By Carter B. Horsley
The beginning of this important sale includes
a selection of fine works from the Maurice and Margo Cohen collection
by Joan Miró, Fernand Léger, Alberto Giacometti,
Alexander Calder, Richard Lindner, Joseph Cornell and John Graham.
The star lot of this section of the auction
is Lot 467, a very fine painting of three woman by Léger
(1881-1955). This oil on canvas, 25 5/8 by 36 ½ inches,
was painted in 1922 and has a reasonable estimate of $5,000,000
to $7,000,000. While there have been numerous Légers on
the auction market recently, this is a highly finished work of
very high quality. It sold for $4,402,400 (including the buyer's
premium as do all the sales prices mentioned in this article),
perhaps reflecting the presence of numerous Légers on the
market the past few seasons.
Some of the Cohen works are included in different
auctions but Christie's has included all of them in a beautiful,
hardcover catalogue in which it reproduces similar Léger
works in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York
and the Musée National Fernand Léger in Bot, France,
and elsewhere and includes the following excellent commentary:
"The end of the Great War of 1914-1918
forced artists and writers to rethink their relations to society
and their aesthetic expression of it in their works. The pressure
for modernity, manifest in the bravado rhetoric of the Cubists
and Futurists of the pre-war years, was replaced by a classicism
that looked back to traditional forms and subjects. This rappel
a lordre in Jean Cocteaus words, is most apparent
in Picassos portraits of mothers with children where the
return to naturalistic representation signals a temporary retreat
from the modern. Léger, however, was unwilling to withdraw
from what he regarded as the heroism of modern life and sought
ways to reconcile his aggressive modernity with subjects that
bore the unmistakable imprint of Egyptian and classical art.
"Léger was drawn in two directions,
firstly by the Purism of Amedée Ozenfant and Le Corbusier,
and secondly by the rigorous modernity of De Stijl. In Purism,
where the machine was the dominant motif everything was made with
precision and devoted to a balanced superiority of form and structure.
The Purists developed a vocabulary of forms and objects with the
intention of producing bonheur; and from this Léger developed
his own formal vocabulary. From the De Stijl artists he learned
that using spare planar compositions in conjunction with the Purist
machine aesthetic could provide an enriched and thoroughly modern
picture type...In 1921, Léger changed from depicting primarily
male figures to groups of female figures, both nude and clothed,
reclining in front of highly stylized backgrounds. The reinstallation
of the Poussin and Corot galleries in the Louvre in 1921 has been
credited as one possible source for this change in iconography;
until then, Léger had used pre-Renaissance art and classical
frieze-forms as models. Moreover, in 1922, Renoirs late
nudes were exhibited at Galerie Durand-Ruel and Léger was
forced to consider the potency of the female nude. He wrote in
the Bulletin de lEffort Moderne of the decadence of Renaissance
art and the way in which the nude was a "shameless temptation
to representation," and in the series of paintings entitled
Le petit déjeuner, which were precursors to the present
work, he constructed the women with a cool impassivity and an
extraordinarily deliberate control."
(See The City Review article
The Cohen section of the auction offers several
strong Miros and the catalogue offers the following wonderful
quote by the artist:
"In a picture, it should be possible to
discover new things everytime you see it
It must dazzle
like the beauty of a woman or a poem. It must have radiance. It
must be like those stones which Pyrenean shepherds use to light
their pipes. More than the picture itself, what counts is what
it throws off, what it exhales
.A picture must be fertile.
It must give birth to a world it doesnt matter (what) it
as long as it reveals a world, something alive."
Lot 453, by Joan Miró (1893-1983), is
an oil wash and gouache on paper, 16 by 13 inches, that well illustrates
the artists volcanic genius, although its broad expanses
of black give it a rather somber tone. It is estimated at $700,000
to $900,000. It sold for $1,432,500.
Lot 461. "LEspoir," is a more
joyous, animated work by Miró. The 1946 oil on canvas,
22 7/8 inches square, and is estimated reasonably at $2 million
to $3 million and it sold for $4,512,500.
