Christie’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on Nov. 8, 2006, sold 78 of the 84 lots offered, or 93 percent, for a total of $491,472,000, including the auction-house premium (20 percent on the first $200,000, and 12 percent on the rest). The total was the highest for any art auction, ever (though this sale admittedly had 20 more lots than a typical evening sale). The sale set nine new auction records, including for Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Paul Gauguin. Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II sold for $87,936,000 (with premium), the third highest price for a painting at auction, and altogether, the four restituted Klimt paintings from the Bloch-Bauer family sold for $192,704,000 (with premium). The prices given in the text here are at the hammer.
The levels of the game have changed. Everybody has his or her own plane. Poor people fly first-class commercial. It’s a metaphor. Yes, there is economy, but it doesn’t matter.
You think we are seeing a shift in the entire art market? It is going to get worse. There will be no unexplored or unexploited écoles. As quality works run out we will anoint new ones that are more expensive than those they replaced. Older works of substance are unassailable. Second-tier Impressionist artists have co-opted values once held only in the first tier. Auction houses, the bane of art dealers, are in turn being used by those very same dealers to reach unfamiliar pockets of wealth at new levels of cost. Can the benefits to the average consumer be very far behind? Yes, very far.
Christie’s auction foreshadows a future where expensive art is a sallow blandishment and real art is completely unattainable. And it seems unlikely to go away. Christie’s press office announced that with an aggregated value of $340,000,000-$490,000,000 this sale would be the most costly in the history of the world. The audience rose to the challenge and established new price levels that had no regard for market history. This is what it costs now. Christie’s took the same warehouse approach that Sotheby’s took the night before, but with better pictures. One slogged through muck to get to the good pictures and everyone bought everything in sight at top buck.
Lot 1, Auguste Rodin’s Andromède, carved between 1894 and 1896, 13 in. long, estimated at $500,000-$700,000, sold for $2,700,000 in a maelstrom of paddles. This is a small, peripheral piece in Rodin’s oeuvre. It cost the buyer more than the first, uber, proof cast of Le Baiser, which Christie’s sold in 2000 for less money. Did Rodin carve this marble? Probably not (he used hired hands).
Lots 5 and 6, a pair of drawings by Piet Mondrian, Study II for Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942), 9 x 9 in., estimated at $600,000-$800,000, and Study I for Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942), 9 x 9 in., estimated at $400,000-$600,000. Mondrian’s synthetic works on paper are viewed as part of the working process that supported the paintings. This doesn’t mean they aren’t delectable, but they have never been seen at auction. The most expensive Mondrian black-and-white drawing, Three Chrysanthemums, sold for $400,000 at Sotheby’s Amsterdam in May 2006. These works, unexpected and amazing, sold for $2,900,000 and $1,900,000, respectively. Ouch. The buyer of the more finished lot was dealer Jeffrey Loria, who also owns a baseball team.
Lot 9, Paul Gauguin’s L’homme a la hache (1891), 36 x 27 in., estimated at $35,000,000-$45,000,000, made this the most expensive Gauguin ever offered at auction, even before a paddle was raised. But not, by anecdotal evidence, the most desirable. Sotheby’s London sold Deux Femmes, a picture of two Tahitian women, for $22,000,000 in February 2006. Sotheby’s New York sold Gauguin’s Maternité II for $39,000,000 in November of 2004. Prior to that, one looks to the fantastical prices of the late ‘80s to find paintings of this ilk and cost. The picture sold to someone on the phone for $36,000,000 after slow, spare bidding.
Lot 12, Georges Seurat’s jewel-like Casseur de pierres (1882), 6 x 10 in., was estimated at $700,000-$900,000. For something so small to exert such visual force left one wondering at the preview how much such a miracle might cost. It BI’ed at Christie’s New York in November 1998. Last night it sold for $1,200,000. Similar pictures have sold between $1,750,000 in 1990 dollars to $1,200,000bb in 2002.
The consignment by the Phillip and Janice Levin Foundation occupied lots 14 to 26. It was a substantial block of the sale. Not to say anything against the departed Janice and Phillip, who were surely charity itself, but their taste ran a touch to the sweet side, beginning with the Degas of a woman tugging on a stocking and no less than four simpering Renoirs to a Monet bouquet of red chrysanthemums, a Pissarro of a contented fermiere hoeing, another of two blushing ramasseusses picking up windfall apples, a Lautrec partie de campagne, everyone decorously dressed, and finally the early Picasso sculpture Le fou, with his peaked hat and its scalloped brim. Most of them sold at the top of their estimates. Still, for cloying sweetness, nothing could touch the incomparable Renoir, lot 13, that introduced the block, Jeune fille au bassin de lit comme un chapeau, which sold for $3,200,000.
