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Art Market Watch
by Stewart Waltzer
 
Christie’s painted the walls of the viewings rooms deep gray, doubtless to show their lots to the best effect. They were lit Las Vegas style, to the edge of the frame, and that made them seem electro-luminescent. Viewers moved from chapel to chapel in the dimness, between pools of reflected light. Here, van Gogh’s L’Arlésienne; there, laid out like a pharaoh, the 1956 Henry Moore Reclining Figure; over there, the tiny Picasso Blue Period icon, Portrait de Germaine; and back in the catacombs, stacked up like so many skulls, sad Monets, Pissarros and Lautrecs. They might have turned the lights still lower and spared us.

It was not impressive. The art was as tired and gray as the walls. The auction had been hung with care around the van Gogh, the Blue Period Picasso, the Gauguin Vase de fleurs et gourde and the 1932 Picasso Le repos. With few exceptions, bidding was thin on both high-value and low-value lots alike. Did the house hope that its trumps would carry less favored lots? They didn’t -- but it was a brilliant night all the same, unprepossessing and lucrative.

With U.S. currency linked to the oil standard, and George Bush dollars devaluing as the price per barrel escalates, art must have seemed a plausible repository of value to many people at the sale. If half of them couldn’t parse the relative values of Monets, it was never that kind of contest anyway.

Early lots were either dull or vulgar or both. Most exceeded their high estimate. The charmless and insipid Renoir, La laveuse (1891), sold for $1.3 million over a presale estimate of $700,000-$900,000. It sold in 1990 for $1,250,000 and again in 2001 for $544,000. Present owner overjoyed?

The unlovely Pissarro, Bouquet de lilas (1876), deservedly passed. A barely adequate Sisley, Canal du Loing (1882), sold at the top of its estimate, for $1.5 million. Another Pissarro, L’Eglise Saint-Jacques, Dieppe, matin, soleil (1901), sold for $2 million, at the bottom of its estimate. It was dreary.

The Van Dongen pin-up of Venus (1935-36)-- chest forward, wrists held behind the neck -- sold for $1.5 million over an of $800,000-$1.2 million estimate. Tasteless. The Caillebotte, Rose jaune dans un vase (1882), sold for $1.4 million over an estimates of $600,000-$800,000. OK, not great, but lots of dough. Another Pissarro from the catacombs, Etude de paysanne en pleine air, bêchant (1882), sold for $1,650,00 over an estimate of $1 million-$1.5 million. It BI’ed its last time out in 1990, looking for something between $2 million to $2.5 million. It’s not pretty.

The Renoir, Deux femmes dans le jardin de Cagnes (1918), painted when Pierre-Auguste must have been in the final phase of macular degeneration, sold for $1,150,000 over an estimate of $800,000-$1,200,000.

The coda for these first 10 lots was the Monet, Nympheas, temps gris (1907), perfect for this auction, which sold for $10 million, at the bottom of its presale estimate. That it sold at all is too extraordinary to attribute solely to the legerdemain of Christie’s chief auctioneer Christopher Burge.

It continued through Toulouse-Lautrec, through Sisley, through Monet, and Caillebotte. None of it horrible, none of it brilliant. Is there some place in the Christian liturgy where they send sullen pictures till Christie’s or Sotheby’s shall resurrect them?

Finally, the moment we had waited for, what some lynx-eyed gallerist from Madison Avenue called the "van Gogh from hell" -- L’Arlésienne, Madame Ginoux. Not a pretty woman, but an 1890 portrait all the same, that sold quickly (four bids) for $36 million at the hammer, on an estimate of $40 million-$50 million. Audible gasp.

Was this a foreshadow of the end of the bull market? Well, Vincent’s Gachet sold for $82 million; the Portrait de l’artiste sans barbe sold for $72 million; this picture breaks $40 million, including the auction house buyer’s premium, making it the forth most expensive van Gogh ever to appear. We’re fine for now.

