 million-$30 million), a not-especially-lovely but appetizing bronze, inasmuch as it appears to be made of chocolate, and is colossal. In this sculpture, Dora Maar looks puffy and squirrel-cheeked but worlds better than Marie-Thérèse, who Picasso turned into elephant girl, and Fernande, who got the full Cubist treatment. It is large and rare; only two were cast. Le guenon et son petit, a car-headed ape holding a baby, sold for $6.7 million in 2002, the most expensive sculpture in an edition of six. This one sold for $26 million to Franck Giraud of the New York and Paris power dealership Giraud Pissarro Ségalot.
Lot 23, Henri Matisse, Feuille noire sur fond rouge (1952) (est. $1.5 million-$2 million). One might wonder if this was a leaf fallen to the floor, shed from the tree, that Heinz Berggruen stooped to pick up, then sold or gave to Dominique de Menil. Another sold at Christie’s London in 2005 for $1.1 million. This one is prettier. Sold for $1.5 million.
Lot 24, Joan Miró, Le fermier et son épousé (1936) ($9 million-$12 million), sold out of the Billy Wilder collection in 1989 for $2.7 million. In June of 2007, Christie’s London sold Miró’s Le Coq (1940) for $13.1 million, well above the high estimate, giving substance to this lot’s value. It is among the most desirable of Mirós outside of the 23 Constellations gouaches. Sold for $9.25 million.
Lot 28, Picasso, La Lampe (1931) (est. $25 million-$35 million). "I am telling you dear, it is a bargain at $35 million." Overheard as two ladies strolled the preview. Definitely a top-of-the-line, high-estimate, 1931 Cubist model, highly contented, but did not do much for me. Nor for anyone else apparently. Passed.
Lot 31, Fernand Léger, La femme couchée (1920) (est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million) is a second-tier picture from a first-tier part of Léger’s oeuvre. It sold June 2005 in London for $1.4 million. And again tonight for $3 million.
Lot 32, Georges Braque, L’Echo (1953) (est. $15 million-$20 million). Braque is undervalued, overshadowed by his collaboration with Picasso. Which Braque would you have, a fauve picture, a Cubist picture or a late picture? The most expensive Braque was a 1911 high Cubist work that sold for $9.5 million in 1986; the second was a late 1952-55 picture from the McCarty-Cooper collection that brought $7.7 million in 1992. In May 2006, Christie’s sold a 9 x 13-inch Cubist work for $2.8 million and another in February for $2.7 million. The evening’s work had appeared in 1996 and sold for $2.5 million. It is beautiful, well, really nice anyway. Wrong. Passed.
Lot 33, Paul Cézanne, Maison dans le verdure (1881) (est. $7 million-$9 million), sold at Christie’s in June 2006 for $7.5 million. There have not been any woodsy landscapes to appear at auction in six years save the Maison above, Les grands arbres Le Jas de Bouffan, which sold in May 2005 at Christie’s for $11.8 million, and Le Jas de Bouffan, which passed at Christie’s last night, ominously, because it is a good picture. Les grands arbres Le Jas de Bouffan is ethereal and divine and very Cézannesque, but it sold a hairs-breadth above its reserve, and only by the legerdemain of Christie’s auctioneer Christopher Burge. Maison dans le verdure sold this evening at Sotheby’s for $6 million, a little below its earlier value once the buyer’s premium is added.
Lot 36, Kees van Dongen, Femme a la Cigarette (1905-08) (est. $3 million-$4 million), looks a bit like an imagined ad for an escort service at the back of New York magazine. With the smoke streaming from the mouth of a slattern, it was the nicest van Dongen at the sale. Sold for $4.8 million. Sotheby’s sold four out of the seven van Dongen works in the sale, all from the same European collection, which was no mean accomplishment.
Lot 37, Chaim Soutine, Le Rouquin (1917) (est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million). An intensely variegated background sets off a pleasant portrait of a man. It sold in 2001 for $770,000. The Soutine portrait L’homme au foulard rouge (1921), later, better, sold for $17 million this February in London. Le Rouquin sold for $2 million tonight, which was an excellent return, but below Sotheby’s absurd expectation.
