20th Century Art including selections from

The Maurice and Margo Cohen Collection


May 13, 1999

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 l’ordre’ in Jean Cocteau’s words, is most apparent in Picasso’s 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, Renoir’s 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 l’Effort 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 on Léger.)

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 doesn’t matter (what) it depicts…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 artist’s 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. "L’Espoir," 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.

"Le Cheval de cirque" by Joan Miro

Lot 463, by Joan Miro, 1927,

oil on canvas, 45 5/8 by 35 3/8 inches

The artist’s 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 artist’s 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.

"Hanging Apricot" mobile by Alexander Calder

Lot 460, "Hanging Apricot," standing mobile, by Alexander Calder,

circa 1950, 58 1/2 inches tall

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 Cohen’s 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 Cohen’s 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 Lindner’s newfound interest in the street life of Manhattan," the catalogue states. The fanciful work, which was painted in 1961, is a good example of Lindner’s rather diabolical humor as the woman’s 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 auction sold.

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.

Still Live with Violin by Georges Braque

Lot 489, "Still Life with Violin," by Georges Braque, 1913,

oil and charcoal on canvas, 25 1/2 by 36 1/4 inches

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.

The Eye by Salvator Dali

Lot 497, "The Eye," by Salvator Dali,

1945, oil on canvas, 23 by 33 inches

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 $607,500.

Marc Chagall's "Red and Blue Circus"

Lot 500, "Red and Blue Circus," by Marc Chagall,

1973, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 by 31 7/8 inches

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.

Detail of "Two Flags" by Jasper Johns

Detail of Lot 505, "Two Flags," by Jasper Johns, 1973


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 for $5,502,500.

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 Graham.

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 excellent percentage.

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 to make.

See The City Review article on the Christie's Nov. 9, 1999 evening auction of Twentieth Century Art

See The City Review article on the Christie's Nov. 10, 1999 day auction of Twentieth Century Art

See The City Review article on Sotheby's May 11, 1999 auction of Impressionist and Modern Art, Part 1

See The City Review article on Sotheby's May 12, 1999 auction of Impressionist and Modern Art, Part 2

See The City Review article on Christie's May 12, 1999 auction of Impressionist and 19th Century Art

See The City Review article on the Sotheby's May 10, 1999 auction of the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney


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