More lots of grayish demeanor -- plein air landscapes, no better or worse than the ones before, but now passing or languishing at their low estimates. For light relief, the Tamara de Lempicka, Groupe de quartre nus (1925) -- four eyeless, red-lipped beauties, limbs interlinked in orgiastic ecstasy -- sold for $2.8 million over an estimate of $2 million-$3 million. Smuttier than the van Dongen. Nearly halfway done and things are looking up.

First surprise of the evening, the Kandinsky geometric abstraction, Pfeile (Arrows) (1927), lot 27, estimated at $1 million-$1.5 million, sells in furious bidding for $3.4 million, and the sale catches fire. The only other Kandinsky to approach its quality at auction was Launisher Strich, which sold for $1.24 million in 2003 and was smaller and half as good.

Blue Period Picassos seem to draw every rich nutter out of the woodwork. Portrait de Germaine (1902), 19 x 16 inches, tiny, too early, not creamy Blue Period, weird rather than bohemian -- but it hammers out for $16.6 million. It had been estimated at $12 million-$18 million. It is a small price to pay for a Picasso, post-$100-million Garcon a la pipe -- as will be dramatically demonstrated a few lots later.

The Gauguin, Vas de fleurs et Gourde, lot 35, now dated after 1890 by the Wildenstein Institute -- emphatically post-South Seas excursion, restituted  from Nazi confiscation, and put at auction over an estimate of $7 million-$10 million with a guarantee to the consignor -- sells for $4 million. It must have been a disappointment to the guarantor because it is such a lovely painting. Another surprise.

Le repos, lot 43, last night’s 1932 Picasso, lacks the languor of the great Marie-Thérèse Walther pictures. Le reve (1932), 51 x 38 inches, Christie’s New York, November 1997, sells for $48.5 million. . . Nu au fauteuil noir (1932), 63 x 51 inches, Christie’s New York, November 1999, sells for $45 million. . . Le miroir (1932), 51 x 38 inches, Sotheby’s New York, November 1989, sells for $26.5 million. . . . Pricing was robust each time, and all these pictures are from the romantic core of Picasso’s oeuvre. 

Le repos was estimated at $15 million-$20 million. Burge opened the bidding at $9.5 million and drew it slowly up to $14 million, where it stopped. The bidding was thin. The picture is a garishly colored woman in a garishly colored chair against a background of brown wallpaper. What was he thinking, Picasso? Perhaps the colors suggest a modern taste. $14 million wasn’t a great price, but then it wasn’t a great picture. . . .

The next bid came haltingly at $14.5 million, then another at $15 million, then from $16 million in a rush up to $24 million in $1 million whacks till it slowed to $500,000 increments as two great beasts of the jungle tore into each other till one of them had enough at $31 million and walked away. It didn’t go quickly. Everyone had a chance to think it over. Burge gently pointed out that it was "getting towards your last chance" several times. In the end, the picture seemingly morphed into a much better work -- at $31 million, it is the seventh most expensive Picasso, ever.

For a sale with ordinary material it did alarmingly well. It makes it hard to justify notionally, a market bubble. Prices are rising in the context of our economy. The auction market seems sound. No more obtuse than customary. Great material in the Impressionist and modern market is not as easily had as it was five years ago, and the scarcity is reflected in the prices -- although not always in the quality. Post-war and contemporary art is maturing. No one is surprised and once again, we’re still fine. Oh thanks, George W.

Christie’s Impressionist and modern art sale on May 2, 2006, totaled $180,280,000, with 43 of the 50 lots finding buyers. The total here reflects the auction-house premium of 20 percent on the first $200,000 and 12 percent on the rest; the prices given in the text above are at the hammer. Overall, 44 percent of the lots failed to exceed the low estimate, 20 percent exceeded the low but not the high, and 36 percent exceeded the high estimate. Fourteen percent of the lots passed, a small percentage in a well balanced sale.


STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.