By Carter B. Horsley
Despite the sharp declines in the stock markets
in April, the forecast for the art market is only cloudy. With
the art market close to its all-time peaks, the uncertainty in
the financial markets is sure to throttle back escalating valuations,
but the auction houses have generally become much more discriminating
in their offerings and more conservative in their estimates so
that they are less at risk than they were in the early 90s when
the art market collapsed.
Economic conditions, of course, are not the
only concerns these days as the Federal anti-trust investigations
into the operations of Christies and Sothebys remains
very much in the news (see The City Review
article) and as they face new competition from Phillips, which
has launched a major campaign this season to enter the "big
leagues" in New York (see The City
These concerns, however, have not left the
auction houses standing still and both have spruced themselves
up with major new quarters, redesigned catalogues and websites.
This is the first "flagship" auction
that Christies will "web-cast" live. It initiated
such web-casts for a couple of "celebrity" auctions
- "A Selection of Eric Claptons Guitars" last
June and "The Personal Property of Marilyn Monroe" last
October. In addition to this auction, Christies will conduct
live web-casts of its evening auctions of 20th Century Art May
9 and Contemporary Art May 16. The auction house also posted this
month on its website (www.christies.com) a video tour of highlights
from this auction and the 20th Century Art auction hosted by Michael
Findlay, its international director of fine art. In addition,
this week it posted an "exclusive visit and interview with
celebrated contemporary artist Jeff Koons, who will discuss his
career, his five signature works that will be offered in Christies
Contemporary Art evening sale, and his highly anticipated new
Sothebys, meanwhile, has been actively
promoting its on-line fine-art auctions while its management is
adjusting to the resignations of its chairman and president in
the wake of the anti-trust investigation.
This auction is highlighted by two excellent
water lily paintings by Claude Monet (1840-1926), a very strong
Parisian window scene by Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1893), shown
at the top of this article, a very good Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
(1864-1901), a nice landscape by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), and
some pleasant works by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Pierre-Auguste
Renoir (1841-1919) and Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890) and several
good sculptures by Rodin (1840-1917).
The first Monet water lily picture in the auction,
Lot 21, "Nymphéas," is a 35-by-39 ¼-inch
oil on canvas that was painted in 1906. In the early 1890s, the
artist purchased property in Giverny, France, and created a water
lily pond that would become the main focus of his art for many
years. This work, shown above, is a very fine example of this
famous series and has been in the same private collection for
85 years. It has an estimate of $20,000,000 to $25,000,000. It
sold to an anonymous buyer for $20,906,000 (including the buyer's
premium as do all sales results in this article).
The second Monet water lily painting, shown
below, is Lot 33, "Le bassin aux nymphéas," a
40-by-79-inch oil on canvas that was painted between 1917 and
1919. It, too, is a very fine example of the series and its strong
yellows and large horizontal format make it very striking and
more interesting than the other, squarish and bluish painting.
It is estimated very conservatively at only $9,000,000 to $12,000,000
perhaps because it is a later and larger work and has changed
hands fairly often and once was owned by the Art Institute of
Chicago. It sold for only $6,826,000 to the "trade."
It is a much more exciting painting.
The catalogue notes that in 1914 Monet began
a major new large series of the water lily scenes at the suggestion
of Georges Clémenceau, his friend and the politician. "Despite
failing eyesight, the project occupied him for the rest s life
and involved the construction of two, additional studios. This
phase, by contrast with the works of the first decade of the century,
were categorized by free, sweeping brushstrokes and lush color.
Paul Tucker writes that these new paintings were characterized
by an unprecedented breadth in terms of their size, touch and
vision. Nearly all of these pictures
were twice as big as
his earlier Water Lilies. They were also more daring in their
color schemes and compositions. And they were much looser in handling
once exploratory and definitive, hesitant and assured, these paintings
thus constitute a unique group of canvases in Monets oeuvre
Le Bassin aux Nymphéas, Monets innate ability
to organize his sensations of the transience of natural phenomena
is readily apparent. The ambiguous spatial relationships of colors
and forms are critical to this passionate description of his aquatic
garden and there is a charismatic tension generated between the
solid forms of the floating flora and the intangible elements
of the forms of colored reflections dancing on the surface of
the water. Inspite [of] the predominance of green, the canvas
is exceptionally bright, its brilliant touches of blue and yellow
enlivening the reflection of the sky and overhanging tress in
the dark and brooding waters. The composition is further balanced
with small touches of intense red. There is neither beginning
nor end in this reflective surface, only the myriad of colors
used to describe the flora, the changing light, and the motionless
water. Precise as his recordings of phenomena are, it is an image
rich with allusions to an ethereal, mystical realm."
The catalogue also reproduces in color two
other Monets of the same title, subject and period, one of which
is in the Musée de Beaux-Arts de Nantes and the other in
the Walter H. Annenberg Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art
(on loan). The formers composition is more amorphous than
this lot while the latter is more detailed and greener.
