By Carter B. Horsley
Although this is the first major auction of
the Fall 2000 season in New York, it is unlikely to be too accurate
a bell-weather as Phillips has scaled back its offerings in the
Impressionist and Modern Art category, offering only 29 lots at
the Part 1 evening sale, a reflection perhaps of its relatively
poor showing in the spring when it launched its major campaign
to join the ranks of Sothebys and Christies.
While its Impressionist and Modern Art auction
last spring was less than a major success, it had many fine paintings
and its subsequent major Contemporary Art and American Art auctions
were very successful and Phillipss executives indicated
that the auction house was determined to become a major player
in the top-tier art auction business.
On the day of this auction, Phillips announced
that it has signed a lease for a new "flagship" building,
the 12-story, 60,000-square-foot, limestone-clad commercial building
at 3 West 57th Street. The building, which for many years housed
the Greenwich Savings Bank in its retail space, is wedged between
two of New York's major landmarks, Bergdorf Goodman and the sleek,
sloping skyscraper at 9 West 57th Street. The building was designed
by Adolph Lanchen Muller and was erected in 1947 and has a pink
granite, glass and metal entrancement and a double-height, column-free
ground floor. Christopher Thomson, CEO of Phillips Auctioneers,
said that "this wonderful building, ideally situated in the
heart of Manhattan, will enable Phillips to expand its position
as one of the world's leading auctioneers." The space will
have a main salesroom that will have capacity for about 500 people.
The new location will be the best of the three competing auction
houses. Christie's recently moved into very attractive large quarters
at 20 Rockefeller Plaza on 48th Street from its prior location
on Park Avenue and 59th Street. Christie's is convenient and in
the spectacular Rockefeller Center environment, but the area is
full of tourists and it is not easy to get a cab. Sotheby's, which
used to be on Madison Avenue and 76th Street, is at York Avenue
and 72nd Street in a building that has been being expanded for
a couple of years. Its location, however, is extremely inconvenient
and distant from midtown. At a press conference that followed
this auction, Mr. Thomson said that the "new premises"
precisely demonstrate that Phillips is committed to establishing
"substantial new roots" for its high-end auction enterprises.
Lord Powell of Bayswater, KCMG, the chairman of the board of directors
of Phillips Auctioneers, said that it is "advancing very
rapidly in the last year, the last eight months have been very
Phillips's timing, of course, was excellent
as both Sothebys and Christies continue to be embroiled
in investigations and have agreed to pay very high penalties for
alleged collusion on fee-fixing. Surprisingly, however, the legal
troubles of Sothebys and Christies, which started
early in this year and continued over the summer and are still
not settled, have not led to a rush of major consignments to Phillips
as both Sothebys and Christies have hefty fall catalogues.
While the stock markets slid in roller-coaster
fashion quite a bit over the summer, they recovered somewhat and
have not collapsed. At the same time, the Presidential election
is not expected to have a significant impact on the art market.
So, all things considered, it is a bit surprising that the "high"
or "strong" economy/market has not triggered more collectors
to "cash" in and sell some of their masterpieces. On
the basis of the catalogues, Christies seems to have garnered
more of the best Impressionist and Modern Art paintings this season,
but Phillipss sale cannot be ignored by the market as it
has some very good works, most notably an excellent landscape
by Paul Cézanne, an excellent still life by Henri Matisse,
a great Giorgio de Chirico, a good landscape and an excellent
still-life by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, a great interior by Edouard
Vuillard, and a very nice nude by Pierre Bonnard.
Interestingly, the second part of this sale,
which occurs during the day, November 7, 2000, has a very fine
collection of Russian Constructivist paintings, just as the Part
II sale at Phillips did last spring (see The
City Review article).
The cover illustration of the Phillipss
catalogue is Lot 13, "La Côte du Galet, à Pointoise,"
a 23 1/8-by-29 ¾-inch oil on canvas by Paul Cézanne
(1839-1906), painted circa 1879-1881. This is a fine example of
the artists strong brushwork and it is an interesting and
dense composition with a very high horizon line.
The catalogue provides the following superb
commentary on this Cézanne painting:
"The seeming conventionality of this scene
is ultimately undermined by the various, ground-breaking, formal
experiments that has made Cézanne such a celebrated prophet
of modernism. One soon notices, for example, that the slender
poplar trees nearly traverse the canvas as they stretch from its
base to the top edge. These prominent vertical elements are balanced
against a steady horizon and other strong horizontals, including
the lengthy, shadowy base of the foreground shrubbery. Intersecting
one another at right angles, these linear elements effectively
impose a grid-like structure over the entire canvas, and thereby
emphasize its two-dimensional surface. La Côte du Galet,
à Pointoise also showcases numerous other ways in which
Cézanne exploited this tension between the depth of the
visible world and the undeniable flatness of his canvases. In
typical Cézanne fashion, similar tonalities of color have
been used to describe forms in both the immediate foreground and
along the distant horizon. The sandy patch of tan pigment at the
bottom-right edge is reiterated in both the plowed fields and
building facades that rest on the far hillside. Similarly, the
exact same steely blue that cloaks the foreground path in shadow
is hued to color the stream that glides through the middle-ground.
