By Carter B. Horsley
Christies quite grand, new facility at
20 Rockefeller Plaza should get off to a very propitious start
as its first major auction of Impressionist and Nineteenth Century
Art has many superb works and comes at the height of a frenzied
stock market and hard on the heels of a very successful sale two
days earlier at Sothebys of the collection of the late Mr.
and Mrs. John Hay Whitney (see The City
Review article) in which every lot sold.
The quality of the offerings at Christies
is generally better than those at Sothebys, although the
Whitney provenance is hard to beat.
Indeed, the second Sotheby's Impressionist
sale on May 11 was decidedly off with many important paintings
failing to sell and a high percentage of buy-ins for a evening
sale (see The City Review article).
The third Sotheby Impressionist sale (see The
City Review article), held during the day May 12, was not
bad, but clearly the market was anxious to see what kind of message
the major Christie's sale would give. A Sotheby's spokesman had
been quoted in The New York Times as explaining the disappointing
results of its second sale on the "discriminating" approach
of contemporary collectors.
The Christie's sale was a mixed bag. Only
10 percent of the lots did not sell, a much healthier, indeed,
excellent "batting" average than Sotheby's second sale.
Unfortunately, those that did not sell included many of the top
lots. Furthermore, some of its excellent paintings sold for considerably
less than their low estimates although the total sale exceeded
the auction's low estimate, though not by a great deal.
Clearly, the art market is in a confused
state, due in large measure to the rather wild success of the
Whitney sale and the rush to celebrity.
The star of this auction, of course, is Vincent
Van Goghs, "La Roubine du roi," Lot 15, shown
above, which was reasonably estimated to sell for at least
$20 million. Whereas the blockbusters of the Whitney sale, large
oils by Georges Seurat and Paul Cezanne, were estimated to sell
between $25 million and $35 million, respectively, and sold for
just over $35 million and just over $60 million, respectively,
they were by no means masterpieces by those great artists.
This Van Gogh, on the other hand, while not
a supreme masterpiece, is an excellent and unusual example and
a far more desirable painting than the Whitney Seurat and the
Whitney Cezanne. Presumably, therefore, it should do very well,
probably double its high estimate as it is a bold composition
and exceptionally vivid in its coloration. Bidding started
at $12 million and the painting was sold for $19.8 million, (which
included the buyer's premium as do all the sales prices in this
article), a lot of money, of course, but not for such a dramatic
and major painting by a superstar artist. It shows a canal
in Arles, France, and Christies notes that its high vantage
point "is a radical departure from both Impressionist practice
and Dutch tradition," adding that it was modeled after some
of the images in Hiroshiges One Hundred Years of the
Famous Places of Edo.
Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo, about
this painting, which was completed in 1888, stating "It is
emotion, the sincerity of ones feeling for nature, that
draws us, and if the emotions are sometimes so strong that one
works without knowing one works when sometimes the strokes
come with a continuity and a coherence like words in a speech
or a letter then one must remember that is has not always
been so, and that in time to come there will again be hard days,
empty of inspiration. So one must strike while the iron is hot,
and put the forged bars on one side."
An exquisite "Portrait of Madeleine Adam"
by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Lot 17, shown above, the
cover illustration for the auction's catalogue, is a great reminder
of how great an artist Renoir can be on occasion. This bright
but calm 1887 pastel and pencil on paper shows a beautiful, seated
young woman with red hair in a white dress with a black ribbon
in her hair. It should exceed its high estimate of $3,000,000
to sharply distinguish it from so much of his other minor and
often shabby work. Incredibly, the painting was passed at $1.6
million! Christies notes that this was "a rare
commissioned pastel portrait" and that "the artist preferred
to use this medium to draw family and friends. The young woman
was 14 years old and her father was a banker from Boulogne. The
failure of the lot to sell at such a modest level perhaps reflected
the fact that it was a pastel and not an oil painting, but it
is a masterpiece by Renoir of which they are are not that many.
Another very major painting is Lot 28, "Charing
Cross Bridge," by Claude Monet (1840-1926), a large and very
poetic work that was painted in 1899 and shows the a bridge across
the Thames River in London, one of the earliest paintings in the
artists series on the river that is one of his supreme achievements.