Lot 29, Raoul Dufy’s La rue pavoisée (1906), 21 x 18 in., was estimated at $700,000-$900,000. Seems expensive? By comparison, consider three larger pictures of the same subject, all with the same title, Le 14 Juillet au Havre: a 1907, 32 x 20 in. version sold for $2,400,000 in 1990; a 1906 example, 16 x 13 in., went for $1,250,000 in 1990; and another 1906 work, 25 x 21 in., sold for $1,500,000 in 2004. La rue pavoisée sold for $700,000 to the dealer Daniella Luxembourg sitting on the aisle. She would buy again.
Lot 30, Chaim Soutine’s Rue à Cagnes (1924), 21 x 18 in., estimated at $2,000,000-$3,000,000, sold for $1,800,000. Soutine’s landscapes don’t cost as much as the more iconic images of tradespeople or whacking gobs of beef and fish, though some might argue that they are the better pictures. Christie’s London sold L’Arc en ciel, Ceret, in June 2006 for $2,200,000, and the much larger Grand paysage de Cagnes in 2001 for $2,200,000.
Lot 31, the Modigliani Venus from 1917, 39 x 25 in., estimated at $6,000,000-$9,000,000, hit the turntable with the skirmish at Sotheby’s the night before (which led Modigliani’s picture of a boy, Le fils du concierge, to sell for $31,000,000) still fresh in the mind. It was hard to know what to expect. Venus, a demurely attractive woman offering her breast, sold for $14,200,000 after long, protracted bidding, to London dealer Helly Nahmad. Nu assis au collier, virtually the same picture, sold for $12,500,000 in 1995.
Lot 32, Kees van Dongen’s La Gitane-Tete de Femme, 39 x 32 in., estimated at $2,000,000-$3,000,000. Not a pretty picture. An abstracted composition of a woman’s head and shoulders done in studied pinks, reds and russets has large silver gray eyes lacking pupils, which lends not so much an otherworldly sensibility as an off-worldly one. It passed.
Lot 37, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berliner Strassenszenem (1913-14), 47 x 35 in., was estimated at $18,000,000-$24,000,000. A very pretty picture and a treasure restituted to the heirs of Alfred and Thekla Hess from the Brücke Museum in Berlin. Obviously great, thus ideal, especially when you can back-story restitution into the awkward verb form and serve justice and economic revenge simultaneously. However, some Strassenszenes have appeared at auction before, and their sales serve as a backdrop to Christie’s star of German Modernism. Christie’s London sold Strassenszenes for $3,800,000 over an estimate of $3,000,000-$4,400,000 in February 2006. It was the same picture that the firm sold in June 1997 for $2,400,000. Sotheby’s London sold another Strassenszenes at the same time for $3,000,000. You parse the values and see if they add up. The highest price ever paid for a Kirchner was just under $9,000,000, made this past February. Our beautiful picture, however, sold in a lengthy ballet for $34,000,000 to the aforementioned Daniella Luxembourg, who, it turns out, was working for the Neue Gallerie in New York.
Lot 44 and 48 were both Légers: Les trios personages devant le jardin (1922), 25 x 36 in., estimated at $7,000,000-$9,000,000; and Fumees sur les toits (1911), 18 x 21 in., estimated at $900,000-$1,300,000. Both are exceptional paintings. If you look for precedents -- works at these dates at these values -- they are hard to find. The Burton and Emily Hall Tremaine family sold the more impressive Le Petit Dejeuner back in 1991 for $7,700,000, and Esquisse pour le grand dejeuner sold at Christie’s New York in 2005 for $4,800,000. Fumees sur les toits, the one and the same, sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1997 for $400,000. Forget it. The large Léger sold for $8,000,000 to a phone bidder and the smaller picture for $1,100,000 -- to Daniella Luxembourg.
Lot 46, Alberto Giacometti’s La Jambe (1947), 57 in. tall, estimated at $1,500,000-$2,000,000. It is a single leg on a bronze pedestal and looked macabre as an isolated body part. It had sold in 1989 at Christie’s for $880,000 over an estimate of $1,000,000-$1,500,000. It sold this evening for $7,100,000, making it one of the most expensive Giacomettis ever sold, the economic if not esthetic equivalent to the impressive, 65 in. tall Femme Leoni that Christie’s sold in May 2005.
Lot 47 and 64, Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Angel Fernadez de Soto (1903), 27 x 21 in., estimated at $40,000,000-$60,000,000, and Femmes a la fontaine (1901), 36 x 29 in., estimated at $15,000,000-$20,000,000. The portrait looks like something from a Williamsburg cooperative gallery with a defiantly unreconstructed esthetic, and the second like R. Crumb at the turn of the century.
The first, according to Christopher Burge, was "tragically withdrawn". . . just depressed, I guess. In truth, the seller, the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation, faced with yet another restitution claim -- which it adamantly denies -- decided to wait till the title could be cleared (and then sell at Christie’s).
The second, Femmes a la fontaine, was lucky to sell for $11,500,000, regardless of the first.