By restricting his palette in this manner, describing both near
and far with the same vigorous hues, Cézanne consistently
denied atmospheric perspective and coerced his expansive landscape
into an uneasy marriage with the picture plane. Another remarkable
feature of the present work is tits insistent use of passage.
This term is regularly used to describe Cézannes
pictorial fusion of forms that exist independently in the real
world. One notices, for example, how the tips of the poplar trees
poke through the high horizon line. At this point they sacrifice
their integrity to mingle with the small buildings and trees that
appear there. Once again, this subtle blurring of near and far
elements manages to collapse foreground and background into a
single, unified pictorial surface. The present work also demonstrates
Cézannes use of a constructive brushstroke, perhaps
his most significant contribution to the history of art, and certainly
crucial to later, twentieth-century developments in abstract painting
described both solids and voids with discrete, hatch-like marks
that normally ran parallel to one another. Consequently, all of
his pictorial elements became woven into a unified plane. The
present landscape is a remarkable demonstration of this technique."
While this is not a truly stunning Cézanne
landscape, its estimate of $8,000,000 to $10,000,000 is rather
conservative as it is a strong and interesting work. It sold
for $8,527,500 including the buyer's premium as do all sales prices
mentioned in this article.
A far more appealing work for many collectors
will be the still life, "Les Glaieuls," a 60 5/8-by-40
1/8-inch oil on canvas by Henri Matisse (1869-1954), Lot 21, that
is the illustration of the catalogues back cover and is
illustrated at the top of this article. The painting was executed
in Nice, France, in 1928 and was formerly in the collection of
Walter P. Chrysler Jr. It has a very conservative estimate of
$5,000,000 to $7,000,000. It sold for $4,952,500. The work
depicts gladiolas in a jug on a Renaissance-style table in a corner
of a room with trompe-loeil marblelized walls and the catalogue
notes that the composition dissolves "the last vestiges of
illusionistic space into a decorative display of riotous color
A fine companion piece to the Matisse would
be Lot 4, "Nature Morte, Fleurs et Fruits," a 25 7/8-by-21
¼-inch oil on canvas by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919).
This is a very vibrant and luscious still life of Renoir and was
formerly in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Goetz of Beverly
Hills. It has a conservative estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000.
It sold for $1,432,500.
Another Matisse work in the auction is Lot
12, an oil on canvas, 29 by 21 1/2 inches, of a standing woman
in white in frontof amirror. The work is very sketchy and its
palette quite bland for this master of color and pattern and it
has an ambitious estimate, despiteits size, of $1,200,000 to $1,800,000.
It did not sell.
Renoir is also represented by several other
nice paintings in this auction including Lot 9, "Femmes Dans
Un Jardin," a 21 ½-by-25 ¾-inch oil on canvas,
painted in 1873. This work was once in the collection of Thelma
Chrysler Foy of New York and is a quite interestingly dense composition
with considerable Impresssionist bravura and technique. It has
a fairly ambitious estimate of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000 as it
is not the typically bright Impressionist work but a very good
study of dark and light contrasts. It sold for $6,712,500.
Lot 15, "Les Philosophes Grecs,"
a 44 ½-by- 33 3/8-inch oil on canvas, shown below, painted
in 1925 by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), is a luscious and very
fine example of his Surrealism.
The catalogue provides the following interesting
"As can be seen in the present work, the
motif of the mannequin was a crucial component of de Chiricos
metaphysical visions. Insofar as these figures assumed the conventional
anatomy of human beings, they helped secure the terrestial roots
of de Chiricos paintings. But their blank ovoid heads, stitched
with the black markings of tailors dummies, rendered these
figures otherwordly. It has been suggested that de Chiricos
brother, Alberto Salvinio, provided inspiration for the mannequin
motif in his poem Les chants de la mi-mort. Published by
Apollinaire in 1914, part of this early surrealist poem describes
a voiceless, eyeless, faceless man. Indeed, de Chiricos
mannequins are consistently deprived of facial features, and thus
the conventional means of expressing human emotions."
The catalogue also notes that the figure on
the left "recalls the marble figures from the Parthenon frieze"
and the smaller figure on the right "echoes Jacques-Louis
Davids neoclassical masterpiece, The Death of Socrates.
