Yea for Europe (we hope)! On October 27 the European community announced the “solution” to sovereign debt and European banking. Some issues were left a bit unclear such as:

1)     Does the “voluntary” default constitute a default especially as to credit swaps? That issue will determine which banks fail first, though the intent is to nullify derivative obligations. What will the courts say?

2)     From where arrives the money and whence? That will determine whether the other five teetering countries and some of the banks can be saved. It will also determine the inflation rate.

3)     At what pace will the European banks be nationalized?

4)     What is to be the effect on world financial and general economic conditions?
A lot of baggage to sort out. However, a reasonable start or at least a reasonable announcement of intent.

Now, to the Impressionist Modern Auctions.

The top layer of the art market has consistently outperformed all other markets. We include stocks, real estate, commodities, and most known asset classes. The European “miracle” has, at the morning of 27 October, brought us exuberance in markets. If this exuberance holds through next week we might see a reasonable auction set.

The estimates set forth in the evening sales are anticipating new high prices for many artists. Whether this stance is real or simply the result of the houses battling for merchandise is not clear. Our take says it is the latter. Guarantees have dried up with only six lots guaranteed three by one of the houses as principal and three by third parties, out of a total of one hundred and fifty four lots. Certainly neither the houses nor their usual third party guarantors exude confidence in the pricing of the sales.

Though the art market follows other markets, (usually with a time lag even though the art market outperforms all other markets over the long term) now is a time for some caution. All may not be as it seems.

Sellers – listen to your auction rep when he calls you to lower your reserves. Greed is not in order.
Buyers – Don’t venture a bid until the auctioneer indicates the reserve has been satisfied. (He normally says “I can sell it here”) Both houses have private sale departments where you can make a deal for unsold lots.

Christie’s New York November 1, 2011

In the Arabian Night’s, the prosperous Barmecide asks the indigent and starving Schacabac to dinner and sets before him an empty bowl. “ How do you find your soup?” asks the merchant. “Surpassing delicious,” answers the puzzled, well-mannered Schacabac.  “And your bread, by its whiteness, is it not of the finest flour?” “Indeed, Excellency”, Schacabac answers holding an empty hand to his nose, “and freshly baked, too.”  Christie’s, like Barmecide have left the best lots to our imagination.   In the midst of so much abundance, 83 lots, there is little to feast upon save their estimates.

Lot 6, Matisse, Femme assise, (est. $700,000 to $1M) The first of the 7 Lew and Edie Wasserman lots that hold the qualitative core of the sale.  While Madame Matisse and her daughter endured the tense winter of 1938 in Northern France, Matisse and Lydia Delectorskaya soldiered on much as before, in Nice, more comfortably attired.  Drawn here in charcoal, in the louche costume of the seraglio.  Another, Nu rose (study), Lydia, prone, buttock cocked attractively towards the artist, also charcoal, sold at Sotheby’s London, in June 2010 for  $8.5M.   Nu allonge, charcoal, larger, though less well drawn than this Femme assise sold at Christie’s NY in November 2007 for $1.5M.  With Beyeler and Mary Lasker as provenance Femme assise may do well.

Lot 7, Matisse, Robe orientale violette, sur la robe blanche, à la fenêtre. (est. $4M to $6M) simmers with mild weather and good living. Sea-green jalousies, a red and white striped fauteuil, and a pin striped caftan-like robe over a blousy peignoir, the early morning déshabille of the haut bourgeoisie, though the war would rage on for 3 more years. Danseuse dans le fauteuil, sol en damier, a woman in a yellow armchair, above a contrast-y checkerboard of a floor sold in 2000 for $7.5M, in 2007 for $22M and in 2010 for $21M to throw light on the nature of art as an asset class.  Jeune fille en robe blanche, assise près de la fenêtre, same chair, same girl, same robe, larger, though pictorially not as lavish, sold at Christie’s London, in 2008 for $3.4M. Christie’s, by its estimate, foretells a more puissant market.

Lot 8, Gauguin, Scène bretonne, (est. $500,000 to $700,000). Gauguin’s Tahitian work inevitably overshadows any of the work he did in Brittany. Scene bretonne is a fan shaped, caricature-ish watercolor that even today shows a palpably insular, rural world.  Think West-Virgina-by-the-Sea. Two other fans Baignade (II) sold at Sotheby’s London, in 2006 for $500,000 and Bretonne penchee dans un paysage sold in 2001 for $400,000. More recently, Les Pecheuse de goemon, a dreary, neo impressionist work of flat colored women on a Japanese print of a sea sold at Christie’s, NY for $850,000.

