With only 50 lots in the sale and some lots sub-prime, observers at Christie’s big sale of Impressionist and modern art on May 6, 2009, could have expected a dull evening, particularly after yesterday’s barely credible sale at Sotheby’s. But this wasn’t the case. Christie’s ran a brisk, rat-a-tat auction that hammered down numerous lots at very high prices. It did not feel like a recession. The room was packed. It was not brilliant; better, it was business as usual.
The sale total was $102,767,000 (with premium), with 38 of 48 lots finding buyers, or 17 percent by lot. By contrast, Sotheby’s sale the evening before totaled $62,370,500, with 29 of 36 lots selling, or more than 81 percent.
What emerged from Sotheby’s sale yesterday was that the long view and the smart view are no longer synonymous. Previously, the long view/smart view had been that good art endures and becomes valuable. What emerged at Sotheby’s is the idea that populist art is accessible and does better short term and long term. Anything can be rare as long as enough people want it, good or bad. The downside: esthetes disparage your taste. The upside: you laugh all the way to the bank. And the art market, like any other, is irrational.
At Christie’s, the lots were better and esthetic values led the way. Nice, if true. Meanwhile, the auction did not suffer. Lots that had appeared at auction in recent memory were being offered again and sold at multiples of their previous price. The rationale for many of the estimates was based upon sales made in 2007 and early 2008, when there was still a Lehman Brothers. Hammer prices are quoted for tonight’s lots.
Lot 2, Joan Miró, Maquette pour personage, 1971, est. $300,000-$400,000. A diminutive Euro-Gumby sculpture, the Ent-like L’oiseause niche sur les doigts en fleur sold in 2005 for $273,000. The Gumby-esque Project pour un monument a Los Angeles, where else, sold for $270,000 in 1992. The 10-inch Maquette pour personage sold in feral bidding for $310,000.
Lot 7, Pablo Picasso, Mousquetaire a la pipe, 1968, est. $12,000,000-$18,000,000. Christie’s or a third party guaranteed the picture. It is more secure as an investment than as a painting, and is reputedly caroming off the misfortune of a Bernard Madoff investor. It sold on the eve of the presidential election in 2004 for $7.1 million. Christie’s sold the comparable Homme assis au fusil in February 2008 for $11.1 million and the nearly identical Homme a la pipe in November 2007 for $16.8 million. Tonight Mousquetaire a la pipe sold for $13 million, the top price of the auction.
Lot 11, Alexej Jawlensky, Odalyske, 1910, est. $4,000,000-$6,500,000. A serene nude on a couch in fauvish color, half blaue reiter, half fauvism. Brilliant. Schokko-Schokko mit tellerhut, a pleasant portrait of a woman in a hat like a fruit bowl, sold in 2003 for $8.2 million and in 2008 for $18.7 million, also brilliant. Odalysk sold for $4.5 million.
Lot 12, Henri Edmond Cross, Paysage avec le cap Nègre, 1906, est. $700,000-$900,000. A pretty, Divisionist painting. Cross always seems lost on Seurat’s branch of Post-Impressionism, and economically undervalued. Two other Cross Divisionist pictures, Rio San Trovaso, Venise sold in 2004 for $825,000 and La sieste au bord de la mer sold in 2003 for $780,000. Paysage avec le Cap Negre, vibrant and structurally loosey goosey, sold for $850,000.
Lot 15, Edgar Degas, Après le bain, femme s’essuyant, 1890-95, est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000. Last November at Sotheby’s, Degas did not fare so well. Femme se coiffant passed, Le Ballet passed, and Femme s’essuyant les cheveux, hammered for $750,000 over an estimate of $1 million-$1.5 million, after auctioneer Tobias Meyer opened the lot at $4,500,000. Danseuse au repos, stellar, hammered at $30 million ($37 million with commission); it had sold for $28 million in 1999. No profit in it, save for the house. All were good works, tactile and rich with a modern sensibility. Lot 15 is more of the same but in our economy, in thrall to auctioneer Christopher Burge’s ministrations, it sold for $5.3 million.
Lot 19, Maurice de Vlaminck, Le Havre, les basins, 1907, est. $4,500,000-$6,500,000). A picture of tugs at the dock. Investment grade? Sold for $2 million in 1989 and $1.2 in 1997. They should have held. Le remorqueur, a pretty, smaller picture of a river tug sold last November for $3.6 million at Sotheby’s narcoleptic sale. Le remorqueur a Chatou, much smaller, sold in 2006, in a buoyant market, for $4.9 million. The attractive Le Havre, les basins sold tonight for $3.3 million.
Lot 20, Pierre Bonnard, Nu devant la glasse ou baigneuse, 1915, est. $800,000-$1,200,000. A naked woman with a cute bum, seen bum side out. The advent of indoor plumbing and showers altered the face of French painting. Bathroom voyeurism changed from a polite conceit to a police matter. Bonnard must have spent a considerable time lurking in the corner, watching women wash. This is a charming picture in its subject and delicate coloration. The painting barely sold in 1997 for $400,000, charm or no. It sold tonight for $750,000.
