By Carter B. Horsley
With only 39 lots, this evening
auction of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby's was considerably
smaller than the comparable auctions at Christie's (see The City Review article) and Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg
(see The City Review
article) held earlier
in the week, both of which were considerable successes.
Although Sotheby's had lost
out on the major consignments of the season - the Smooke Collection
that went to Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg and the Gaffé
Collection that went to Christie's - it did have numerous gems
including a very rare version of Marcel Duchamp's "Nude Descending
A Staircase," arguably the most important painting of the
Twentieth Century, a superb Fauve landscape by Georges Braque,
a very striking floral still life by Henri Matisse, a fine and
classic Claude Pissarro Parisian scene, a sensitive work by Edvard
Munch and several fine works by Alexander Archipenko.
The auction, however, was not
a success with more than a third of the 38 offered lots not selling.
A good portrait by Amedeo Modigliani was withdrawn before the
sale allegedly because of concerns by the consignor that the market
was declining because of the erosion this year of the economy
and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The sale total
of $33,110,750 was considerably lower than the pre-sale estimate
of about $38 million.
William Ruprecht, the president
of Sotheby's, remarked at a news conference after the sale, however,
that while it was "clearly the smallest of the sales"
Sotheby's was "quite comfortable" with it and that he
believed it was "the most profitable of the sales,"
a pointed reference to the large guarantees allegedly offered
by the other major auction houses to garner the big collections
this season. David C. Norman, co-chairman of the Impressionist
and Modern Art Department at Sotheby's, said that the Sotheby's
sale had only one work that had been "guaranteed." Charles
S. Moffett, the other co-chairman of the department, said that
the auction reflected "a very selective, connoisseur's market"
in which buyers are "looking very carefully, targeting, very
The euphoria generated by the
high prices attained by many of the works in the Smooke and Gaffé
collections at the earlier auctions this week began to dissipate
in the second part of the Christie's sale and this auction's generally
poor results indicated that the art market may not be weathering
the economic turbulence so well after all, which is not surprising.
While pundits emphasized that top quality works were still in
great demand, this auction challenged that notion quite a bit
and indicated that there are many vagaries in the market.
Lot 16, the "Nu Descendant
Un Escalier," shown at the top of this article, for example,
did not sell and was "passed" at $280,000. It had been
conservatively estimated at $400,000 to $600,000 and Mr. Moffett
declared after the auction that it was "the mystery of the
Duchamp (1887-1968) painted his great Cubist
masterpiece in 1912 and it became the sensation of the Armory
Show in New York the next year and was quickly acquired by Frederic
C. Torrey of San Francisco for $324. Another major collector of
avant-garde art, Walter Arensberg, was so disappointed that he
had not obtained it that he commissioned the artist to create
a replica in 1916. Duchamp, according to the catalogue, enlarged
a photograph of the painting and worked overit in watercolor,
ink, pastel and pencil and this is a study for the larger photographic
version acquired by Arensberg, who eventually also purchased the
original and "both full-scale versions are now in the Philadelphia
Museum of Art." "Duchamp kept the present work for himself,
and it remained in his collection" until he died.
This work is pencil, white gouache and ball-point
pen over photograph, 13 5/8 by 8 1/8 inches.
The catalogue provided the following quotation
by Duchamp about this composition:
"This final version of the Nude Descending
a Staircase, painted in 1912, was the convergence in my mind of
various interests, among which the cinema, sitll in its infancy,
and the separation of static positions in the photochronography
of Marey in France, Eakins and Muybridge in America....Painted,
as it is, in severe wood colors, the anatomical nude does not
exist, or at least cannot be seen, since I discarded completely
the naturalistic appearance of a nude, keeping only the abstract
lines of some twenty different static positions in the successive
action of descending."
"The idea of creating original works of
art from reproductions," the catalogue noted, "points
ahead to the complex play of original and reproduction that would
become the centerpiece of Duchamp's practice after he renounced
easel painting in 1918. In 1938, Duchamp said in an interview
that the Nude was not in fact a painting at all, but 'an organization
of kinetic elements, an expressio of time and space through the
abstract expression of motion.'"
It is astounding that this very important and
wonderful work of art did not fetch seven figures!
Lot 12, "La Calanque de Figuerolles, La
Ciotat," shown above, by Georges Braque (1882-1963), is a
great Fauvist landscape that was executed in 1907. The oil on
canvas measures 23 3/4 by 28 5/8 inches. It had an estimate of
$2,800,000 to $3,500,000 and sold for $2,755,750 including the
buyer's premium as do as prices mentioned in this article.
Lot 11, "La Rue Saint-Lazare," by
Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), shown above, is a 28 3/4-by-23 5/8-inch
oil and canvas that is painted in 1893. It is a very fine example
of the Parisian scenes for which the artist was famous. The catalogue
provides the following commentary on this lot:
"During the last decade of the 19th Century,
Pissarro painted more city spaces than any other Impressionist,
and as such made the most sustained contribution to urban view
painting by any great artist since the death of Canaletto in 1768....In
its complexity and richness, Rue Saint-Lazare leads us
to rethink traditional art-historical categories. It is neither
an Impressionist nor a Neo-Impressionist (i.e., Pointillist) painting.