Lot 9, Degas, Femme s’épongeant le dos, (est. $3.5M to $5.5M). A woman naked to the waist bends forward over a basin in an elaborate matrix of somber colored pastels to ravishing effect. It is dark-side modern in its touch and flatness, though not necessarily best loved among blue haired Degas collectors. La sortie du bain, essentially the same picture to wholly opposite affect, floral carpets, floral robes, luxuriant Palm Beach pastels, the monetized heart of Degas, sold at Sotheby’s London in 2006 for $12.5M.  Less colorful, flatter works like Le ballet, and Femme se coiffant that appeared in Sotheby’s post Lehman Bros. sale in 2008 passed.  If the quality of the work eludes some collectors, the provenance of Ambrose Vollard and Albert Barnes may not.

Lot 10, Soutine, Le Valet de chambre, (est. $4M to $6M).  A rumpled looking valet du chambre, in the red vest and white smock of his office and fiercely strabismus, cross-eyed. It seems to help the picture.  Four different valets have appeared at auction in the past 10 years. Recently Sotheby’s London sold a much larger version in June 2010 for $11.6M.

Lot 17, Sisley, Paysage, (est. $2.5M to $3.5M).  Lot 19, Pissarro, Juin, temps pluvieux, Eragny,  (est. $1.5M to $2M).  Both works are moderately interesting, good works being sold by the Art Institute of Chicago. What better?  Sisley spent so much of his time painting along the banks of the Loing or the Seine, that pictures where he set his easel overlooking the fields and town beyond are comparatively rare.  Pissarro on the other hand seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time painting in the rain.  Pissarro’s Matin, printemps, temps gris,  Eragny, sold in 1989 for $2.2M  Automne, matin, temps gris, Eragny, also sold for $2.2M in 1989.  A flat economic trajectory.  Sisley’s L’allee des peuplier a Moret, equivalent in all respects, sells in 1989 for $3.5M; Prunier et noyer au printemps, sells in 1996 for $1.6M. Also flat. Why are they selling, why at auction and what is with these hipster titles?

Lot 18, Degas, Petite Danseuse de quatorze ans, (est. $25M to $35M).  Outside of Rodin’s Le Penseur, it is the most familiar sculpture in modern art, even in Uzbekistan.  According to casting records 26 were made but 38 are known to exist.  The art market only selectively discriminates against bastardy.  Legitimate or illegitimate, les petite danseuses traipsed to the block and sold somewhere between $10M and $12M; so what happened now? Why does Christie’s ask $25M to $35M.  Christie’s mandarins say the estimate is inspirational; dealers say it is aspirational.  Christie’s says it is simply speculation on market growth, dealers say it is peculation. Outside of the House of Representatives, there is nowhere else where religious conviction can sustain value other than an auction house; amen.

Lot 29, Derain, Bateaux sur la plage à Collioure, (est. $1M to $1.5M).  A miniscule, 7” x 9”, non-event painting, but lovely.  White sails, red masts, green clouds and yellow scintillations over the water.  It was Derain’s lucky day, not ours.  We can only imagine a major, Fauve, Derain.  Barques au port de Collioures sold for $14M in 2009. Bateaux a Collioure sold in 2007 for $4M. Bateaux sur la plage a Collioure , is a Barmecide lot.

Lot 32, Picasso, Femme Endormie, (est. $12M to $18M). After the Larry Gagosian, John Richardson,

and Diana Picasso extravaganza Picasso and Marie-Therese: L’amour fou, this spring, nothing will ever be good enough.  La lecture, a pale, pastel colored picture where Marie-Therese sleeps with a book in her lap sells at Sotheby’s London in 2011 for $40M.  Femme Endormie, another work, same size, pale coloration, sells in 2003 for $5.2M.  Marie-Therese pictures appear infrequently.  Picasso mounts Olympus with the same freakish inevitability as billionaires proliferate.  Who is not going to pay anything for a Picasso anymore?

