If you want to know what the May 7, 2008, evening sale of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s New York was like, read this out loud, word by word, for the next two hours, backwards. Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer had a difficult time.
Sotheby’s has been scouring the earth for the past six months looking for treasures. The firm didn’t find much. And much of what it found, it perforce guaranteed in some fashion or another. Some of the lots should not have been in an evening sale and some, like intractable children, don’t do well at auction.
Tobias Meyer can be slow and tonight it was all local service. The sale was only 52 lots but it seemed to take all night. The first four lots were by Giorgio Morandi. They sold well, but no sex. One would like to say the high points follow, but there really weren’t any. Half as many people were manning the phones as were in the room and whenever one lot improbably surpassed its high estimate, they broke into applause. They should have had a sign.
In all, the sale totaled $235,333,000, with 41 of 52 lots finding buyers, or almost 79 percent. Average lot value was $5.7M, compared to $3.5M in February in London. New auction records were set for Fernand Léger ($22.4M), Edvard Munch ($11M), Victor Brauner ($878,484) and Georges Valmier ($286,135), as well as for a painting by Alberto Giacometti ($14.6M). According to the house, two-thirds of the buyers were American.
Prices given in the text below are "at the hammer"; prices given above and under the accompanying illustrations include the auction-house premium of 25 percent of the first $20,000, 20 percent of the remainder up to $500,000, and 12 percent of the rest.
Lot 9, Paul Signac, Le clipper, Asnieres (opus 155) (est. $5M-$7M). This was a very pretty picture, unlike some gaudy, sunset-colored late pictures. Painted in 1887, it sold in 1999, at a time when sale catalogues were comparatively weightless, for $2M. More recently, Terrasse de Meudon (1899) sold for $6.3M and the later Ponts des arts, Paris (1925) sold for $6M, both at Sotheby’s London in February 2008, supplying the economic rationale. Le clipper, Asnieres sold for $5M.
Lot 10, Berthe Morisot, Jeune fille au chien (est. $900,000-$1.2M). A puppy and a pretty young girl in a garden, attractively painted. Same collection since 1959. It isn’t even sentimental. Unintelligibly, nobody wanted to buy it until Mr. Meyer said, "I shall sell it for $300,000," and then people woke up. Sold for $480,000, half the low estimate.
Lot 11, Henri Matisse, Le geranium (est. $2.5M to $3.5M). A beautiful picture with the gospel purity that endows early Matisse with effortless charm and presence. More resonant than the $20M Manteau bleu Matisse at Christie’s last night. Meyer opened the bidding at $2M and moved it along carefully in $100,000 increments. It sold for $8.5M. It took a month.
Lot 12, Paul Klee, Gegemsatz abends (blau und orange) (est. $700,000-$900,000). Ouverture (1922) sold for $666,000 and the more complex Wasserpyrmiden sold for $1.1M, both in 2005. This is a great Klee, a picture of beautiful, understated clarity. It sold for $1,150,000 in $50,000 increments.
Lot 13, Alberto Giacometti, Composition dite Cubiste II (est. $1.5M-$2M). The plaster Homme (Apollon) sold at Christie’s Tuesday night for $3.2M, the record for Giacometti plaster works. The abstract Composition dite Cubiste was pretty but lacked that Kate Moss delicacy that turns heads. It is worth noting that Surrealist Giacomettis now command real value. Sold for $1.6M
Lot 14, Pablo Picasso, La grue (est. $10M-$15M). With the giant chocolate head of Dora Maar selling this past November for $29M, edition of two, Sotheby’s posited that the firm might hold out its rice bowl once more for La grue, the crane, edition of four. La Guenon et son petit, the car-headed ape, sold for $6.7M in 2002 from an edition of six. The unnumbered Tete de Fernande sold for $5M in 2001. La Grue sold for $17.1M in intense bidding.
Lot 15, Lyonel Feininger, Umpferstet (est. $1.5M-$2M). Feininger doesn’t spring to mind as a Gen X Cubist in the way that Jean Metzinger does. His more accessible early works have brought prices up to $28M. A 1919 Cubist work sold in 2006 for $2.3M. No other comparable works have appeared in the past few years. Umpferstet, which renders the cityscape as a mountain peak, sold for $1.7M, also in intense bidding.
Lot 16, Fernand Léger, Etude pour ‘la femme en bleu’, 1912-1913 (est. $35M-$45M). Sotheby’s did not funk it like Christie’s last night and put its money where its mouth was, in the estimate. Could you possibly buy a better Leger? No. And Sotheby’s knows it? Possibly. They guaranteed it. Other Legers: La femme en rouge et vert (1914), $22.4M in 2003; Le moteur (1918), $16M in 2001; Contrastes de formes (1913), $14.7M in 1989 (!); or Les usines (1918), $14.3M, in May 2007.
Possibly buy a better Cubist work by Picasso, same period? The watershed Cubist Picasso, Souvenir du Havre (1912), sold in 1987 for $7.6M; from the Whitney collection, Le journal (1912), sold for $6.8M in 1999, still not in the same league; but the Sally and Victor Ganz Picasso, Femme assise dan un fauteuil of Eva Gouel (1913), which sold in 1997 for $24.7M, today would surpass $75M. That’s it for the last 30 years. Mr. Meyer jumped to the express track, taking bids in $500,000 increments. The Léger, Etude pour ‘la femme en bleu’, sold for $35M.
Lot 17, Julio González, Tête dite Le Tunnel (est. $500,000-$700,000). Gonzalez started working for Picasso around 1928 when Picasso began to reformulate the notion of sculpture by welding lines together. Within a few years Gonzalez went off on his own. Most of his work was done in welded iron and subsequently editioned in bronze. Le tunnel, bronze, though quite abstract is still accessibly anthropomorphic. Tete de femme II sold for $3.2M in 1999. The estimate was plausible, but Le Tunnel passed.
