By Carter B. Horsley
Christie's first major
sale of the Fall 1999 auction series has a few blockblusters but
many fine and interesting works.
One of the blockbusters of
the auction is Lot 112, "Le Pont de Trinquetaille,"
a 25 1/2 by 31 3/4 inch oil on canvas painted in 1888 by Vincent
Van Gogh (1853-1890), shown above. The work was acquired by Akram
Ojjeh, a Syrian-born financier who died in 1990, at Sotheby's
in October, 1980 for $1,500,000 and now has an estimate of about
This is a very strong composition
with a very strange palette that may prevent it from soaring too
high in the "estimate on request" range. But connoisseurs
will appreciate the artist's letter about the painting to his
brother, quoted in the catalogue, in which he wrote that "I
have a view of the Rhône - the iron bridge at Trinquetaille
- in which the sky and river are the color of absinthe; the quays
a shade of lilac, the figures leaning on their elbows on the parapet
blackish, the iron bridge an intense blue, with a note of vivid
orange in the blue background, and a note of intense malachite
green. Another very crude effort, and yet I am trying to get at
something utterly heartbroken and therfore utterly heartbreaking."
Crude, hardly as it is alive
with the artist's fabled brushwork. The figure of the girl with
her head down walking forward by herself absorbed in perhaps sad
thoughts is heartbreaking but the strength of the composition
resonates with dynamism. The most puzzling aspect of the painting
is the lower left corner where the planks are painted a different
color, almost a dark blood in contrast with the dusty gray of
the other planks and the transition is quite abrupt.
The estimate was lowered
to about $17-18 million prior to the auction at which it sold
for only $15,402,500, including the buyer's premium as do all
sales prices in this article, to an "anonymous" buyer.
After the sale, Christopher Burge remarked candidly that it was
"a fair price," as it was "a tough collector's
picture and obviously not a wildly commercial picture."
Remarkably, another view of
the bridge by Van Gogh, reproduced in the catalogue and sold at
Sotheby's in London June 29, 1997, is altogether different, a
vibrant geometric study in blues.
The star of the auction and
the cover illustration of its catalogue is Lot 127, "Nymphéas,"
a fine waterlily painting, a 35 1/4 by 36 1/2 inch oil on canvas,
executed in 1906 by Claude Monet (1840-1926), shown above. One
of the early paintings in this famous series based on reflections
of the sky in a large pond he created at his home in Giverny,
France, this is very lush with rich colors and very good brushwork.
It has an "estimate on request" of about $15,000,000
and should fetch a very high price. The estimate actually was
moved up to about $17-18 million before the auction and it fetched
$22,552,500 from a "European trade" buyer.
A more thrilling though sketchier
Monet is Lot 115, "Coucher de soleil à Lavacourt,"
a 21 1/4 by 31 7/8 inch oil on canvas executed in 1880. The catalogue
notes that this recalls the artist's "celebrated Impression,
soleil levant...of 1873 from which the Impressionist movement
took its name," adding that "It is painted in the same
broad, sketchy manner and depicts the same subject: the sun reflecting
on the cool water." The 1873 painting, which is in the collection
of the Musée Marmottan in Paris, is a bit more intense
in its palette, but this work has even greater freedom of brushwork.
While nouveau collectors may want calm, pretty pictures, connoisseurs
will marvel at the boldness of this work, which has a very conservative
estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,500,000. It sold to an "anonymous
buyer" for only $1,872,500.
A bolder Monet painting in
palette is Lot 145, "Iris jaunes au nuage rose," a 39
3/4 inch square oil on canvas that the artist executed in 1918.
It is very dramatic and reminiscent of Emil Nolde's floral watercolors
although blown up hugely in scale. It is estimated at only $700,000
to $900,000. It sold for $1,080,500.
A more conventional and prosaic
Monet is Lot 149, "Près Dieppe, reflets sur la mer,"
a 25 1/2-by-36 1/4-oil on canvas from 1897. It has interesting
textures and is a good composition, but its overcast sky makes
it a bit lackluster as reflected properly in its $500,000 to $700,000
estimate. It sold for $717,500.
The auction contains several early
works by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) that were once in the
collection of Auguste Pellerin (1852-1929), one of the most important
early patrons of Impressionist and Post-Impressionists artists.
The nicest is an 11 3/8-by-5 1/8-inch oil of canvas, entitled
"Baigneuse debout, s'essuyant les cheveux." This small
female nude, which was possibly painted as early as 1869, is quite
lovely and presages much of his later famous brushwork and it
is estimated a bit conservatively at $700,000 to $900,000. It
sold for only $662,500.
While most of the Cézanne
lots are small, Lot 135, "Le festin (l'orgie) or Le banquet
de Nebuchadnezzar," is not. This 51 1/4-by-31 7/8-inch oil
on canvas was painted circa 1870 and is perhaps the finest of
the artist's early works before he developed his distinctive style.
Its intense colors and dynamic composition as well as its size
explain its rather high estimate of $7,000,000 to $10,000,000.