Another Monet in the sale is Lot 42, "Falaise
près de Fécamp," a very bright and strong seascape.
The 24-by-31-inch oil on canvas was apinted in 1881 and has a
very conservative estimate of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. It
sold for $1,656,000.
The Caillebotte, Lot 8, is entitled "LHomme
au balcon, boulevard Haussmann" and is a 45 7/8-by-35 1/8-inch
oil on canvas that was painted in 1880. The painting, which is
shown at the top of this article, has been widely exhibited and
has extensive literature, and has an estimate of $6,000,000 to
$8,000,000 that probably reflects its prestigious exhibition history
and its very strong composition highlighted by its marvelous red-and-white-striped
awning and decorative balcony. It sold $14,306,000, a world
auction record for the artist, to an anonymous buyer.
It is, without question, one of the great urban
paintings. The viewer is propelled into the paintings center with
a sense of security, curiosity, awe, wonder, comfort and reverie.
It is a bright spring day and the trees are at their most refreshingly
green and the grandeur of Haussmanns uniform townhouse architecture
is exceeding grand as it continues into the distance. Unlike some
of Pissarros or Monets urban vistas that usually extend
fully down a boulevard, Caillebotte presents only an angled, partial
view of the boulevard, but one that is sufficiently large to convey
the monumental might of a great city. The man in the picture,
seen only from the back, is elegant in his top hat, and self-assured
in his pose leaning against the balcony. The drapes on the opened
French door at the right give both upwards and downwards diagonals
that reinforce the pictures verticality and also focus on
the center of the painting. The bold striping and strong reds
of the canopy are not only festive but protective and its scallop-like
border counterbalances the decorative swirls the balconys
Besides being very painterly, the work, which
is the cover illustration of the catalogue, is remarkable for
it could be cropped into many smaller fine compositions. The strong
figure of the man in his dark attire, of course, stands out markedly
and could be construed as a defiant celebration of the independence
of the individual in the communal confines that cities represent.
The figure forces the viewer into a contemplative mood. We are
not overlooking his shoulder but placed several feet away from
him, not interrupting his space, or thoughts, or momentary privacy.
Childe Hassams great "flag"
pictures of Fifth Avenue in New York and George Lukss wonderful
parade and street scenes are socially "involved" but
somewhat impersonal works. This, in contrast, is intensely personal.
At first glance, one is tempted to categorize this as a somewhat
academic Impressionist painting, but its forceful composition
rises it to a much higher plateau. It is very hard to resist stepping
into the picture and starting up a conversation with this dapper
Another figure in black attire who is arresting
is shown above in "La femme au chapeau noir, Berthe la Sourde,"
Lot 18, a 24 ¼-by-17 ½-inch oil on board by Henri
de Toulouse-Lautrec. Painted in 1890, this is a great Lautrec
of fabulous brushwork and very memorable intensity. The painting
has the fresh, sketchy quality of a pastel and quite an exotically
muted palette for the background, but the womans face is
remarkably fascinating. She is not beautiful, but she rivets the
viewer with the intensity of her direct stare and her "frozen"
lack of expressiveness. Is she infatuated? Is she longingly resigned
to a sad fate? Is she comfortable with her erect pose clutching
a big umbrella? Is she proud to being portrayed? Did she pick
out her very large and unwieldy hat?
The painting, which was formerly in the collections
of A. Conger Goodyear and Sam Salz and is being sold by the state
of Guy Bjorkman, has an estimate of $6,000,000 to $8,000,000.
It passed at $3,400,000, one of the sale's major disappointments,
perhaps because the women's expression was too stern for lovers
of the picturesque. According to Christies, the womans
nickname, "la source," means "the deaf" and
the artist apparently knew her from the Green Parrot, "a
brothel he frequented." "In the portrait, she is primly
attired in a long-sleeved dress and elaborate hat, self-consciously
posing as a lady of society. A wry mixture of candor and contrivance,
it ultimately reveals a sensitivity and sympathy for the sitter
that belies the artists reputation as a painter of caricature,"
according to the auction houses press release on the auction.
Lautrec, of course, is no mere caricaturist,
but one of the greatest artists in history and his works are quite
rare and while this work does not have the exuberant flamboyance
of his can-can saloon works, its humanity is searing, deep and
loving. Berthe may be prim, but not pitiable. She may not be a
saint, but she has suffered and her poignant, mysterious gaze
makes us want to survive.
Lot 30, shown above, is an
important Brittany scene by Paul Gauguin. The 28-by-25 1/2-inch
oil on canvas was painted in 1890 and has an estimate of $7,000,000
to $9,000,000. It sold for only $5,286,00 to a private collector,
its low price perhaps reflecting the fact that newer collectors
are more interested in his more exotic scenes. Extremely lush
and vibrant, it is one of his last works in which he employed
Impressionistic techniques. The painting was exhibited for 15
years at the Dallas Museum of Art on loan from the collection
of Wendy and Emery Reves. The artist had moved to the village
of Poulu with Jacob Meyer de Hann, a Dutch painter, after staying
in Pont-Aven. The catalogue notes that Gauguin felt his mission
was "one of physical fusion with theland as it also implicates
his role as spiritual prophet, one seeking to unlock nature's
hidden secrets." The catalogue provides the following quotation
from Charles Chassé, a Gauguin scholar: "...in Poulu,
Gauguin would continually praise the charms of the savage life.
