Christie's New York sale of Impressionist and modern art on May 9, 2007, could not have started more differently than did Sotheby's the night before. Auctioneer Christopher Burge, with a long evening in front of him, opened the sale at a run. Bids flew around the room as he batted them back and forth from buyer to buyer in ambidextrous volley. Bids climbed effortlessly past the high estimates, doubled, and sold. At least it wasn't going to be death by a thousand slow bids.
In the end, though, it was pretty much the same. The bids slowed as buyers parsed out their funds in drabs. The sale had 76 lots, and some of them, overconfident, carried high reserves and did not sell. Or the room simply held no buyers, and one could imagine the sound of the market cracking.
Going into the sale Christie's appeared to have an edge. The firm's material seemed more cohesive. Seven works by Alberto Giacometti, set apart in the auction house exhibition space, read like a museum show. Last November, Christie's broke all records with a $491.5 million sale that included the restituted Kirchner Berlin Street Scene, four restituted Klimts and a handful of Schieles. This time around, Christie's had a fabulous Kirchner and five Schieles.
A small cul de sac in the exhibition galleries held six pictures by Vincent van Gogh, none of them entirely desirable, but it was an impressive unit for a commercial sale. The length of the auction, two hours plus, with many important lots seeded towards the end, speaks of the amount and quality of material surfacing.
Overall, artists hit new records; lots of marginal worth sold high, and some lots BI'ed for no obvious reason, which left observers to speculate about condition problems. Burge did a wonderful job. The room was upbeat till the end, when the audience could begin to puzzle over the significance of what it had just witnessed. Was the market surfeited with bad material, just surfeited, or unfazed?
The main events
Begin with Gruppo Giacometti, lots 5, 6, 46, 50, 51 and 54. Prices given in the text are at the hammer. By contrast, the prices given with the illustrations include the buyer's premium, which is 20 percent of the first $500,000 bid and 12 percent of the remainder.
Lot 5, Alberto Giacometti's 19 x 13 in. pencil drawing Nu Debout (1954), was estimated at $250,000-$350,000. In anticipation of an evening of Giacometti fireworks, Nu debout sold in a flurry for $580,000. It helped that it was a first-class drawing. Christie's had sold Femme debout in May 2006 for $1.6 million over a presale estimate of $400,000-$600,000. It was a slightly larger and a more iconic image.
Lot 6, Femme de Venise I (1956), a 41-inch-tall bronze standing woman, was estimated at $3.5 million-$4.5 million. It was the first of the Giacometti sculptures and sold for $7.2 million. Giacometti did nine versions of Femme de Venise, all more or less the same size, some indistinguishable from the others. Christie's London sold Femme de Venise 7 in 2004 for $3.5 million.
The Giacometti lots were widely separated in the sale, perhaps to sustain appetite. Lot 46 was Buste de femmes au bras croisés, Madam Télé (1964), a 20-inch-tall bronze of a television reporter who had come to interview the artist but was instead ordered to shut up and pose. Long the property of Balthus, "Madame TV" was estimated at $1.8 million-$2.4 million, and sold for $2.6 million. It was a high price. A cast of Madam Télé has not been to auction before, nor have many works from the mid-60s appeared recently.
Lot 50, Giacometti's Portrait de femme (1949), a small (17 x 18 in.) oil on canvas, estimated at $800,000-$1,200,000, sold for $1,050,000. It was nice enough.
Lot 51, L'homme qui chavire (1947), a 23-inch-tall bronze of a Man Falling held by Giacometti aficionados as "a central icon in the Existentialist view of his work" (Christian Klemm) was the main event. Estimated at $6.5 million-$8.5 million, the sculpture was strategically exhibited on a tall pedestal so that viewers were compelled to look up at it adoringly. It is adorable, also costly. It sold for $16.5 million at the hammer, an auction record for the artist.
The slightly smaller Homme qui marche III sold in May 2003 for $4 million. L'homme qui chavire, was sold in 1998 at Sotheby's New York for $2.6 million, to give a bit of perspective on the changes in value.
Lot 54, Giacometti's 18-inch-tall bronze Buste de femme, made in 1947 but a later cast, was estimated at $1.4 million-$1.8 million. The last of the Giacomettis, it didn't make it. It passed at $1.1 million bid. The same work appeared in 1990 as Buste de Diane Bataille at Christie's and did not sell then. Diane was the wife of Georges Bataille, the Surrealist author of erotic novels and a friend of Alberto. Alberto decided to do his attractive wife, perhaps in a purposely formless fashion. Another cast, 7/8, was offered at Christie's Paris in 2002 and BI'ed too. Glad that's over.
The van Goghs
Lot 24, Vincent van Gogh's 22 x 15 inch painting of the view from his Paris apartment window, Vue de la chambre de l'artiste, rue Lepic (1887), estimated at $3 million-$4 million, sold miraculously for $4.4 million. Miraculously because it has appeared at auction four times before, in various market cycles, and has made money each time (well, almost). The picture sold in 1985 for $715,000, in 1996 for $1.6 million, in 2000 it BI'ed but sold in 2005 for $2.7 million. Looking at my tasting notes, I have never had a nice thing to say about it, but in Christie's van Gogh parlor, staged against six other morbid early works, the airy, blue-toned painting looked positively invigorated.