Lot 36, Ernst, The Stolen Mirror, (est. $4M-$6M). Ernst at the peak of Freudian allegory. Bare breasted Nereids covered in sea-life. How deep is this niche?  The good news is they don’t come up too often, though Sotheby’s auctions the equally horrific Convululus, Convululus tomorrow. La Conversion du feu, web footed sea creatures stealing sunbeams, sold at Christie’s London in 2008 for $2.3M.  Moon II, a yellow sun shining on a moonscape made of piled kimonos sells at Sotheby’s NY in 2007 for $2M.  The two most costly of Ernst’s pictures. Christie’s wrapped the painting over the cover in a book jacket so no one would miss it.

Lot 45, van Dongen, Femme de commerce de revue, (est. $2.5M to $3.5M).  An early, fauve version of his Kohl-eyed slatterns.  Do men want paintings of women of assured sexuality; this one just looks mean, like an ex.  It sold in 1997 for $1.3M.  The van Dongen market since shifted up.  The large Jeune arabe, a plain, deft, tour de force absent of all van Dongen’s art licks, sold in 2009 for $13.8M.  Lailla, a transcendentally buxom woman wearing a burka covering the lower half of her face and nothing else, sold in 2006 for $4.3M. Ugh.

Lot 48, Giacometti, Femme de Venise VII, (est. $10M to $15M). Femme de Venise I had a better body and sold in 2007 for $8M. Femme de Venise V, also full bodied (for Giacometti) sold at Christie’s NY in 2010 for $10.2M. Femme de Venise VIII sold at Christie’s NY in 2008 for $10.1M.  The anorexic Femme de Venise VII, appeared twice in 2004 and 2002 selling for $3.4M and $4M respectively. All this does is trace the fortunes of Giacometti through several markets not to mention L’homme qui marche which sold in London last year for $103M and changed the game.

Lot 50, Lempicka, Idylle (Le Départ), (est. $3M to $4M). A manly sailor leaving his hot, adoring, sexpot, girl friend at the dock.   This is a tiny 16” x 13” picture with an estimate that was once the province of nearly life size portraits.  Except that, last June, La Dormeuse, Lempicka’s tiny version of a dozy Marie Therese sold at Sotheby’s London, for $6.5M.

Lot 51, Picasso, Tête de femme au chapeau mauve, (est. $12M to $18M). Dora Maar, looks mildly stunned both in the insert photo and in the painting.  Clearly life with Pablo had certain domestic challenges, albeit life in Europe in 1939 had many challenges.  The picture was confiscated from Paul Rosenberg in 1940 and transferred to the German Embassy in Bordeaux and thence to the Jeu de Paume.  There was the happy Dora Maar picture, same year, same hat, Femme Assise, Robe Bleu, that sold at Christie’s, London, in 2011 over an estimate of $6.5M to $13M, for $29M. It was Dora Maar made of Jello, melting in a heat lamp.  This Dora Maar has the cartoon-ish stamp of a character in the aftermath of the proverbial steamroller, Picasso.

Lot 55, Delvaux, Les Mains, (est. $6M to $9M). Sold by MOMA. How much is surrealistic, how much is Delvaux’s dystopian vision of a male Utopia with pretty, half naked, mesmerized women, waiting on men.  How much of this can still pass as an aesthetic?  In 1941 the allegory would be unmistakable.  La Ville Inquiete, 1940, sold in 1998 for $5M.  La Venus endormie, 1943,sold in 2005 for $2M.  The most expensive works from this period.  Once the war ended, one thought, enough would have been enough.  Not so, the 1946, Les Cariatides, two naked zombies, sold at Sotheby’s in May 2011 over an estimate of $3M to $5M, for $9M. MOMA was right to sell.

Lot 68, Brancusi, Le Premier Cri, (est. $8M to $10M).  This is not the best head you can get.  It is the only head.  In 25 years, fewer than six have appeared at auction although some have sold privately.  Danaide, from 1913, which is nowhere near as interesting, as it has a neck, sold in 2002 for $18M.  La muse endormie III, 1917, in marble sold in 1989 for $8.2M. A collector, who had two, said the best ones look like they will roll off your table.