Lot 51, Gustav Klimt’s Birch Forest (1903), 43 x 43 in., was estimated at $20,000,000-$30,000,000. This was the first of the four works consigned to Christie’s by the heirs of Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, represented now by Maria Altmann, and as restituted by the Austrian government. Ronald Lauder’s auspicious purchase of the fifth picture, Portrait of Adele I, for a reputed $135,000,000 set a gilded tone for tonight’s auction. Christie’s deferentially laid in jet black carpet and put ersatz Viennese Secessionist gold appliqués on the walls for the preview exhibition, a winsome merchandising gambit. The pictures are fabulous, if only for their strangeness and rarity. A total of 43 Klimts have been auctioned in 20 years. Landhaus am Attersee (1914) sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2003 for $29,000,000. It too was restituted, in 2003. The government of the Anschluss was nothing if not efficient. Schloss Kammer am Attersee II sold at Christie’s London in October 1997 for $23,500,000. Litzlbergerkeller am Attersee sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1997 for $14,700,000 over an estimate of $5,000,000-$7,000,000. The Birch Forest sold for $36,000,000, in busy bidding.
Lot 52, Klimt’s Houses at Untrach on the Attersee (1916), 43 x 43 in., estimated at $18,000,000-$25,000,000, sold for $28,000,000.
Lot 53, Klimt’s Apple Tree I (1912), 43 x 43 in., estimated at $15,000,000-$20,000,000, and utterly fabulous in its context, sold for $29,500,000.
Lot 54, Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912), 43 x 43 in., estimated at $40,000,000-$60,000,000. This is a full-length, sweetly colored portrait of Adele, and it got better press than it deserved based on the Lauder purchase of its sister picture. Bidding opened at $25,000,000 in a frenzy of millionaires waving paddles back and forth. It didn’t get really interesting until the high 60s when it reached the stage of "See your million and raise you 500,000" between two phone bidders, up to a palpably painful $73,000,000, when the second phone bidder won the match -- almost. A third phone bidder stepped in at $74,000,000, and closed it at $78,500,000. It left one speculating about what sort of people could wager in million-dollar increments with so many already in the pot.
Lot 56, Ferdinand Hodler’s Thunersee mit Niesen (1910), 23 x 43 in., was estimated at $4,000,000-$6,000,000. Who? How much? Ferdinand Hodler is a Swiss artist who has never auctioned outside of Zurich except once at Christie’s in London in 1985. He fit into this evening’s menu as a Germanic entremets between the Klimts and the Schieles. The picture sold for $3,500,000 at the hammer, which makes it the second most expensive Holdler ever sold.
Lot 58, Egon Schiele’s Zwei Madchen auf einer Fransendecke (1911), 22 x 14 in., estimated $5,000,000-$7,000,000, was being sold by the Neue Galerie, which is clearly in a trading mood. The picture was not as wonderful as the estimate would lead one to expect. Two knowing children wrapped in winter coats and draped artfully over each other. Sold for $5,000,000
Lot 59, Schiele’s Kniender Halbakt nach links gebugt (1917), 11 x 18 in., estimated at $6,000,000-$8,000,000, another Neue Galerie work. This was the slinky nude stripped to the waist and looking delightfully vulnerable. Sold for $10,000,000, a record, for vulnerability. The buyer was Doris Ammann, sitting right in front, her trademark scarf a bright orange-red.
Lot 60, Schiele’s Einzelne Hauser (1915), 43 x 55 in., estimated at $20,000,000-$30,000,000 and the third of the Neue Galerie deaccessions. As a rule, Schiele paintings appear infrequently and do so only at fantastic values. Christie’s did not inordinately manipulate its estimate. Four months ago Schiele’s Herbstonne sold at Christie’s London for $21,800,000 over an estimate of $7,000,000-$11,000,000. Before that, Sotheby’s London sold Krumauer Landschaft in June 2003 for $21,000,000 over an estimate of $8,000,000-$11,000,000. Einzelne Hauser is a great picture. It sold for $20,000,000.
Some lots are lonelier than others. Christopher Burge has evolved a host of bidders who only he can see and to whom he regularly talks. He chuckles and smiles, "Yes, yes I see you," when of course there is no one there. Or he talks to a phoner, absently twirling a pencil in her ear, "Yes Marie, $5,100,000," who looks up mildly shocked. It is disconcerting to watch.
Lot 78, the Balthus, Les trois Soeurs (1963), 50 x 67 in., estimated at $7,000,000-$10,000,000, is a dull picture of three women in the charmless waiting room of a doctor’s office. Burge talked to himself for $3,000,000 until drawing out a bidder from the phone bank.
In between these luminous works there were ten Bonnards, five Vuillards, five Pissarros and ten Picassos. This material is the same bread and butter one sees in every auction, neither better nor worse. It just sold for much higher values. Fifty percent of the lots sold above their high estimates. What once bought you a Monet, now buys you a Vuillard. It doesn’t appear as if prices will retreat substantially anytime soon. More money, from diverse sources, assured if not of values then of entitlement. It is a richer world asserting its claim to the good life.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.