The other six other van Goghs in the sale are listed here in order of appearance. Lot 2, Planteuse de beeteraves (1885), a charcoal drawing of a woman planting beets, sold for $1 million, just above the high estimate. As a van Gogh, it's a bit too early.
Lot 20, Woman by the Wash Tub in the Garden (1885), a charcoal of another woman, this one bending over her wash, foreshadows the artist's development into a brilliant draftsman. It sold for $1.1 million, just under the high estimate.
Lot 22, van Gogh's The Bench (1882), a charcoal of an empty park bench, dreary but at least signed "Vincent," sold for $800,000 at the low estimate. Lot 23, Pollard Willow (1882), a watercolor scene with black ink of a solitary tree by a path, really dreary, sold for $1.4 million.
Lot 26, The Iron Mill in the Hague (1882), watercolor, ink and dreariness, sold $1.4 million. And finally, the last, lot 28, Figure Sketches (1890), with little to recommend it but the label, sold for $400,000. That any sold all was simply a random act of economic strength. Glad that's over.Picasso, Rodin, Chagall
Lot 12, Pablo Picasso's Tete et main de femme (1921), 25 x 21 in., was estimated at $14 million-$21 million. A nice neoclassical picture, it sold two years ago for $13.4 million. Time to take some chips off the table. This time around it was knocked down for $16.5 million.
Lot 21, Auguste Rodin's Eve au rocher (1883), the 29-inch-tall bronze of Eve newly aware of her nakedness conceived for the Gates of Hell, was estimated at $1.4 million-$1.8 million. This particular cast sold at Christie's in 2002 for $537,000, and tonight it went for $2.3 million.
Lot 25, Rodin's 16-inch tall Iris, messagère des Dieux, estimated at $650,000 to $850,000, sold for $750,000. The sculpture of a nude torso in an Isadora Duncan-like modern dance pose -- the "flying crotch" -- is not always a favorite.
Lot 31, Marc Chagall's 28 x 23 in. Musicien (1928), estimated at $2.5 million-$3.5 million, was a fairy tale picture acquired from the artist and held in the same family for 75 years. Never at auction, never in dealer inventory, the Impressionist Department had vapors when it came through the door. And it is very pretty. It sold for $16.1 million.
Lot 32, Maurice Vlaminck's 1905 Les Barques, 18 x 21 in., estimated at $3 million-$4 million, sold for $5.4 million. Vlaminck mastered a palette of cool greens, blues, pinks and purples without leaving an unpalatable sweetness. In the last year or so, Sotheby's sold two such pictures, Le verger (1905) and Chatou, paysage a l'arbre rouge (1906), for $4.4 million and $3.1 million, respectively.
Lot 33, Robert Delaunay's Fauvist portrait of fellow artist Jean Metzinger, L'homme à la tulipe (1906), 28 x 19 in., was estimated at $3 million-$5 million. A fabulous picture, notwithstanding that Delaunay was better known as an Orphist -- Apollonaire's term, denoting lyrical abstraction based on pure color -- and not as a Fauve. It almost did not sell at $2.5 million.Impressionists and more
Lot 35, Paul Signac's Arrière du Tub (1888), 18 x 25 in., a Pointillist river scene including a pair of railroad bridges as well as the prow of the boat carrying the artist, was one of the evening's hopeful starlets. Estimated at $6 million-$8 million, it sold for $10 million to a bidder in the front of the room. According to New York Times reporter Carol Vogel, the buyer was Joe L. Allbritton, a Washington banker. Signac's Les Andelys. Les laveuses (1886), slightly larger, sold for $6.6 million in 2005 at Sotheby's London.
Lot 37, Georges Seurat's small (12 x 16 in.) Le tas de Pierre (1884), a brushy view of a stonebreaker once owned by Paul Signac, was estimated at $2 million-$3 million. A shatteringly beautiful picture? Well, yes. Sitting in the sun quickly sketching stonebreakers must focus the mind wonderfully -- some work is better watched. Tonight's picture, which had sold at Christie's London in 2002 for $1.2 million, now passed at the $1.9 reserve. Ow.
Lot 39, Camille Pissarro's Briqueterie Delafolie à Eragny (1886), a 22 x 28 in., lushly Pointillist barnyard scene at sunset, was estimated at $2.5 million-$3.5 million, and squeaked by at $2.5 million. The painting sold in 1990 for $2 million. Nice picture all the same.
Lot 40, Renoir's healthy 36 x 28 in. nude, Grande Baigneuse aux jambes croisées (1904), was estimated at $6 million-$8 million. Grande was an understatement. She appeared to be made of Crisco with a Farrah Fawcett haircut (which she flips and caresses). Vulgar isn't in it. Sold for $7.9 million.
Lot 44, Henri Matisse's Jeune femme assise en robe grise aux bandes violettes (1942), 18 x 15 in, estimated at $6 million-$8 million, is a pretty, simple, rigorously organized portrait lacking the elaborate Morroccan notes of Odalisque au fauteuil noir, same size, same date, that sold in 2004 for $12 million. Also Robe jaune et robe arlequin (Nezy and Lydia) (1941), slightly larger, same vein, sold in 2005 for $11 million. This time, Jeune femme passed. Too good?