The artists wonderful and fanciful imagination
is even more dramatic in the larger 1927 oil on canvas, Lot 463,
shown above, which measures 45 5/8 by 35 3/8 inches and is estimated
at $1,800,000 to $2,500,000 and sold for $2,092,500. A
fine example of the artists bold palette and Surrealist
forms, it is part of a series he did on circus horses.
Lot 457 is a 43 ¾ inch high bronze sculpture
of a woman by Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966) that was part of
a series he did for the Venice Biennale in 1956. It is estimated
at $2 million to $3 million, but was withdrawn from the auction.
There are several fine sculptures by Alexander
Calder (1898-1976), but the most pleasing is Lot 460, "Hanging
Apricot," which was placed beneath the curved staircase in
the Cohens home. The 58 ½ inch high work, shown above,
was executed about 1950 and has an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000.
It sold for $992,500 and is more attractive and colorful than
the 68-inch Calder standing mobile, "Red Post, Black Leaves,"
Lot 468, which was executed in 1941 and has an estimate of $600,000
to $800,000 and sold for $937,500.
(Another Calder standing mobile, Lot 652, "Under
the Half Moon," will be auctioned May 14. It is is less crude
and more graceful than Lot 468, although much smaller, only 17
¼ inches tall. Executed in 1972, it is estimated at $120,000
to $160,000 and was on a table in the Cohens home alongside
Lot 457, the Giacometti sculpture of a woman.
Perhaps the most delightful lot in the Cohen
collection is 657, "Galleria," by Saul Steinberg, which
consists of 16 panels, painted in a variety of media as vertical
strips of different sizes and meant to be hung on a flat wall
to give the illusion of deeply receeding space. Painting in 1970
and meant to be hung on an area 92 ½ by 123 inches, the
work has an estimate of $40,000 to $60,000. This lot and the Calder
Lot 652 will be also be auctioned May 14.)
A large oil by Richard Lindner, (1901-1978),
Lot 474, "The Walk," is estimated at $400,000 to $600,000.
"This image of a monumental matron isolated in an urban landscape
expresses Lindners newfound interest in the street life
of Manhattan," the catalogue states. The fanciful work, which
was painted in 1961, is a good example of Lindners rather
diabolical humor as the womans demure expression is belied
by her bare breasts just visible beneath her patterned cape and
above her corseted midriff. It sold for only $266,500.
All of the works in the Cohen portion of this
In the non-Cohen part of the auction, there
are several important works.
Lot 485 is bronze sculpture of three tall figures
and a head on a low base by Alberto Giacometti. It has an estimate
of $2,500,000 to $3,500,000 and some observers find these multiple
figure works more interesting than his famous solitary figures.
It was passed at $1,800,000.
Lot 489, shown above, is a fine 1913 Cubist
still life with a violin by Georges Braque (1882-1963). The 25
1/2 by 36 1/4 inch oil and charcoal on canvas has an estimate
of $3 million to $4 million. Surprisingly, this work was passed
at $1,800,000, perhaps an indication that the market prefers colorful
splash to cool intellectuality.
Lot 497 is a 23 by 33 inch oil of canvas of
a large eye floating above the horizon. It was painted by Salvator
Dali (1904-1989) in 1945 when Dali was working on sets for Alfred
Hitchcock's movie, Spellbound, and the painting,
shown below, was owned for many years by the famous movie director.
It has an estimate of $1,200,000 to $1,600,000. It was passed
at $850,000, perhaps because some collectors are squeamish or
don't like nightmares.
There have been numerous works this season
by Marc Chagall (1887-1985) on the market but Lot 500, "Red
and Blue Circus," stands out for its strong composition.
It is estimated at $700,000 to $900,000. The 1973 oil on canvas,
shown below, measures 25 1/2 by 31 7/8 inches. It sold for
The auction also has major
works by Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol and the front and back cover
illustrations of the catalogue are details of Lot 505, "Two
Flags," by Jasper Johns. The flags are American and are painted
side by side hanging down on the 52 1/4 by 69 1.2 inch work. The
left flag has three panels and is oil on canvas. The right flag
is encaustic on canvas. The work, which was painted in 1973, has
an estimate of $7 million to $10 million. A detail of the flag
on the right is shown below.
