The results achieved by both Christie’s and Sotheby’s for their Impressionist and Modern Art Part I sales, which took place in New York (30 April and 1 May), were decent and solid, but could not be described as extraordinary and were compromised by a lack of interest in several potentially expensive paintings.
However, the more important works of art attracted spirited competition and Christie’s, with the superior catalogue which included a second tranche of fifteen works consigned by the estate of Joseph Hazen, as well as van Gogh’s “Interior of a Restaurant”, was the beneficiary in an auction of sixty-seven lots, fifty-eight of which found buyers and raised proceeds of $69.1 million net of auctioneer’s commission.
In statistical terms, Sotheby’s posted a virtually identical result, selling fifty-eight of the sixty-eight lots on offer, but earning just $50.9 million net. Two factors may have accounted for this discrepancy, if credibility can be attached to market speculation: the resignation of David Nash, former director of the Impressionist and Modern Department of Sotheby’s, which took effect in January; and preoccupation of the firm with the sale of the personal possessions of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis immediately preceding this auction, events which may have encouraged consignors to direct their business to the competition on Park Avenue.
Property from two estates brought several strong prices as well as the evening’s biggest disappointment at Christie’s. The estate of Joseph Hazen, on behalf of which Sotheby’s offered fifteen lots six months ago (see The Art Newspaper No.54, December 1995, p32), had consigned a further fifteen lots to its rival, including Soutine’s “Pink Girl” (lot 8, estimate $350,000-450,000) which fetched $650,000; a brightly coloured Cubist composition by Juan Gris (lot 10, estimate $2.5-3.5 million), which was acquired by an unidentified American private collector for $3.1 million, an auction record for the artist; and a pastel of a woman in a tub by Degas (lot 13, estimate $6-8 million), which was purchased by a telephone bidder for $4.95 million.
Twelve lots belonging to the estate of Joanne Toor Cummings included two painted portraits and two bronze sculptures by Giacometti, whose market was a strong performer in this auction. Leading Chicago dealer Richard Gray paid $1.7 million for a fine seated portrait of Diego (lot 17, estimate $800,000-1 million) and Geneva dealer Jan Krugier acquired “Femme de Venise IX” (lot 20, estimate $1.2-1.6 million) for $1.5 million.
But one of the two potentially most expensive pictures of the evening, Gauguin’s Tahitian still-life composition (lot 21, estimate $7-10 million), was regarded as too academic to deserve a big price and failed to attract any bids. It was, as one dealer described it to The Art Newspaper, “a Tahiti picture without the Tahiti heat”.
A second disappointment of the evening concerned Picasso’s small portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter entitled “La Lecture” (lot 50, estimate $6-8 million) which might have been expected to benefit from the Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibition of “Picasso and Portraiture”.
Two later cityscapes by Monet reversed the auction house’s expectations. A Venetian Grand Canal subject of the Palazzo Contarini (lot 29, estimate $4-6 million) was purchased by the Nahmad partnership for $3.85 million; while a telephone bidder paid $3.6 million for an atmospheric treatment of Charing Cross Bridge (lot 36, estimate $2.8-3.5 million). Two paintings by Renoir with recent auction history brought comparatively satisfactory results. An Argenteuil boating picture (lot 4, estimate $1.4-1.8 million) fetched $1.8 million, almost exactly one half of the hammer price of $3.5 million which it commanded in the Searle Collection sale held at Christie’s, New York, on 10 May 1989 (lot 12); and a late composition of Léontine reading (lot 39, est. $1.4-1.8 million) was purchased through the firm’s Japanese office for $2.3 million, having been offered by the same house on 12 May 1993 (lot 8), when its present consignor had paid $2.9 million for it.
Indeed, one exciting feature of the week was the evident return of Japanese activity which has been missing for five years. At Christie’s it was registered in the opening moments of the auction when a Japanese dealer purchased Manet’s delicate pastel of a scantily dressed young girl (lot 3, estimate $400,000-600,000) for $750,000, and it remained a constant presence throughout the various sessions.
Thirteen lots consigned by the estate of Geneva collector Georg Waechter (lots 1-13) were not sufficiently interesting to deserve their exalted position at the front of the auction held at Sotheby’s the following evening. Chagall’s gouache of a group of soldiers (lot 7, estimate $1.2-1.6 million) reached its low estimate, having fetched an auction record of £1.3 million ($2.5 million) when Mr Waechter purchased it at Christie’s, London on 2 April 1990 (lot 34).
Only one of five works by Egon Schiele could be regarded as an intriguing composition, an intense portrait of the young Otto Benesch (lot 11, estimate $400,000-500,000), which is presumed to have been purchased by Dr Rudolf Leopold for $830,000. The previous lot was an oil portrait of Schiele’s sister, Gertrude (lot 10, estimate $3-5 million), which London dealer Richard Nagy described to The Art Newspaper as having been “ruined” by a disastrous campaign of restoration undertaken forty years ago. In spite of the catalogue entry alluding to the alterations which the picture has suffered, this problematic canvas attracted a winning bid of $2.7 million.
There can be no better illustration of the market’s recovery during the last twelve months than the example of Monet’s winter grainstacks (lot 23, unpublished estimate $7-9 million) which was purchased by distinguished Osaka dealer Takahata for $6.5 million. The picture, which was being offered around the market last year, had appeared at the same house on 15 November 1989 (lot 37), at a time generally judged to have been close to the peak in the market’s cycle, when it had fetched $6.1 million.
Another Japanese buyer acquired van Gogh’s Paris skyscape (lot 21, estimate $1-1.5 million) on the high estimate. The canvas had been consigned by the former wife of Wall Street arbitrageur, Ivan Boesky, who had paid $715,000 for it at Sotheby’s, New York, on 14 May 1985 (lot 14).
The Nahmad partnership paid $2.3 million for Braque’s “L’Echo”, a large composition related to his Studio series. The consigner is believed to have been troubled Austrian banker Wolfgang Flottl who had purchased the picture in the same rooms on 11 May 1993 (lot 42) for $3.5 million.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Is the sun also rising in the East?'