A man walks into a restaurant and says to the waiter, "I’ll have the meat loaf." "Sorry, we don’t have that tonight." "OK, then, the roast chicken." "We don’t have that either." "Ah," says the man. "What else don’t you have?" Welcome to Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art in New York on May 5, 2009.
The lack of material, only 36 lots in the evening’s sale, suggests that wary consignors are no longer willing to place big bets in a flat auction market, which is true. But the auction houses don’t appear to be so far behind the S&P 500, which has recovered all the losses it had endured in 2009. Two of Sotheby’s big-ticket items, the Giacometti Cat and the 1938 Picasso portrait of his daughter passed, but that had more to do with the art/price ratio than with market anxiety.
When important lots passed, the room briefly pasted over in silence, not surging angst. Some lots barely escaped their reserve to single bidders, but others fought it out in tiny increments that made the sale, as short as it was, seem endless. Seven lots passed. Half the works never exceeded their low estimate and modest reserves had been set.
But a few works set new records and populist works still commanded elite prices reflective of the increased values of the past four years. The sale brought in approximately $61 million amid expectations of $80 million-$100 million, with more than 80 percent sold by lot -- the lowest total for such a sale since November 2001, just weeks after the shock of 9/11. Prices quoted here are at the hammer.
Lot 3, Pierre-August Renoir, Une Femme à l’ombrelle, 1868, est. $700,000-$900,000. An impressionistic sketch by the young Renoir, more vital than the pat, considerably larger Portrait de Lise that Christie’s sold in London June 2008 for $4.5 million and more evolved esthetically than the tiny portrait, same name, that Christie’s sold in Paris in December 2008 for $137,000. Sold at $950,000
Lot 4, Auguste Rodin, Danaïde, grand modèle, 1885/1901, est. $700,000-$900,000. Danaïde has not been the world’s most popular Rodin. Better known than Torso Morhardt but less regarded than L’homme qui marche? Christie’s sold a small version Danaïde in bronze for $450,000 in 2000 and Sotheby’s sold a bronze version of the larger grande modele in 2006 for $156,000. This sculpture is plaster with bronze patination and was gifted by Rodin to a writer and subsequently regifted to her physician. It was a particularly clean cast. Did that sustain its high estimate? Yes. Sold for $1.15 million.
Lot. 5, Alfred Sisley, Moret sur Loing-temps gris, 1892, est. $1,000,000-$1,500,000. Bought at Christie’s Paris in 2005 for $1.8 million, it is among the dreariest of the Moret/Loing pictures Sisley painted. Moret sur Loing a matin d’avril, a model of clarity and light, sold at Sotheby’s in May 2008 for $3.5 million. Five of this series, trading recently, ranged in value from $5.7 million to $1.8 million. Temps gris sold for $1.15 million.
Lot 7, Max Beckmann, Frau mit Blumen, 1940, est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000. Woman with Flowers, an appealing picture, sold in 2004 for $2.75 million. Anni (Madchen mit Facher), comparable, with the same quirky off-center layout but a dark, solipsistic sexuality, sold for $4.7 million. The pretty, slightly larger, Lady with Mirror sold for $5.2 million, both in 2005. Nothing tonight, Frau mit Blumen passed at $2.2 million.
Lot 10, Piet Mondrian, Composition in Black and White with Double Lines, 1934, est. $3,000,000-$5,000,000. It has been bruited about that by the early ‘30s Mondrian was off his esthetic pace, and that the expressiveness of a few black lines and a block or two of color had lost some of its conviction, excepting the last pictures. The market notes but doesn’t entirely support that level of discernment, though there have been no later pictures to sell for more than $3 million in the past four years. Early works from the Yves St. Laurent Collection sold in February 2009 for $28 million, $14 million and $8.8 million. With less rarefied provenance, Composition with Yellow and Red from 1927 sold in February 2008 for $4.7 million. Nobody cared tonight, as this 1934 picture, proto-minimalist and color-free, sold in ferocious bidding among eight contestants for $8.2 million, the top lot in the sale.
Lot 12, Alberto Giacometti, Le Chat, 1951/59, est. $16,000,000-$24,000,000. Grande femme debout II, a nine-foot-high sculpture of a very thin woman, sold last May for $27.5 million, the record. Trois hommes qui marche sold last June at Sotheby’s London for $18.5 million. These are the two most recent big-dog sales in the Giacometti ambit. Coincidentally, Trois hommes qui marche appeared four months later, as a different cast, at Christie’s New York and sold for only $11.5 million. It might have given Sotheby’s pause, the diminutive size of this work, the changing markets etc., but the firm hoped, by the enormity of its estimate, that Le Chat would be a big dog, too. No part of Giacometti’s zoology had previously come to auction. Alas it was too costly, pas un grand chien, vraiment une petite chatte. Passed.
