Auctions: The richest auction ever

Sotheby's are dismayed. The veteran auction house assembled a very good catalog of their evening sale of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York on Nov. 7, with a careful Modigliani of a seated boy on the cover.

By MEIR RONNEN
November 2, 2006 09:45
venus art 88 298

venus art 88 298. (photo credit: )

Sotheby's are dismayed. The veteran auction house assembled a very good catalog of their evening sale of Impressionist and Modern Art in New York on November 7, with a careful Modigliani of a seated boy on the cover. But the catalog of Christie's evening sale the following day has left them stupefied. One Sotheby's official described the 86 Christie's lots as "unbelievable." Of course we all should have known. Even this modest column has been running illustrated mini-previews of all the Christie's blockbusters. There are the four famously restituted oils painted by Gustav Klimt nearly a century ago (will make together at least $100,000, if not more); one of the great portraits of all time, Pablo Picasso's 1903 oil of Angel Fernandez de Soto ($40m.-$60m.); another Blue Period Picasso of three women ($15m.-$20m.) Picasso's 1944 oil of his wartime tomato plant ($5m.-$7m.); Gauguin's first great Tahitian painting, Man With an Axe, 1891 ($18m.-$45m.); Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's 1914 Berlin Street Scene ($18m.-$24m.); and drawings and paintings by Egon Schiele, each ranging from $6m. to $35m. Christie's are fancying a record take of $450m., perhaps even half a billion. I predict that nearly everything in this catalog will top at least $1m., though there are splendid lots that will be bid up, like Modigliani's delightful and convincing teenage nude standing in the modest pose of the Medici Venus. Painted early in 1917, it will surely soar past its top estimate of $9m. A gentle Matisse still life from 1925 will hit at least $6m. A Leger of three figures in a garden has an estimate of $7m.-$10m. An early little Leger from 1911 of chimney smoke and rooftops, has an interesting sombre palette ($900,000-$1.3m.). A Balthus from 1964 of three sisters has an unusually high estimate of $7m.-$10m. In addition there are wonderful oils by Cezanne, Vuillard and Bonnard, one of the latter's estimated at $5m.-$7m.; and a beautiful little head of a girl by Alexei von Jawlensky, painted after he escaped the German draft to a Swiss hovel in 1916. This very attractive non-realist head has a top estimate of $600,000 but it will surely go for double that. An earlier and larger Jawlensky of the bust of a young woman, roughly dashed off some four years earlier, is hoped to reach $1.4m. I'm not keen about the Renoir portraits on offer but a very attractive young nude bather seen from the side will make $5m. I still haven't mentioned all the goodies in the Christie's catalogue, like a very early portrait by Kees van Dongen, but I must now turn to that of Sotheby's, where they must be wondering if there will be enough big punters around to bid for the extraordinary number of major lots in next week's sales. A number of the finest of the 85 lots in the Sotheby's catalogue were once purchased at Christie's and not so long ago at that. One of them is Vincent van Gogh's magnificent portrait of his pair of boots, perhaps the best of the five versions he painted and the only one in private hands ($8m.-$12m.). A small seated bronze figure, awkwardly posed but very modern for its time (1908, but cast only in 1950) is hoped to reach $18m. A through-the-window oil from 1920 by Matisse looks onto a beached boat ($3m.-$4m.). An amazingly colorful semi-abstraction of a lake by Wassily Kandinsky, made in 1908, has an estimate of $6m.-$8m, Jawlensky's Spanish Woman, 1911 will hopefully make its low estimate of $3.5m. Erich Heckel's rather jolly nude from 1910, a remarkable composition, should reach $3m. Sotheby's cover is adorned with one of Modigliani's last great oils, The Son of the Concierge, painted in Cagnes in 1918. The face exudes sadness: the boy sits at the center of a rock-solid composition, his eyes staring at the painter with the terrible sense of hopelessness that the drink-sodden artist must have felt about himself. It was purchased at Christie's less than a decade ago ($14m.-$18m.). I prefer an earlier Modi from 1916, the fabulous portrait of dealer Paul Guillaume, the best of a series, in which simplicity rises to genius ($5m.-$7m.). A fairly small Picasso from 1932, previously sold at Sotheby's, has an estimate of $12m.-$16m. A better buy is Picasso's Nude in a Rocking Chair, 1956, which is a distinct nod to Matisse ($7m.-$10m.). An even later Picasso, Mother and Child, 1965, an oil I saw at London's long- vanished Brook St. Gallery, is easily worth $3.5m. A rather frightening Picasso from 1970 has a similar estimate. And there are four other Picasso oils on offer, including the clever but off-putting The Smoker, 1953, which has a low estimate of $9m. A quite wonderful Kees van Dongen from 1907 of a female contortionist, an extraordinary composition that has been seen only in private collections, may reach $3.5m. It's much more interesting than a butch nude by Tamara de Lempicka with a similar estimate.There's a gentle if sketchy Matisse of the artist painting a young woman in a garden that is quietly effective (around $3m.). Claude Monet's famous Beachfront at Trouville, 1870, was sold at Sotheby's just over six years ago; it once belonged to Mary Cassat. It starts at $16m., may top $20m. I haven't mentioned many other deserving lots in the Sotheby's catalogue (by Toulouse-Lautrec, Bonnard, Cezanne and Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida), but the wide choices at both auction houses are going to confound some potential buyers. Further, both Christie's and Sotheby's are mounting strong day sales of moderns next week, where many major lots are on offer. Where do all the works and buyers suddenly come from? Nearly a dozen estates have contributed major works, while the growing nouveau riche of America and Europe perceive the art market as a better investment than even the soaring Dow Jones figures. In America, dollar millionaires are nobodies; it's the growing number of billionaires who call the tunes. The market has never been hotter than it is this season, but caveat emptor, only the great works by great artists will continue to retain their intrinsic financial value. The first bubble to burst will be the lower end of the contemporary market, which is expecting big money in mid-November. More about those sales next week.


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