Lot 48A, Piet Mondrian's Composition with Yellow and Red (1927), 20 x 13 in., was estimated at $4 million-$6 million. A pretty Mondrian, perhaps too austere for popular taste, it appeared at auction in 1995 and BI'ed over an estimate of $1.6 million-$2 million. It sold at auction in May 1997 at Sotheby's for $1.1 million under reduced expectations. It passed again last night over an emphatic, "No more plain pictures, thank you."
Lot 53, Amedeo Modigliani's Le femme au collier verte (1918), 39 x 23 in, was estimated at $12 million-$16 million. An astonishing portrait, felt and expressive, it is everything that the unsold Modi portraits from Sotheby's the night before were not. Modigliani has been on a high lately: Jeanne Hebuterne, devant une porte (1919) sold for $31.3 million in 2004, and Jeanne Hebuterne, au chapeau sold for $30.2 million in 2006. Christie's must have had one of those "come to Jesus moments" when it set the estimate below sea level, thinking of a reward in heaven. Wrong, it passed.
Lot 59, Juan Gris' violet and green Synthetic Cubist Le pot de geranium (1915), 32 x 23 in., was estimated at $14 million-$18 million. A hero of the sale. No comparable Gris works have appeared at auction in a while. This picture sold in 2002 at Sotheby's New York for $8.5 million and again tonight for $16.5 million, a whole lot more and a new record for the artist.
Lot 64, Ernst Kirchner's Dodo mit grossem Fächer (1910), 59 x 29 in., was estimated at $12 million-$18 million. "Dearest Dodo, with those busy hands of yours," Kirchner once began a letter to his mistress and model, the star of this large, colorful and teasing nude. In spite of her serious mien and perfect breasts, she almost did not sell. Burge had that begging sound in his voice until one bidder -- Manhattan art dealer Nancy Whyte, sitting in the back and consulting with her client via cell phone -- stepped up at $11.5 million, which must have been the reserve. Kirchner's Berliner Strasenszene sold for $38 million at Christie's last November, which remains in a class by itselfThe Schieles
Lots 61, 63, 65, 66 and 68 were works on paper by Egon Schiele, more treasure being sold by the Neue Galerie to help pay for Klimt's $135-million portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Lot 61, Sitzender weiblicher Halbakt in grüner Bluse (1913), 18 x 12 in., was estimated at $3 million-$4 million. A knowing young woman out of the hipster community, Vienna ca. 1913, not Willaimsburg ca. 2007, with no panties, sold for $4.5 million. Her counterpart last November, in frilly pantaloons, brought $11 million.
Lot 63, Selbstbildnis (1910), 17 x 12 in., estimated at $1.8 million-$2.5 million, is a self-portrait of Schiele looking demented. You wonder how he talked women out of their clothes. It sold for $1.6 million.
Lot 65, Rufer (1913), 19 x 12 in., estimated at $1.2 million-$1.8 million, is a nice picture of a young man sitting in a blue coat with lipstick, eye shadow and nail polish. It sold for $2.7 million.
Lot 66, Sitzender Frauenakt (1914), 18 x 12 in., estimated at $800,000-$1,000,000, is a not so nice a picture of a woman with varicosities exploring a hole in the nether part of her green tights. It sold for $600,000.
Lot 68, Selbstbildnis (1912), 18 x 12 in, estimated at $800,000-$1,000,000, is a portrait of skinny, naked Schiele with attractively colored lesions, an understated testament to his prowess. Is this how he got their clothes off? Passed
Lot 71, Joan Miró's Project pour un monument (1981), the 14-foot-tall black bronze sculpture temporarily installed on the sidewalk out in front of the auction house, was estimated at $3.5 million-$5 million. It sold for $8.8 million in almost as much time as it took to cast the sculpture. The previous high price for a Miró sculpture at auction was $1.2 million, a record set only a year ago, in 2006, and a pointed illustration of the current changes in the market.
Glad that's over. This season's Impressionist and modern sales ended on slightly discordant note. Dealers were not enthusiastic at the result, but then when are they? Did the lots that passed manifest discernment or disgust? Is it a sign of weakening voracity, specific to this market, or a general trend? Are the norms of venality excessive? With the contemporary sales coming up next week one would imagine that the houses are calling consignors and counseling reason.
By the numbers
Christie's New York evening sale of Impressionist and modern art totaled $236,464,000 (with premium), with 68 of 78 lots finding buyers, or 87 percent. World auction records were set for Giacometti ($18,520,000), Juan Gris ($18,520,000), Paul Signac ($11,688,000), Joan Miró ($9,896,000) and Maximilien Luce ($2,840,000). The continuing fall of the U.S. dollar against European currencies also seemed to lower the percentage of U.S. buyers: 29 percent from the U.S. as compared to 48 percent from Europe. The remaining buyers, according to Christie's cryptic breakdown, were 2 percent Asian and 21 percent "other."
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.