It was one of only four lots in the sale that was "bought
in" and it passed at $5,200,000.
Another fine work from the
same collection is Lot 136, "Polichinelle," an 1873
oil on canvas, 19 3/4 by 12 5/8 inches, by Edouard Manet (1832-1883).
This exceeding vibrant and colorful work is one of the artist's
series of depictions of actors and is appropriately estimated
at $2,500,000 to $3,500,000. It sold for $2,972,500.
No Impressionist sale would
be complete, of course, without some works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
(1841-1919) and this sale has several of high quality. Lot 142,
"Femme nue couchée," a 12 5/8-by-16 1/4-inch
oil on canvas, executed circa 1892, is very fine and combines
his porcelain colors and fine flesh tones in a lovely composition
of a reclining nude woman reminiscent of Ingres' famous odalisques.
It is conservatively estimated at $700,000 to $900,000, a reflection
possibly of a glut of mediocre Renoirs on the market over the
past few decades. It sold for $662,500.
A less attractive Renoir nude
but one with very impressive provenance is Lot 124, which is estimated
at $3,000,000 to $4,000,000. It was formerly in the collection
of Chester Dale and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It sold
for $2,862,500 to a private American collector.
Lot 147, "Gabrielle reprisant,"
is a larger oil of a clothed woman sewing painted in 1908. While
many of Renoir's simple studies of women are a bit too careless,
this one has a very nice quality and a charming face and is appropriately
estimated at $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It sold for $2,092,500.
While most collectors concentrate
on his paintings of women, Renoir's landscapes are generally of
a very high quality. Lots 128 and 151, for example, are excellent
with conservative estimates, respectfully of $900,000 to $1,200,000
and $600,000 to $800,000. Lot 128 sold for $717,500 and Lot
151 sold for $750,500.
Other highlights from the Ojjeh
Collection in the auction include a large early Picasso, two major
works by Kees Van Dongen, some pleasant Corots, a fine Henri Fantin-Latour
and an excellent Henri-Edmond Cross.
Lot 119, a 1901 painting of
a mother and child with flowers, 20 7/8 by 26 3/4 inches, by Pablo
Picasso (1881-1973), is lusciously colored and very nice and will
probably exceed its high estimate of $3,000,000. It sold for
Lot 120 is a very dramatic
painting by Kees Van Dongen (1877-1965) of Mistinguette and Max
Dearly dancing that is estimated at only $400,000 to $600,000.
It sold for $904,500. When the painting was put on the turntable,
it was placed at a wrong 90 degree angle, which led to the evening's
most amusing episode. Mr. Burge did a double-take, pointed out
that the correct view was the slide shown on the large screen
in the room, and then added that that he was showing the "Before"
and "After" versions, showing it from different angles,
and then after reading a note about the lot being one of two versions
done by the artists, corrected himself and said "one of three
versions," each comment eliciting great laughter. Lot
122, the other Van Dongen, is a great Art Deco-style depiction
of "Montparnasse Blues," that is appropriately estimated
at $500,000 to $800,000. It sold for $1,322,500.
Lot 101 is a small but poetic
oil by Jean-Baptiste Corot (1796-1875) that is conservatively
estimated at $150,000 to $200,000. It sold for $563,500, a
rousing start to this important sale.
Lot 103 is a nice, large still
life by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) that is appropriately
estimated at $500,000 to $700,000. It sold for $992,500.
Lot 114 is an excellent Pointilist
work of bathers by Henri-Edmond Cross (1856-1910) that is conservatively
estimated at $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $277,500.
Also from the Ojjeh Collection
is an amusing painting of a bare-bottomed woman on a staircase
by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Lot 117, that is estimated
at $350,000 to $500,000. It sold for $442,500.
Another highlight from the
other works in the sale is Lot 153, a very strong and brightly
colored landscape by Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958), which is
a bit conservatively estimated at $600,000 to $800,000. It
sold for $772,500.
Among the better works is a
lovely small urban scene by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), Lot
111, "Place Saint-Lazare," shown above, a 15-by-18 1/8-inch
oil on canvas that was painted in Paris in 1893. It is one of
several works in the auction from the Akram Ojjeh Collection.
Pissarro's best work are his
Parisian scenes that he often painted late in his career from
hotel rooms such as the fourth floor at the Hôtel du Louvre
overlooking the Avenue de l'Opéra and the Place du Theâtre
Français, a medium-size room that cost $20 a night in 1964
when I stayed in it. This was painted from a room in the Hôtel
Garnier directly across from Saint Lazare train station and this
was the first of the artist's series on Parisian street scenes.
The auction catalogue quotes an expert who maintained that this
was "the first serious study of traffic in the history of
art." While that is probably something of a stretch, there
is no question that Pissarro's elevated perspectives in such scenes
is wonderful and the compositions lively and interesting. In this
painting, for example, the composition is a bit asymmetrical and
he has chosen to cut off some vehicles at the edges, but the overall
effect draws the viewer into the picture almost as if he has "zoomed"
This work, details of which
are shown on the catalogue's endpapers, has a conservative estimate
of $1,400,000 to $1,800,000, probably reflecting its relatively
small size. It is a gem, however, and should sell for considerably
more despite a fairly sharp downturn in the stock markets in the
middle of October, which may impact the art market in general.