Sotheby’s November 2, 2011
Lot 6, Gonzalez, Masque 1, (est. $400,000 to $600,000). When Picasso imagined sculpture for the first time, he needed Gonzalez, who was the 1904 equivalent of a body shop welder, to construct it, and create the vernacular of welded metal.  It was not, however, a one-way street; Gonzalez, once he caught the drift, went on to make the most austere and expressive sculpture in metal till David Smith surfaced. At 4 ¾”, not including the stand Masque 1 is a tiny, and valuable amulet. This may not be his best sculpture, but Gonzalez went on to make singular, and nuanced works.  Works in iron, as opposed to bronze, are very rare. Ombre et lumiere masque, 10” h, sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2011 for $$7.5M.  Masque my, 6” h, sold, same house, same date, for $$4.4M.

Lot 7, Klimt, Litzlberg am Attersee, (est. not published).  The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, fueled by Ronald Lauder’s passion, fortune and museum sold in 2006 for $88M.  Kirsch in Cassone-Landschaft mit Zypressen, sold at Sotheby’s, London, in June 2010 over an estimate of $20M to $30M, for $43M. Sotheby’s must now be scratching their collective heads wondering where Litzlberg am Attersee will price out.  The Attersee is a large lake in the Salzkammergut area of Austria.  Litzlberg is an island with a chateau.  Most of the picture consists of the endless mountain forests one sees driving the Mass Pike through the Berkshires with a vestigial bit of lake and chateau in the foreground.

The next four lots are to be sold by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

Lot 9, Monet, Antibes, le Fort, (est. $5M to $7M).  Monet paints this view with minor variations 6 times in succession. He has set himself up across the bay and paints the town, and the fort with the Esterel mountains behind it.  The picture ends up in Brahmin Boston owned by a bold face name and is donated to the MFA Boston in 1978. Another version sells in 1997 for $2M.  Is this casino night at the museum?  A good time to sell, a good time to buy.  It is a very nice picture all the same.

Lot 10, Sisley, Saint-Mammès, Le Matin, (est. $2M to $3M). Saint-Mammes is a tiny town on the Seine just past the confluence of the Loing river.  Sisley paints it, viewed across the estuary on a sparkling, sunlit, sky blue morning.  The more elaborate Saint-Mammes, avant l’ete, another perfect day picture, with articulated buildings and people, shadowed in sunlight moving through the town, sold in 2006 for $2.5M. The more comparable, Le marronier a Saint-Mammes, a chestnut tree in the middle distance, sold in 2007 for $1.6M.

Lot 11, Pissarro, La maison de la folie à Eragny, (est. $1.8M to $2.5). Pissarro’s paintings of Eragny in the 1880’s are so expressive of the hardship of farm life, the joy only flows through the Impressionist palette. Peasants are forever piling hay or sitting there exhausted.  La maison delafolie is better; it is an impeccably kept yard in a sunny, verdant landscape, traversed by a farmer on a white horse.  In 1990, La recolte des foins, Eragny, hay pilers,sold for $2.1M. In 1989, Paysanne assise, exhaustion, sold for $1.7M.  1990 hit record prices and then the market collapsed.

Lot 14, Gauguin, Chemin creux dans une pente boisée, (est. $1.2M to $1.8M).  There are people who find Gauguin’s Tahitian works idiosyncratic, or formulaic and prefer the freshness of the work he did in Brittany and Normandy. Alas, this picture would not sustain that notion.  It is a view of a path in the deep woods, with dense, threatening, boughs, bordering the marginally sunlit path.   On the plus side, the even drearier Vue Generale de Rouen sold in 2008 for $2M.

Lot 17, Caillebotte, Le pont d’Argenteuil et la Seine, (est. $9M to $12M). This painting sold on November 6, 2008, two days after President Obama had won the election and had immediately moved his economic transition team into place to stave off the Second Great Depression. The picture had been estimated at $8M to $12M, and hammered at $7.5M in a subdued room. A luminous painting of five slender steel arches linked to stone piers supporting the bridge at Argenteuil.  Terrific. The auction house has re-evaluated the market, believing that works sold amid earlier economic uncertainty will now find higher values. La Seine a Argenteuil, not quite as good, sold in June 2010 for $5.2M, so maybe they are correct.