Lot 20, Giacometti, Femme de Venise VIII (est. $8M-$12M). You have to go the Foundation Maeght where the femmes are stacked together on a limestone plinth to tell one from the other. Femme de Venise I sold for $8M last May. Femme de Venise VII sold in two different casts for $3.5M and $4M in 2004 and 2003, respectively. Tonight, Femmes de Venise VIII sold for $9M.
Lot 25, Edvard Munch, Girls on a Bridge (est. $24M-$28M). The most famous Norwegian painter ever; joined the bohemians in Christiana in 1884; they had "advanced ideas on sexual morality"; his father was "dementedly pious." "Illness, madness and death were the black angels that kept watch over my cradle." He argued that his mental instability was part of his genius. A Norwegian van Gogh. With very few Munchs auctioned, with the theft of the celebrated Scream and Madonna, now returned, Munch has been anointed. This picture sold in 1996 for $7.7M. More recently in 2006, the wacko Summer Day, think zombies on the beach -- sold for $11M, the previous record. Girls on a Bridge, nice enough, sold for $27.5M on the express track.
Lot 27, Eugène Boudin, Scène de plage à Trouville (est. $1.8M-$2.4M). Inasmuch as Boudin ran a stationery cum frame shop in Le Havre, he was considered trade and his prices languished. He was always fabulous, just undervalued. He mostly painted people walking on the beach in suits and long dresses. Excess has contemporary appeal. This picture sold in February 2006 for $1.6M and again in June 2007 for $1.9M. Add on the cost of Sotheby’s, and these people were still losing some money. Until tonight, when they lost all. Passed.
Lot 28, Paul Cézanne, Environs de Gardanne (est. $6M-$8M). This simple painting of a farmhouse in a valley appeared at auction at Phillips in May 2000 and sold for $5M. One was never really certain how those early Phillips auctions were arranged. Le montagne Sainte-Victoire, same period, sold for $38.5M, also at Phillips, this time from the Berggruen sale in 2001. No relation. The dreary Environ de Gardannei sold for $9.3M to one of two phone bidders.
Lot 29, Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida, Las tres velas (the three sails) (est. $3M-$4M). Who? "His pleasant and undemanding style was marked by brilliant, high keyed color and vigorous brushwork, representing a kind of conservative (Spanish) Impressionism." It sold in 2004 for $4M and again tonight for the same amount.
Lot 30, Alfred Sisley, Le pont de Moret à matin d’avril (est. $3M-$5M). The picture is bright, and clear. It must have been an exceptional morning. Le loing à Moret, en été sold for $5.7M in February 2007, the record. Moret-sur-loing sold for $4.7M in February 2008. Le pont de Moret, matin d’avril sold tonight for $3.2M.
Lot 33, Paul Signac, Venise, la douane de mer (est. $4M-$6M). Signac’s values have risen, including chromatically. This high-colored picture is a bit of Saddam Hussein meets Martha Stewart. It sold for $737,000 in 1999. Barely pretty enough. Sold for $4M las night.
Lot 35, Picasso, Le baiser (est. $10M-$15M). Raymond and Patsy Nasher’s legendary discernment not withstanding this late (1969) gray "Kiss" is not a great picture; also it’s disgusting. It has that undersea, tentacular sensation of a highly camouflaged, ithyphallic tropical fish fertilizing an eyed coral head. Had he lived, it might have prompted Spengler’s comment, "What is that smell? Ah, it is the end of culture." It is large, well scaled, and Picasso. Sold for $15.5M.
Lot 37, Picasso, L’atelier (est. $6M-$8M). A better Picasso of the artist and his model, ex-collection David Douglas Duncan, which is to say, not horrible, but only just. Part of the Nasher legacy they preferred to sell. Sold for $5.75M, in $500,000 increments.
Lot 38, Giacometti, Buste de Diego (est. $4M-$6M). Another cast of this same bust, which is one of six, sold at Christie’s New York last November for $4M. Brilliant and aquiver with touch. Sold tonight in a mono bid for $3M.
Lot 39, Georges Valmier, Nu à la fleur (est. $500,000-$700,000). Valmier was so distanced from the epicenter of Cubism that had he been vilified with the marginalizing epithet of salon cubiste, it would have been a boon. Nor is he even a footnote in Richardson’s bio of Picasso. The most costly Valmier sold for $286,000 in the unlettered exuberance of late ‘80s-early ‘90s. They put this in an evening sale. Sold for $550,000.
Lot 40, Léger, La Partie de Campagne (est. $12M-$18M). Alas, one preferred not to be invited to this party. The more attractive women started leaving Sotheby’s about now. Valmier had de facto ended the sale, though 13 lots had yet to auction. Though Sotheby’s had guaranteed this party would be fun, it was passed at a bid of $10.5M.
Lot 43, Kees van Dongen, Nu assis (est. $2.5M-$3.5M), and Lot 52, van Dongen, Portrait de femme (est. $700,000-$1M). The first sold for $350,000 in 1995 and passed tonight. The second sold for $725,000 tonight. There was no telling which was worse. Van Dongen appears to have spent his career painting pin-ups. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not. No rationale. Like this sale.
Bad art brought low prices. Same as it did at Christie’s, but with more punishing effect minus Christie’s auctioneer Christopher Burge’s mitigating charm. People were happy when they left, perhaps only to escape the pall Sotheby’s sale had cast on the evening. Ten unpleasant lots had passed but that ought to be grounds for smugness rather than concern.
Contemporary sales loom next week, which may be grounds for cultural disenfranchisement, depending upon which side of the Jeff Koons question you fall. However, it does not appear as if economic catastrophe looms ahead. See you next Tuesday.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.