The catalogue notes that from his room at the Savoy Hotel Monet
would paint the Waterloo Bridge in the morning and the Charing
Cross Bridge in the afternoon. Later in the day, he would leave
the hotel and go to St. Thomas Hospital from which he would
paint the Houses of Parliament at sunset, the most celebrated
paintings in the series. A slightly larger and less colorful painting
of the Waterloo Bridge by Monet happened to come up for auction
at Sothebys this spring (Lot 119 in its May 11, 1999 auction
with an estimate of $4 million to $6 million) and both auction
houses use the same following quote, although Christies
provides a longer quote, to describe the works: "I so love
London! But I only love it in the winter. Its nice in the
summer, but nothing like it is in winter with the fog, for without
the fog London wouldnt be a beautiful city. Its the
fog that gives it its magnificent breadth. Those massive, regular
blocks become grandiose within that mysterious cloak." Monet
became obsessed with the project and eventually finished almost
100 paintings in the series. The Sotheby painting is more lyrical
and the Christie painting is more dramatic and both are exceedingly
desirable. This Christie's lot was passed at $3.8 million,
which tempts one to suggest that the collectors attending these
major auctions are not "discriminating," just plain
dumbfounding, especially since there is no sign that the financial
markets are in a depression.
Christies actually has another "Charing
Cross Bridge" painting by Monet in the sale, Lot 37, which
was painted around 1900 and is very different with a greenish
palette and more pronounced bravura brushwork and a very low estimate
of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000 that probably reflects its less conventional
palette. It sold for $997,500.
As fine as they are, however, they pale somewhat
behind Lot 21, shown below, at Christies, a sensational
and ravishing Monet of the lovely bridge in his garden in Giverny,
France, that was painted 1895-6 and has an estimate of $7 million
to $10 million, which could easily be doubled, even though it
has been on the Sothebys auction block in 1984 and 1987.
The Christies catalogue notes that this "is possibly
the first view of the artists newly constructed Japanese
bridge, adding that the subject appears in more than twenty canvases
over the artists career. This lot was sold for only $5,942,500!
Among the other fine works are Lot 1 and 9,
good still lifes by Henri Fantin-Latour (1836-1904) that are estimated
a bit on the low side at $350,000 to $450,000 and $300,000 to
400,000, respectively, and which sold for $310,500 and $574,500,
respectively; Lot 6,a large Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875)
that once belonged to Napoleon III and carries a reasonable estimate
of $800,000 to $1,200,000 and sold for $1,597,500; Lot
7 a pleasant Argenteuil landscape by Claude Monet that is estimated
at only $400,000 to $600,000, or petty change in these surroundings,
and sold for $1,762,500; Lot 10, a charming and interesting
statuette by Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) in tropical laurel that
is estimated at only $250,000 to $350,000 and sold for $717,500;
Lot 13, a good Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) that is estimated reasonably
at $500,000 to $700,000 and sold for $635,000; lot 16,
a dramatic seascape by Claude Monet that is estimated at only
$700,000 to $900,000 and sold for $882,500; lot 19, a great
still life by Pierre-Auguste Renoir that is estimated rather low
at $1,200,000 to $1,600,000 and passed at $1 million; Lot
27, a fabulous beach scene by Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923),
who is regarded as the most important Spanish Impressionist, that
was painted in Valencia in 1908 and is very conservatively estimated
at $700,000 to $1,000,000 and sold for $1,102,500; Lot
32, yet another nice Monet Antibes scene that is reasonably estimated
at $3,500,000 to $4,500,000 and sold for $5,282,500; Lot
35, a very fine, Fauvesque landscape of Estaque by Georges Braque
(1892-1963) that was painted in 1906 and was a rather low estimate
of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000 and sold for $2,257,500.
At a press conference after the sale, auctioner
Christopher Burge maintained that the "sensational figures"
of the sale, at least in terms of few buy-ins, proved that the
art market is strong and "really healthy, not a speculative
market" being pushed to "unsustainable levels."
Eighteen paintings, he noted, sold for more than a million dollars.
Of the lots that sold, seven fell within the auction house's estimates,
19 were above them and 10 below, he said, adding that 72 percent
of the buyers were American and 19 percent European.
As usual, Mr. Burge was delightful and masterful,
although he did knock down two lots just as telephone bidders
were bidding. In marked contrast to the second Sotheby's sale
this season, there was some bidding from the "room"
and not virtually all by telephone. To mark the inauguration of
the James Christie Room in which the auction was held, the Christie's
staff were smartly decked out in formal attire.
While Mr. Burge is right in being optimistic
about the market not going into a speculative frenzy after the
very, very high of the top lots in the Whitney sale, the failure
of really excellent works to sell at reasonable prices cannot
be reassuring as it indicates that despite abundant wealth and
not a flood of quality offerings that auctions can be very risky
for consignors. While both Christie's and Sotheby's have adopted
quite conservative policies on estimates in recent years to lessen
the risk of buy-ins and encourage people to consider lots at lower
values and then hopefully to get caught up in the bidding process,
those policies might be backfiring on a new generation of collectors
not quite so savvy in the seemingly mysterious process of valuations.
Of course, one should only buy art that
one loves and simply has to have forever. In any event, Christie's
new facilities are a great success although some of the older
dealers who used to love to congregate standing up at the back
of the auction rooms may have to adapt to the new, larger layout
that does not leave much room at the back.