He strongly urged de Haan and his other friends to follow him
in a definitive emigration to those lands innocent of all culture.
First, because the savage life appeared more beautiful to him.
Light more radiant, colors more lively, lines more sensual, the
lack of ugly and distorting veils hiding the human body, a more
rational development of muscles and bodies, and everywhere the
more elegant and supple rhythms of movements and postures."
The catalogue also quotes a
letter written by Gauguin to Vincent Van Gogh: "Yes, you
are right to want painting to have a coloring evocative of poetic
ideas...I find everything poetic, and it is in the deepest recesses
of my heart, that are sometimes the most mysterious, that I glimpse
poetry. Forms and colors brought into harmony produce poetry by
The auction has a pair of 1887
paintings by Vincent Van Gogh that come from the collection of
Mr. and Mrs. Charles Gilman, and are being sold to benefit Tel
Aviv University and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. One of then, Lot
34, "L'Entrée de parc de Voyer-d'Argenson a Asnières,"
is shown above. It, and the other work, is an oil on canvas, 21
1/2 by 26 1/4 inches. It has a conservative estimate of $1,200,000
to $1,600,000. It sold for $1,766,000 while Lot 35 sold for
The auction has some nice paintings
by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The most charming is Lot 31, "La
Conversation," a 12 3/4-by-16 1/8-inch oil on canvas, 1895,
shown above, that has a modest estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000.
It sold for only $831,000. From the Frank Hadley Ginn and
Cornelia Root Ginn Charitable Trust comes a sweet portrait of
a girl adjusting her hair, "Tete de jeune fille," Lot
5, a 14 by 10 inch oil on canvas, 1890, which has an estimate
of $1,200,000 to $1,600,000. It sold for $1,656,000. Lot
27, "Berthe Morisot et sa fille, Julie Manet," is an
historical important work that has been in the collection of Morisot's
daughter's family. Morisot was a very fine and important Impressionist
painter who married the brother of Edouard Manet after being his
model for a while. The 32-by-25 1/4-inch oil on canvas was painted
in 1894 and has an ambitious estimate of $9,000,000 to $12,000,000.
It sold for $8,806,000. Another Renoir, Lot 43, depicts
another famous woman artist, Suzanne Valadon. It is 21 1/2 inches
by 16 1/4 inches and was painted circa 1885. It is quite affecting
and has a modest estimate of $800,000 to $1,200,000. It sold
The auction has several important
Rodin sculptures including Lot 26, "Le baiser," a 34-inch-high
bronze statue of "The Kiss," that was cost in 1887-8
and has an estimate of $2,000,000 to $3,000,000. It sold for
$2,756,000 and several other Rodins also did very well, a reflection
that they were early casts with fine patinas.
Of 47 lots offered, 42,
or 89 percent sold and the sale totalled $104,542,000, which fell
within the pre-sale estimate of about $101- to $137-million.
Christopher Burge, the auctioneer,
said that he was "extremely pleased" with the auction's
results, noting that there was "a lot of activity" in
the room. While there were 40 or so phone "agents,"
one man wearing no jacket, no tie, and a black-colored gray sport
shirt bought three paintings. By dollar amounts, only about 35
percent of the buyers were American and more than 47 percent European,
which was not surprisingly given the many conversations held by
elegant auction goers in French and Italian. Asian was well represented
in the room although they were not too active as bidders.
The sale had 24 lots that
sold for more than $1 million, 13 sold over their high estimates,
17 fell within the estimates and 12 sold for below the estimates,
according to Mr. Burge. That is a quite a reasonable percentage
and Burge described the market as "sensible."
In response to a question
at the post-sale press conference, Mr. Burge said that to his
knowledge Christie's had not competed directly with Phillips for
any of the sale's consignments, but he added that there were "a
few with Sotheby's."
The market continues to
be a bit unpredictable. The Lautrec was a very fine work and not
overvalued and the Gauguin was a truly interesting and a very
good, important work by Gauguin that also was not overvalued.
Their failure to achieve better results probably reflects the
lack of expertise and experience of many current collectors, although,
on the other hand, the good price achieved by the Caillebotte
was impressive for he is not a household name and his works are
not the typical pastoral postcard scenes but in fact a very sophisticated
and strong work.
Considering the fact that
the economic markets were weak in the immediate period leading
up to the auction, the somewhat lackluster results may not have
been stellar, but certainly did not denote a collapse in the art
market, a subject that was on quite a few lips in the gatherings
outside the auction horse prior to the auction, more so than the
current anti-trust investigation.