Johns started painting the American flag in
1954 and has done about 100 versions. The painting sold at
Sotheby's in 1989 for about $12 million. This time it was sold
for $7,152,500 and Larry Gagosian was the successful bidder.
The major Twombly at the sale, Lot 506,
a large gray canvas with white swirls, sold for $2,532,500, well
above its high estimate of $1,800,000, and the Warhol, "Blue
Mona Lisa (4 times)," Lot 515, sold for $684,500, nicely
over its high estimate of $600,000.
Some of the disappointments of the sale
were Lot 484, a portrait of a woman by Amadeo Modigliani, which
had been estimated at $3,500,000 to $4,500,000, but was passed
at $2,600,000; Lot 502, "King of Spades," a large work
by Joan Mitchell that had been estimated at $700,000 to $900,000
but was passed at $550,000; Lot 475, a large, bright work by Georges
Roualt that had been estimated at $500,000 to $700,000 but was
passed at $380,000; and Lot 508, a large, light Clyfford Still
sold for $1,047,500, considerably below its low estimate of $1,200,000.
One of the surprising stars of the auction
was Lot 492, a bright, rather atypical but interesting Henri Matisse
still life by a window in Nice, that had been estimated at $2,000,000
to $3,000,000 and was sold to a woman with short reddish hair
Another success was Lot 513, a large Henry
Moore sculpture that was exhibited on the sidewalk outside the
auction house. It had been estimated at $2,500,000 to $3,000,000
and sold for $4,072,400, to an American dealer. That set a record
for Moore and records were also set for Marcel Duchamp and John
Although the sale's total of $62,670,000
fell a bit short of the anticipated low estimate of $64,090,000,
it was a strong sale as 84 percent of the lots offered sold, an
Christopher Burge, the auctioneer, was in
fine form. At one point, he queried a member of the audience:
"Are you bidding or just admiring the architecture,"
a reminder that the auction was only the second major event in
Christie's very impressive new quarters at Rockefeller Center.
At one point during the auction of a Jean
Dubuffet, Burge must have approached the speed record for bid-taking
so fast was the action and noted with a gracious wave of his arm
to the back of the huge James Christie room "there are four
of you" with the same bid. When the bidding finally stopped,
he remarked to the successful bidder, "Thank you for your
patience." On the next lot, however, exhaustion almost set
in and he, to the delight of the audience, sighed, "What
I have to do to get a bid." Perhaps most impressive was his
ability to keep straight the names of the staff working the phalanx
of phones, breaking down some of the anonymonity of that process.
At his post-sale press conference, auctioneer
Christopher Burge was in an ebullient mood: "We enjoyed the
evening; the terrific results of the Cohen collection" and
the "lively" attendees who were bidding "all over
the room." Indeed, bidders in the room were quite a match
for the telephone bidders, a welcome change from recent major
auctions. Burge characterized the market as "very orderly"
and "very savvy."
This was a good old-fashioned auction, full
of drama and surprises and very few lulls. More importantly, it
put a sensible finish to a rather see-saw week of important evening
auctions. The very inflated prices of some of the works in the
week's lead-off auction at Sotheby's of the collection of the
late Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney hinted at a speculative boom,
but the failure of some major works to sell the next two nights
brought more confusion than sobriety to the market.
This auction calmed things down and certainly
the market is better off being "orderly" as Burge described
it than wild. It is inevitable that occasionally two obsessive
collectors will square off against one another and drive a price
way up, often considerably out of proportion to the work's merits
in terms of the oeuvre, rarity and quality. At the same time,
some collectors may pass on really good works because they already
have good examples, or have squandered their budgets to fill gaps
in their collections.
The good news is that buy-ins/passes were
not high and the bad news is that estimates are not getting easier