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Impressionist & Nineteenth Century Art


May 12, 1999


By Carter B. Horsley

Christie’s 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 Sotheby’s 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 Christie’s is generally better than those at Sotheby’s, 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.

Van Gogh's "La Roubine du roi"

Lot 15, "La Roubine du roi," by Vincent Van Gogh,

oil on canvas, 1888, 29 by 24 inches,

The star of this auction, of course, is Vincent Van Gogh’s, "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 Christie’s 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 Hiroshige’s 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 one’s 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."

Renoir's "Portrait of Madeine Adam"

Lot 17, "Portrait de Madeleine Adam, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir,

1887, pastel and pencil on paper, 23 5/8 by 18 7/8 inches

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! Christie’s 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.

Monet's "Charing Cross Road"

Lot 28, "Charing Cross Bridge," by Claude Monet,

1899, oil on canvas, 25 1/2 by 36 1/4 inches

(white vertical line is crease in foldout reproduction in catalogue)

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 artist’s 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 Sotheby’s 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 Christie’s provides a longer quote, to describe the works: "I so love London! But I only love it in the winter. It’s nice in the summer, but nothing like it is in winter with the fog, for without the fog London wouldn’t be a beautiful city. It’s 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.

Christie’s 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 Christie’s, 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 Sotheby’s auction block in 1984 and 1987. The Christie’s catalogue notes that this "is possibly the first view of the artist’s newly constructed Japanese bridge, adding that the subject appears in more than twenty canvases over the artist’s career. This lot was sold for only $5,942,500!

Monet's Bridge in Giverny Garden

Lot 21, "Pont dans le jardin de Monet," by Claude Monet,

1895-6, oil on canvas, 36 1/4 by 34 3/4 inches

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.

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 Christie's May 13, 1999 auction of 20th Century Art including selections from the Maurice and Margo Cohen Collection

See The City Review article on the Nov. 8, 1999 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist auction at Christie's

See The City Review article on the morning sale of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist Art Nov. 9, 1999 at Christie's

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

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

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

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

See The City Review of the Christie's May 13, 1999 auction of 20th Century and Modern Art

Recap of the Spring 1998 Impressionist and Modern Auctions

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