"By recuperating artistic traditions from antiquity, de Chirico
also drew upon their associations with stability and order, and
thus responded to the chaos of the preceding decade.
these are deaf, dumb and blind beings who are ultimately incapable
of communication. Thus a tragic sense of alienation even crept
into de Chiricos visions of a resurrected golden age,"
the catalogue continued.
The lot has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000
and is certainly one of the most beautiful and lyrical of his
works and not as stilted and unpainterly as some of his earlier
and more famous works. It sold for $1,102,500.
Perhaps the auctions best picture is
Lot 7, shown above, "Madame Hessel à LEcharpe,"
a 31 ¾-by-27 1/8-inch penitre à la colle on board,
painted in 1911 by Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940). An elderly woman
looks at the viewer with her hands raised and clasped in front
of her face in a poise of focused attention and interest. Behind
her, the walls of the room are covered with paintings and the
table on which she rests her arms is filled with a variety of
objects including a silver tray and coffee pot. The perspective
distorts the size of the table which takes up nearly the bottom
third of the composition and has the effect of bringing the viewer
into closer proximity with the woman, adding a great deal of spatial
depth to the composition, which is painted in Vuillards
imitable painterly style and warm palette. This is a major Vuillard
and has a very conservative estimate of $300,000 to $500,000.
This lot failed to sell.
A pleasant floral still life, Lot 1, by Odile
Redon (1840-1915) that was formerly in the collection of Mr. and
Mrs. Joseph Verner Reed of New York sold has an estimate of $800,000
to $1,200,000, which is slightly ambitious because it was not
a classic jewelly Redon. It sold for $827,000.
A pleasant painting of a woman in a hat, Lot
2, by Renoir has a very sweet quality to it although it was essentially
a minor sketch. It was formerly owned by Hal B. Wallis of Los
Angeles and has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It
sold for $1,322,500. Another pleasant and good painting of
a woman in a hat, Lot 6, has an ambitious estimate of $2,000,000
to $3,000,000. It sold for $1,652,500.
A rather dramatic but not terribly luminous
village scene, Lot 3, by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) has an estimate
of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It was formerly owned by Jaime Ortiz
Patino of Vanoeuvres, Switzerland. It sold for $2,532,500.
A very sketchy and not terribly attractive,
but large painting of a watering pot on the ground by Edouard
Manet (1832-1883) has a very ambitious estimate of $2,000,000
to $3,000,000. The oil on canvasis 38 by 23 7/8 inches. It
failed to sell.
Lot 8, "Nude by a Radiator," is a
very fine oil on canvas, 22 5/8 inches square, by Pierre Bonnard
(1867-1947) that has an estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It
sold for $794,500.
Lot 17 is a very strong Picasso still life
that has a conservative estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It
sold for $882,500.
The sale's total of $32,633,000 was below
the pre-auction low estimate of $39,500,000. The pre-auction high
estimate was $54,150,000. While only 55 percent of the lots sold,
those that did were the better pictures unlike last Spring when
many of the finest works passed. Although the percentage of lots
that did not sell was high, the mood of many of the auction-goers
was that it was not a bad sale and that the market appeared to
be holding up.
The auctioneer for this sale was Simon de
Pury, the co-founer of de Pury & Luxembourg Art, former chairman
of Sotheby's Europe, and an active dealer in the art market. Mr.
de Pury has also agreed to be the auctioneer for Phillips Contemporary
Art Auction Nov. 13. In a press release, Phillips issued the following
"Consignors and bidders should please
note that neither Simon de Pury nor his business partner Daniella
Luxembourg nor the staff of de Pury & Luxembourg will be bidding
on behalf of themselves, their firm or their clients at either
of the above-mentioned sales. Other entities with whom Simon de
Pury may have a business association will not be precluded from
bidding at the sales but will be doing so on an arms length basis,
on the same terms as any other bidder at the sale. As Simon de
Pury will be acting in the limited role of auctioneer for these
two sales, he will not have access to non-public information in
relation to the consignors, the lots or otherwise, except to the
extent necessary for the proper conduct of the actual auction."
Phillips has gotten some controversial publicity
over its policy offering some of its sellers guarantees, a practice
also engaged in occasionally by the other major houses. At the
back of this auction's catalogue, Phillips said that it had "a
financial interest, which may be an advance, a price guarantee
and/or an ownership interest in the following lots: 5, 10, 12,
15, 16, 17, 19, 22, 24." That is 9 out of 29 offered lots.
With good prices for its good lots, the
announcement of a great location for its new premises, and the
agreement of Simon de Pury to act as auctioneer at its two most
important auctions this season, Philips certainly was not resting
on its publicity laurels of the spring and seems determined to
make the art auction scene more exciting and lively.