Lot 41, Franz Marc, The Waterfall (1912) (est. $20 million-$30 million). Marc died at the age of 36 in 1916 in action during WWI, hence there is not a lot of Marc to share. Marc believed fervently in the spirituality of animals, and this morphed into a fundamentalist Futurism with Orphist overtones, half Cubist fracture, half Fauve color. There is no precedent in the records for this painting except this painting itself, which Sotheby’s sold in London in 1999 a little shy of $8.5 million. But Sotheby’s also sold a little tiny horse picture in tempera for $2.7 million this June, so the firm’s high valuation had some basis. Sold for $18 million.
Lot 46, Lyonel Feininger, The Green Bridge (1909) (est. $12.5 million-$15 million). A very buoyant estimate for a picture that sold for $3.1 million in 2001, but look no further back than last May when the big news was the candy-box-cover Feininger, Jesuiten III (1915), estimated at $7 million-$9 million, sold for a record $20,750,000 at the hammer to one of two phone bidders. Sotheby’s has mistaken the anomaly for the norm. It did not help Christie’s, however, when last night’s early Feininger passed. Both houses speculated that all you need is one $20-million Feininger to change things forever. The Green Bridge sold for $9 million, beneath expectation but more than it deserved.
Is Matisse the new Monet? There were nine lots offered this season between the two houses.
Lot 34, Matisse, Une rue à arcueil (1903) (est. $3 million-$4 million), an early transitional work that introduces Fauve color into his palette. Few have traded and none more than $5 million. Sold for $2.7 million.
Lot 44, Matisse, Espagnole (1922) (est. $12 million-$16 million). A richly patterned portrait of a woman in front of lavish floral wallpaper, in a check-patterned shawl leaning on a red-and-white striped tablecloth -- it sounds as if it would leave you bilious. It’s ravishing. He pulls it together for a third the money of Christie’s Odalisque: Harmonie Bleue, a 1937 picture which seemed pat, but sold for $30 million Tuesday night. In light of that sale one expected this painting to be equally costly. It was not. Sold for $9 million over the phone to one bidder and one bid.
Lot 51, Matisse, Nu sur fond rouge (1922) (est. $5 million-$7 million), is a very pink nude woman standing with her hands held behind her neck, full frontal nudity, a red Moroccan screen behind and a reddish Persian carpet on the floor. Passed back in 1998 over an estimate of $2 million-$3 million, it had been widely offered prior to that sale. Tonight was another story -- if a pretty nice, 1937 picture sells at Christie’s for a record $30 million, then an okay 1922 Matisse ought to bring $4 million the next evening at Sotheby’s. It did.
Lot 59, Matisse, Le repos de la danseuse (1942) (est. $6 million-$8 million). Auctioned in 1990 for $1.6 million. A faceless woman in a skirted, strapless maillot, reclining on an acid yellow-green fauteuil with red arms, set upon black-and-white parquet. Very Matisse-like, but hardly a "comfort to a tired businessman," Matisse’s mission statement. Passed.
Lot 67, Henri Edmond Cross, L’Épave (1899) (est. $700,000-900,000). This picture sold in 1989 for $467,000. A more recent sale for a same-period work brought $1 million at Christie’s in May 2006, for a bunch of naked boys frolicking in the river. Cross always seemed undervalued, but then again, maybe not. Passed.
Lot 73, Monet, Aiguille d’Éntretat, Marée Basse (1883) (est. $1.8 million-$2.2 million). It must have felt cleansing to paint on the beaches of the English Channel then walk back, in the fading light, to the nearby fishing settlements. Not a particularly special picture but lovely all the same, it sold in November 2005 for $1.9 million, but not tonight. Passed.
After Christie’s excess on Tuesday no one expected Sotheby’s to do anything less on Wednesday. But the room never caught fire until the final third of the sale, when the recognition dawned that many of the lots were not all that they could be, that the passing of major works, flawed or no, was not a catastrophe, and that Tobias Meyer was actually selling lots well below the low estimate and at approximate market value. Then people started bidding in earnest. It may have been too little too late to save Sotheby’s evening, but it was a pleasant note to end the sale.
For complete, illustrated auction results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Database.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.