In the painting, "the warm hues and long shadows suggest
a sunny afternoon in late winter; the painting has the silver
luminosity that Pissarro sought to achieve," the catalogue
noted. It sold for $3,522,500.
Another excellent Pissarro
is Lot 105, "Les bords de l'Oise," a 22-by-36 1/4-oil
on canvas that is a fine river landscape that was painted in 1877.
It is well estimated at $1,000,000 to $1,500,000, reflecting the
overcast sky that occupies the top half of the work. It sold
for $1,047,500. Pissarro is also represented by two other
paintings, Lot 141 and Lot 146. The latter, entitled "Le
jardin de l'hôtel Berneval," a 25 7/8-by-32 1/4-inch
oil on canvas painted in 1900, is the better work with a very
strong geometric composition with a curved path in the lower left
leading to stepped cliffs in the distance in the upper right.
Its high estimate of $1 million is appropriate. It sold for
$882,500. The former, a work in a Neo-Pointillist style, is
less exciting and carries a slightly lower but rather ambitious
estimate of $700,000 to $900,000. It sold for $662,500.
A more colorful Impressionist
landscape is Lot 109, a very good work by Alfred Sisley (1839-1899).
Entitled "le pont de Sèvres," this river landscape
with a bridge is a 15-by-18 1 /8-inch oil on canvas that was also
painted in 1877. The cautious estimate of $500,000 to $700,000
reflects its relatively small size. It sold for $464,500.
Another extremely nice Sisley
landscape is Lot 144, "Les Noyers, effet de soleil couchant-premiers
jours d'octobre," an oil on canvas, 29 by 36 1/2 inches,
painted in 1882. It is estimated conservatively at $800,000 to
$1,200,000. It is a strong composition with fine color, especially
the pinks in the foreground. It was passed at $500,000.
Yet another Sisley, Lot 148,
"Le pont de Moret au soleil couchant," a 24-by-29-inch
oil on canvas painted in 1892 also shows this underappreciated
artist to great effect. "As ever, the composition is perfectly
harmonious, with the expansive sky given prominence, filling half
of the canvas and lending the work a bright, airy effect. As Sisley
wrote to his friend, the art critic Adolphe Tavernier: The sky
is not simply a background; its planes give depth (for the sky
has planes, as well as solid ground), and the shape of clouds
give movement to a picture. What is more beautiful indeed than
the summer sky, with its wispy clouds floating across the blue?
What movement and grace! Don't you agree? They are like waves
on the sea." This is a superb Impressionist painting and
should exceed its $800,000 high estimate. It sold for only
The two major surprises
of the auction were Lots 108, a large still life of flowers by
Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) that sold for $4,842,500, way
over its high estimate of $3 million, and Lot 133, a statue of
Eve by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), which sold for the same amount
as the Renoir, well over its high estimate of $4 million. The
Rodin price was an auction record for the artist.
Burge described the auction
as "triumphant," noted that 93 percent of the lots sold
for a total $88,235,500 against a pre-sale estimate of $79.9 to
105 million. By lots, 54 percent of the lots sold to Americans,
38 percent to Europeans, 4 percent to Asians and 4 percent to
"others," although Burgee pointed out that by money,
26 percent sold to "others."
Not only was the percentage
of lots sold excellent, but so was the number of lots that were
over their high estimates, 23, while only 10 went below their
low estimates and the other 15 were within the estimates, Burge
Burge described the art
market as "deep, still controlled" and "orderly,
goes on famously." "Attractive works sell well, but
not for crazy prices."
He was particularly pleased
at the lively bidding both in the room and on the phones. Almost
40 Christie's staffers were on phone duty and in a change from
the Spring Season Mr. Burge's podium was moved across the room
closer to the phones rather than the entrance. He explained that
it made it easier for him to see the action on the phones and
also not be distracted by the comings and goings at the entrance.
He said that Christie's
had no "guarantees" to sellers in this auction.
As the first "important"
auction of the Fall 1999 season, the auction was a bit disappointing
given the robust national economy. While it was a successful auction,
there were no new painting records set and the Van Gogh price
was quite small given its size. The Monet waterlilies was a pleasing
work that got a pleasing price even though it was not as interesting
as the much cheaper sunset painting. The Renoir nudes were really
very pleasant and should have garnered higher prices, especially
since the large still life, which was very well done but not a
magnificent painting, did so well. The market continues to be
inconsistent, erratic and unpredictable with good work sometimes
still available at relatively "bargain" prices and huge
prices for work that is formulaic. The Pissarro street scene indicated
that quality will make prices soar, but the quality of the Sisleys
was not reflected in their prices.
Such market conditions,
of course, are very healthy for it means that "discerning"
collectors can possibly still acquire "finds" at less
than wildly inflated prices.