Lot 15, Pablo Picasso, La fille de l'artiste à deux ans et demi avec un bateau, 1938, est. $16 million-$24 million. Everyone Picasso painted at this time has the inner light of a scientific experiment gone dramatically wrong. Fillete au bateau (Maya), same time, same hat, same boat, with a demi-mondaine expression, sold for $6 million in 1999, ex-collection Gianni Versace. Again, Fillete au bateau (Maya), different picture, sold for $5.5 million in 1999. More relevant is the crowd lining up at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea to view the late paintings, Picasso populariste. It wasn’t enough. Passed at $12.25 million bid. (The Picasso was offered by New York real-estate developer William Achenbaum, a victim of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme, according to press reports.)
Lot 20, Camille Pissarro, Inondation à Pontoise, 1882, $900,000-$1,200,000. Ex-collection Louisine Havermayer, who remarked, "Experience is not easily acquired, sometimes it is very costly, and we, like everyone else, paid for our knowledge." What, with these pictures? A dreary-ish landscape with the river Oise in flood. Offered once before, for the same estimate, in 1994. It has been in the family since it was purchased from Durand-Ruel in 1901. Tonight the illustrious provenance told, as this and two other tedious Havemeyer pictures brought good prices. Inondation à Pontoise sold, miraculously, in $50,000 increments for $2.6 million.
Lot 21, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Le repos de la baigneuse, 1912-14, est. $1,500,000-$2,000,000. A late Renoir nude. More like a blousy, parti-colored gourd in humanoid form than a bather at rest; it might resonate with the Oprah-as-diet-goddess crowd but whom else? Sold $1.65 million.
Lots 24 through 27, Tamara de Lempicka, estimates ranging from $800,000 to $6 million. Lempicka’s paintings, prior to 1930, have a kind of careful, serried figuration, reminiscent of early ‘70s resurgent realism. They evolved their Art Deco artifice after 1930. The portrait of the artist at the wheel of a motorcar as illustrated in the catalogue cost $46,200 in 1989. Values began climbing in the late ‘80s as paintings of sloe-eyed women in louche slips hit the block. The Portrait of Marjorie Ferry, lot 24, sold for $525,500 in 1995. Appetite for Bouguereau redux did not solidify until 2000-01, when eroticized portraits traded between $1 million and $2 million. They gained greater value in the less rarefied ethos of the Bush era. The most costly Lempicka painting was, until tonight, a portrait of Mrs. Bush, no relation, that sold in 2004 for $4.5 million (est. $1,200,000-$1,600,000).
As only two works had ever exceeded $3 million at auction, Sotheby’s intended record values this time around. And lest anyone fail to notice that the firm had cornered the Lempicka market, 10 lots between the evening and day sales, Sotheby’s glued a giant photo-mural to a showroom wall depicting a film-lavish 1930s interior, awash in white tie and gowns. As most of the pictures were painted in the heart of the Great Depression, it is somewhat ironic.
Lot 24, Portrait of Marjorie Ferry, 1932, est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000. A cheesy Carole Lombard look-a-like, wrapped casually in a sheet, with, literally, ribbons of blond hair. Sold for $4.3 million, a new record for the artist.
Lot 25, Arlette Boucard aux arums, 1931, est. $800,000-$1,000,000. A dematerializing photo of a femme fatale in a picture frame surrounded by lilies. Sold in 1988 for $220,000. Tonight sold for $1.25 million.
Lot 26, Portrait de la Duchesse de La Salle, 1925, est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000. The royal lady looking more like a capo at a fascist rally than an ambiguously sexed equestrienne. Sold for $3.9 million.
Lot 27, Portrait of Mademoiselle Poum Rachou, 1933, est. $1,800,000-$2,500,000. A precocious eight-year-old with signature ribbons of blond hair, bee-stung lips, a mini-dress cut high at the shoulder, possessively holding a stone-faced teddy bear to her midriff. A picture for pedophiles? The painting sold in 1992 for $418,000. Tonight it sold for $2.6 million.
Lot 32, Joan Miró, Femmes et oiseau dans la nuit, 1943, est. $3,000,000-$4,000,000. Miró’s "Constellation" series sets the bar for small, immensely complex, expressive compositions, even to the detriment of his own paintings. The miniscule Femme dans la nuit, 13 x 8 in., sold for $6.7 million in 2008 and is the sustaining rationale for Sotheby’s estimate here. It is, however, a more complex and elaborate painting. Femmes et oiseau dans la nuit, tonight’s lot, had sold in 1994 for $437,000. Passed.
Lot 33, Marc Chagall, Le jongleur de Paris, 1969, est. $2,000,000-$3,000,000. Late Chagall appears only late in a sale. Le jongleur de Paris is not particularly distinguished pro or con except by appearing at auction in 1997 and 2005 and selling for $1.1 million each time. The equally late Bouquet de Printemps sold in 2007 for $3.7 million and is the wistful basis of this evening’s high estimate. This juggler, however, is dowdy by comparison. La famille du pecheur, albeit smaller and maudlin but apt, sold in February 2008 for $1.5 million. The Jongler still sold for $2.5 million. Way up from 2005.
Given the breadth and depth of what Sotheby’s didn’t have, the sale did quite well.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.