It articulates a new artistic language that points unequivocally
toward the twentieth century. In its technique and its ideas,
it is at once a consummate Post-Impressionist painting and an
emblem of the forces driving the rise of modern art during the
complex decade of the 1890s....it embraces some of the most advanced
characteristics of both Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. However,
at the same time the Rue Saint-Lazare stands at a critical
distance from both movements and offers a fesh stylistic alternative
that combines such opposed qualities as solidity and movement;
rigor and freedom; ambiguity and clarity; and vivacious but carefully
orchestrated ranges of rich color. Moreover, the apparent chaos
of random activity in the streets of modern Paris is offset by
the surrounding architecture and the implied geometry of the streets
crisscrossing in the foreground."
The lot had an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000
and sold for $6,605,750, an auction record for the artist.
Works by Edvard Munch are extremely
rare at auctions and Lot 19 is a fine pastel by him that measures
10 5/8 by 14 3/4 inches and was executed between 1893 and 1896.
It had a relatively modest estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 but
failed to sell and was passed at $400,000 even though the auction
record for the artist of works on paper was $115,965. The auction
record for the artist for a painting is $7,702,500.
One of the auction's highlights
was Lot 17, "Anemones au Mirror Noir," by Henri Matisse
(1869-1954), shown above, a 26 3/4-by-21 1/4-inch oil on canvas
that was executed between 1918 and 1919. This stunning canvas
was once in the collection of The Phillips Memorial Gallery in
Washington, D.C., and had an estimate of $3,500,000 to $4,500,000.
It sold for $4,185,750. It was sold by the Reader's Digest Association,
Inc., at Sotheby's November 16, 1998 for $3.7 million to the consignor
for this auction.
The catalogue provides an interesting
quotation from Renoir who had been asked by Matisse what he thought
of his work in Nice at the period when this lot was executed:
:In all truthfulness, I don't
like what you do. I'd almost like to say that you are not a good
painter. But one thing prevents me from doing this: when you put
black on the canvas it stays in its plane. All of mylife, I thought
one couldn't use it without breaking the chromatic unity of the
surface. It is a tint that I have banished from my palette. As
for you, using a colored vocubulary you introduce black and it
holds. So, in spite of my feeling, I think that you are most surely
Renoir, of course, did on occasion
depict women in black dresses, but there is no question that the
blackness of the mirror in this painting is particularly striking
and effective as its asymmetrical composition.
Another fine, asymmetrical composition is Lot
25, "Jaune et Rouge ou La Nappe aux Carreaux Rouges,"
by Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), oil on canvas, 24 3/8 by 21 5/8
inches, shown above. Executed in 1915, it had a modest estimate
of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000 and failed to sell and was "passed"
at $1,300,000. The catalogue entry notes that the artist once
observed that he liked "to show what one sees when one enters
a room all of a sudden."
Lot 8, "Le Matin a Moret en Mai,"
by Alfred Sisley, shown above, is a classically lyrical and lovely
Impressionist work. An oil on canvas, 21 1/4 by 28 1/4 inches,
it was executed in 1886 and was once in the collection of Norman
B. Woolworth. It had an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 and sold
A large and impressive painting
by Joan Miró (1893-1983) is Lot 35, "Peinture,"
sold above, a 28 3/4-by-78-inch oil on canvas that was executed
in 1953. This nice example of his calligraphic abstraction had
an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 and sold for $467,750.
Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) is a very
important early Cubist sculptor and this auction had three sculptures
and one collage by him. Lot 14, "Dancers (Version 3),"
shown above, is a 24-inch-high bronze that was conceived in 1912
and cast posthumously. "This work bears a striking similarity
ins ubject and in form to Matisse's painting, La Danse,
painted in 1909, which Archipenko no doubt saw while living in Paris
at this time. executed with a more pronounced angularity than
Matisse's early painting and incorporating the contemprary Futurist
notion of dynamism, the present work celebrates the body in motion
and gives equal value to the space enclosed by the figures and
the figures themselves," the catalogue noted. The work had
an estimate of $400,000 to $600,000 and failed to sell and was
passed at $220,000.
Lot 15, "Composition Two Figures,"
also shown above at left, is a brush and ink, gouache, colored
pencil and collage on paper, 18 3.4 by 12 1/4 inches. Executed
in 1913, it is a very strong and vibrant work and had an estimate
of $150,000 to $200,000 and sold for $159,750.
Another Archipenko sculpture, Lot 26, "Gondolier,"
a 62 3/4-inch-high bronze, conceived in 1914 and cast in the 1950's,
had an estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 and sold for $643,750.
Lot 28, "L'Air (Premier Etat)," a
94 1/2-inch-long lead sculpture by Aristide Maillol (1861-1944)
was the sole lot offered with a guarantee to a consigner and it
failed to sell. It had an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000
and was "passed" at $1,600,000.