Lot 21, Henri Edmond Cross, Rio San Trovaso, Venise, 1903, est. $1,200,000-$1,600,000. Cost $825,000 in 2004. See above lot 12. A spectacular Divisionist picture of a Venetian canal, pretty, restrained and tightly structured. Given the depredations of auctions houses, the seller could not have seen much profit; sold for $1.1 million.
Lot 22, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Madame Misia Natanson, 1897, est. $2,000,000-$3,000,000. She was an art world busybody who connived continually both for and against Picasso, according to John Richardson, and was casually rendered by every artist she befriended. Toulouse-Lautrec treated her with both sensitivity and generosity; the portrait is expressive without being elaborate. Another painting, Deux femmes Valsant, was sold last June for $3.8 million. It looks to be a portrait of Misia Natanson and her niece Bourette, and was owned by John Natanson. Misia was not a pretty woman. Portrait de Henri Nocq, depicted standing in a velvet-collared evening cloak ogling Lautrecs in the studio, sold well below its estimate last November for $4.4 million. Madame Misia sold for $2.2 million.
Lot 26, Tamara de Lempicka, Portrait de Madame M., 1932, est. $6,000,000-$8,000,000. Are we in a Lempicka bubble? Sotheby’s had four lots and Christie’s two in their respective evening sales. Madame M is a big-shouldered woman whose sexuality targets ex-governors, a modern norm, but not so palatable. It is only in the past three years that Lempicka works have been valued at this level. This picture sold in 1989 for $990,000 at the bottom of its estimate. Tonight it set the record, eclipsing even Sotheby’s horrors. Sold $5.4 million.
Lot 27, Kees van Dongen, Le Gondolier de Venise, 1921, est. $800,000-$1,200,000. A tourist painting of a standing figure in yachting whites looking like an advert for Ralph Lauren, complete with its well-used patina. What happened to Van Dongen’s kohled slatterns and how did this picture escape from the day sale? Another fashion shoot picture, Sarah Rafale au bois de Boulogne, sold for $858,000 in 2007. The gondolier did not float. Passed.
Lot 32, Pablo Picasso, Femme au Chapeau, 1971, est. $8,000,000-$12,000,000. The Schnabel Picasso. Not pretty, neither the woman nor the hat, but very, very large. One thinks first it’s a mousquetaire. Purchased directly from the Picasso family in 1989 (as if it had been held back to spare Picasso’s career?). Works from 1969, Le baisser, a multi-eyed jellyfish in parthenogenesis, sold in 2008 for $17 million, and Homme a la pipe, 1969, as large as Femme au Chapeau, sold in 2007 for $11.8 million. Sotheby’s sold a 1971 Tete d’homme in 2006 for $6.4 million. No very late work has exceeded that value but is that type of discernment a factor in this late market? Is any type? Sold, just, at $6.85 million, to Helly Nahmad Gallery.
Lot 33, Pablo Picasso, Tête de femme, 1909, est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000. Few works from this period appear at auction. This watercolor is particularly delightful both as it relates to the origins of Cubist sculpture and for the sheer joy of its execution. It barely sold in 1997 for $900,000. Tonight it sold for $2.3 million.
Lot 34, Alberto Giacometti, Buste de Diego (Stele III), 1957-58, est. $4,500,000-$6,500,000. A bust of Diego upon a column. The bust has that rough touched sensibility, and soft shoulders, similar to a bust that sold in 2005 for $3.6 million. This sits atop an expressive, molded column. Another cast sold in 1993 for $1 million. Giacometti has been the flavor of the new millennium. This one sold for a lavish $6.8 million.
Lot 44, Pablo Picasso, Harlequin, 1915, est. $600,000-$800,000. A watercolor, an austere rendering of the playing card figures that became the Cubist icon; the color is expressive and moderated. Two similar works on paper have appeared at auction. Homme a la pipe, assis au fauteuil sold in May 2007 for $4.7 million, and Harlequin, a different work from the McCarty-Cooper collection, sold in 1994 for $132,000. No others. Harlequin, tonight’s lot, seemed like a good deal. Wrong. Passed.
Lot 45, Pablo Picasso, Nature morte, 1934, est. $5,000,000-$7,000,000. The best Picassos in both sales? It is a luminous still life from a period of great portraits. He was having fun subverting his wife Olga, with Marie-Thérèse and her sister installed in the next village. As a painting, it is perfect in its apparent simplicity and contained coloration. This is its fourth trip to auction in 20 years, but its first and last tenures endured 10 years or more. It sold in 1987 for $1.2 million, in 1997 for $1.2 million and in 1998 for $882,000. Jackpot tonight, it sold for $4.8 million.
Lot 49. Morisot, Jeune fille écrivant, 1891, $500,000-$700,000. An expressively brushed and colored picture of an awkward adolescent at work at her easel. Nice but not exciting. Jeune fille ecrivant, a different picture, sold in 2006 for $1.2 million. Jeune fille au chien, very cutesy, sold in 2006 for $577,000. As lot 49 must have been part of a global reserve on the material from Evelyn Annenberg Jaffe Hall, Christie’s sold the work without regard to its specific reserve. It sold at a 1986 price of $250,000.
While the art industry has been unusually quiet for months, according to dealers, this sale brought close to $100 million, very respectable. It was nice to see money changing hands again.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.