A painting of Dora Maar by Pablo Picasso was sold at auction in 1999. It came from the collection of Eleanore and Daniel Saidenberg, illustrious dealers, and bore eloquent witness either to the Saidenberg‘s obsession with quality or to their massive good luck. It was a painting of supernal expressiveness and perhaps the jewel of their collection. Femme assise dans un jardin is a portrait of Dora Maar seated, a Cubist woman in a brilliantly segmented costume, amid the visual metaphor of a garden. It was painted in 1938. Back in 1999, trading on the Saidenberg’s reputation, Sotheby’s set a formidable estimate, by request only, of $40 million-$50 million. It sold for $49 million after the house percentage was added to the $45-million hammer price.
Last evening, a very similar picture, Dora Maar au chat, same size, this one from 1941, sold for $95 million with the premium. The hammer price was $85 million. It had the same estimate as the 1999 Saidenberg picture, which no doubt provided some of the basis for the valuation.
There, the similarity ends. Not to say that Dora Maar au chat isn’t lovelyish, but it is overwhelmed by the former picture. Is it simply that all the major Dora Maars have gone? (None to be had; get yours now, at any cost. . .) The disparity between price and quality rises to the nose. Yet it is the second most expensive picture ever sold at auction, and Tobias Meyer again fancies himself a steely eyed auction man.
Once you get past that bit, Sotheby’s had a brilliant night.
And the firm deserved it, damn it. The modest lots were sparkling, of rare pedigree, acquired in the 1920s, passed down through the family or sold by discreet, reputable dealers, never soiled on the block, till now. What lots had sold before at auction provided an exemplary accounting of art’s true value. The bidding was active. Tobias Meyer was fielding bids left and right like a martial arts instructor trying very hard not to scare anyone. The estimates were bloated, naturally.
The sale was front-loaded. The Vuillard Nature mort avec Leda (1902) sold for $350,000, probably its reserve, but a beautiful picture. The first lot and maybe the only bargain of the night. One of the Monet door panels done for Durand-Ruel’s apartment, an 1885 painting of azaleas in a pot, sold for $1.7 million, well above the high estimate. The fabulous Monet coastal landscape, Près Monte Carlo (1883), sold for $4.5 million, well above the high estimate. The Henri-Edmond Cross Baigneuses (1892-95) sold for $1 million, at its low estimate. But it had been auctioned before in 1994 for $620,000. It was beautiful, in contrast to the Cross painting that Christie’s had sold the night before for nearly the same price. The 1905-06 Vlaminck, La fille du Rat Mort (the "Dead Rat" was the name of a Paris cafe), sold for $500,000. It had sold in 2001 for $467,000.
After Christie’s $31-million hammer price for Picasso’s Le repos the night before, all the Picasso lots were a little twitchy. However, the uniquely hideous -- even for an early Picasso -- 1901 painting Maternité, sold for $900,000, testament to the efficacy of market mentality -- baa. It is surpassing ugly. Not to be confused with the $24-million version that sold in 1988, which is also titled Maternité and dated 1901. A good Renoir (one of six in the sale), Fleurs et fruits (1889), sold for $2.5 million over an estimate of $2.5 million-$3.5 million. It had sold at auction in 1997 for $3.6 million.
The Picasso, Dora Maar au chat opened bidding at $39 million, and climbed in million dollar increments to $85 million with Tobias Meyer slowly mouthing the numbers as if no one in the room spoke English. He got a bit flustered around $55 million and confused the bids, but settled in nicely for the long, hard slog through the sixties and seventies. Joyous clapping followed; all the world loves a clown.
The anonymous buyer, waving his paddle around like an amateur, was seated in the back, as if Sotheby’s thought he was just another boob. No one knows who he is, but the scuttlebutt has him speaking with a Russian accent. Whomever he is, he also bought the Monet seascape and a Chagall, bringing his auction total, with the premium, to more than $102 million.
There were two beautiful Andre Derains: Paysage à l’Estaque (1906), sold for $6.1 million over an estimate of $3 million-$5 million; and Musique (1904-05), a watercolor, sold for $520,000, estimated at $250,000-$350,000. It had appeared before in 1987 and sold then for $165,000. Not records, but high prices.
The lovely van Gogh watercolor, Les Toits (1882), estimated at $2.5 million-$3.5 million, sold for $4.2 million. It had sold in 1990 for $4.7 million -- a net loss of close to a million to the owner.
In the eternal Matisse/Picasso standoff, Picasso has utterly routed Matisse. The 1927 Matisse, Nu couche vue de dos (1927), a view of a woman’s backside in a harem-like setting, sold for $16.5 million. It is the record price for any Matisse, far from his greatest picture but very viable all the same. The unremittingly ugly 1969 Picasso Arlequin au baton (1969), a kind of Cubist automata holding a nightstick in one hand and an olive branch in the other, sold mid-estimate for $9 million. It is difficult to rationalize the respective values.
Two Soutines, if not fabulous, then very good. Paysage avec personages (1922), estimated $1.5 million-$2.5 million, passes without a bid. Wrong type of Soutine? Condition issues? Who knows? A few lots later, Femme en rouge appuyée à un fauteuil, estimated at $2.75 million-$3.5 million, sells for $2.5 million. Still not the flavor of the month, but the work was acquired at auction in 1989 for $407,000. It shines a little light on auction practice and the evolution of a market. Similarly, the 1954 Picasso, Sylvette, sold in 1995 for $800,000, and again last night for $4.1 million. Same light.
The Metropolitan Museum also saw fit to cash in on the market boom, selling a 1960 Picasso, Femme assise dans un fauteuil, for a hearty $5.6 million. Guess it wasn’t needed up there.
Beyond the Picasso and the Matisse there wasn’t much to write home about. Tobias Meyer set a ripping pace and the 56 lots were gone in an hour and a half. Everyone one had a good time. No one killed a fatted calf, unless that is an auction house metaphor for what they do to buyers. The idea of art as a reflection of disposable income is rendered obsolete at this scale of consumption. $100 million pictures don’t make a market; $2 million to $10 million pictures do. Very high prices are scarier than BI’ed lots because that is where buyers and markets get stranded. Art has been cyclical in it’s values. John Kennedy said, "a rising tide lifts all boats," but Alan Greenspan said, "when the tide goes out, you’ll see who’s swimming without a suit."
Sotheby’s New York Impressionist and modern art auction on the evening of May 3, 2006, totaled $207,564,800, including the auction house premium of 20 percent on the first $200,000 of the sale price and 12 percent on the remainder. Of the 55 lots offered, 48 were purchased. Overall, 58 percent of the lots failed to exceed the low estimate, though "low" as used by Sotheby’s is a relative term. Nine percent exceeded the low but not the high estimate, 33 percent exceeded the high estimate and six percent of the lots passed.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.