Auctions: Life after death

No kidding, it is death that brings life to the art market.

Pablo Picasso 88 298 (photo credit: )
Pablo Picasso 88 298
(photo credit: )
No kidding, it is death that brings life to the art market. The heirs of great collectors cannot cut up a canvas between them but they can divvy up the proceeds of a sale. Prices of great works long hidden from public view spiral up because there are evermore wealthy bidders entering the auction sales, and because the value of cash money, notably that of the US dollar, keeps losing its real value. Don't laugh, but if you now tell a girl that she looks like a million dollars you are not necessarily paying her a great compliment. Christie's evening sale of impressionist and modern art on May 2 in New York is replete with major paintings at a time when great paintings of any ilk are no longer being painted. So the estimates quoted on this occasion are all the top end, though I believe that a number of lots may well exceed these sums. Top lot at Christie's is one of the six surviving Van Goghs of the famous Arlesienne, Madame Ginoux, but it's the only one still in private hands. The lady, wife of the owner of the famous night cafe painted by both Gauguin and Van Gogh, was persuaded to sit by Gauguin, then worked for a time side by side with Van Gogh in Arles in 1888. Van Gogh made two paintings of her in Arles. When Van Gogh committed himself to Dr. Gachet's sanatorium he took with him a lovely Gauguin charcoal drawing of Ginoux left behind by his sometime friend and, in 1890, after corresponding with Gauguin and promising him a painting, made four more paintings in varying treatments based on the pose in Gauguin's drawing. Like the drawing, the Van Gogh versions are infused with a certain sadness. When Van Gogh painted his sad portrait of Dr. Gachet, he placed the doctor's hand on his cheek in a similar pose. There can be little doubt that this lot, originally given by Van Gogh to his brother Theo, will reach its top estimate of $50,000. There's a lovely Gauguin in this sale, a Tahitian period tabletop with a vase of flowers, from 1886-90. The color harmony is fine and the composition fully realized. The small figure in the background designating depth is a device the artist employed time and again. This oil will go to $10 million. There are many splendid Picasso oils too, including four portraits that run the gamut of his styles. His Blue Period Portrait of Germaine, painted in Barcelona in 1902, with its repeat of oval forms, has a top estimate of $18,000. An uncharacteristic jolly palette and a big smile reflect Picasso's love for his model in Portrait of Dora Maar, 1937, which has a top estimate of $7m. Picasso's wife Jacqueline was clearly the model for his formalized oil Woman Arranging Her Hair, 1956 ($2.8m.). And then there is a very fine head of a Musketeer (a cypher for Picasso's father) painted in loose gestures in May 1967 ($3m., surely worthy more). Picasso's Le Repos, an abstracted figure on a decorative background, is a large work with a large estimate of $20m., but I find it the least interesting of his works in this sale. I'd much rather go for the rich Leger oil of an acrobat and his assistant, from 1948, with a more modest estimate of $3m., or a lovely little Sisley painted on the river bank in his home country near Henley ($2.5m.). If you have a big garden and $7m. to spare you might bid for Henry Moore's four-part Reclining Figure, a bronze from 1972-3. There are other bronzes by Moore, Maillol and Degas. A quite lovely vase of flowers painted by Gustave Caillebotte in 1882 may reach $800,000. Pissarro, Monet, Soutine, Toulouse-Lautrec and Braque are all well represented. This sale should be a hit. THE SOTHEBY'S catalogs of its May 3 sale of impressionist and modern art reached me only as this column was going to press. I will write them up next Friday.