Lot 19, Jawlensky, Infanta Spanierin, (est. $5M to $7M). The Russian, Jawlensky studied with Repin. Clement Greenberg in Kitsch and the Avant Guard casts Repin as the Dark Prince of Kitsch, the artist of synthetic feeling.  Infanta Spanierin does little to discredit his hypothesis.  It is a woman in an electric blue hoodie, two outsize camellias as high fidelity headsets, Goth make up, and Cleopatra eyes.  Halloween is around the corner.  It sold in 2007, a good year, over an estimate of $4M to $6M for $4M.  Thus it hammered in the neighborhood of $3.4M, at the reserve(?). There is no other picture as sketchy in the ArtNet records. Schoko- Schoko mit Tellerhut, a pretty red picture of a woman with an apparent bowl of fruit balanced on her head sells in 2003 for $8.2M and again in 2008 for $18.6M, channeling Sotheby’s optimism.

Lot 25, Ernst, Convolvulus, Convolvulus, (est. $1.5M to $2M).  If the 8 lots of Max Ernst paintings lodged in the midst of the sale are an aesthetic ghetto, then Convolvulus, Convolvulus is its Love Canal. Aquatic creatures morphed into somber cow spiders.  Lamprey ducks covered in coral. Convolvulus, Convolvulus sold in 2003 for $1.2M.  The house anticipates that it will sell for more.  It ought to be pleased if it sells at all. Convolvulus is a species of bindweed that overruns more valuable lots, at auction.  La Conversion du feu, web footed sea creatures stealing sunbeams, sold at Christie’s London in 2008 for $2.3M.  Moon II, a yellow sun shining on a moonscape made of piled kimonos sells at Sotheby’s NY in 2007 for $2M. The records.

Lot 29, Matisse, Nu de dos (1er état), (est. 20M to $30M).  It is interesting that Sotheby’s will publish an estimate for Nu de Dos, but not for the Klimt.  In the economic macro-sphere of sculpture Giacometti is more commanding, but Matisse made fewer works. Christie’s sold Nu de dos, 4eme état, in November 2010, over an estimate of $25M to $35M, for $48M, but the quatrième état is aesthetically, light years ahead of the premier état, so Sotheby’s hedges its intent with a lower estimate. It is also selling all four états, one after the other, in a succession of sales, which is a tad creepy.

Lot 34, Giacometti, Buste d’Annette VIII, (est. $1.8M to $2.5M).  Busts of Annette do not feature prominently in the pared down, terse, abstraction of Giacometti.  Perhaps it was not something you could pull with your wife.  In Buste d’Annette VIII, she looks very cute and actually has a face. Buste d’Annette VII sold in 2009 for $2.1M. In Buste d’Annette X, she looks chronically ill.  It sold in Sweden in 2011 for $1.2M.

Lot 35, Picasso, L’Aubade, (est. $18M to $25M).  Picasso’s painted surrogate romps with a fleshy woman that looks uncannily like Picasso.  At 86, his pictorial vigor has not flagged, the pictures are more graphic and the prices are holding up.   If Sotheby’s assessment comes to pass, it will be the most costly in its class. Christie’s London sold Le Baiser, the same sort of romping mitochondria, in June 2010 for $17M. Sotheby’s London, sold the less explicit, less realized Couple, le baiser, in June 2011 for $10.5M.)
Lot 37, Lempicka, Le Rêve (Rafaela sur fond vert), (est. $5M to $7M).  Rafaela is a sloe-eyed, broad shouldered woman squeezing her tits, semi reclined.  The surrogate for every man that sees her. It is interesting that such mawkish pictures sell, but they do.  This is so overt in its sexuality that Sotheby’s argues by it estimate that this will be the most expensive Lempicka to auction, eclipsing the much smaller, and better (?) La Dormeuse that Sotheby’s sold in June 2011 for $6.5M.
Lot 43, Soutine, Portrait d’un jeune homme, (est. $1.2M to $1.8M). A nice enough picture but nowhere near as good Le Valet du Chambre that Christie’s offers, but considerably less expensive. Maybe, Soutine prices have not fallen.

Lot 47, Kandisky, Weisser Klang, (est. $7M to $10M).  In 1903 Kandinsky goes walk-about for a few years then returns to Munich and starts his real journey towards pure abstraction arriving sometime in 1912. His first stop is at the fauves in 1908 where this picture gets on. It sold in 1998 for $3.3M and in 2007 for $5.5M.  ArtNet auction notes described it as a “ravishing picture, to put on your wall and stare at in blank wonder”. Now it will be more costly.

Lot 52, Delvaux, Nus à la statue, (est. $3M to $5M). Do lifeless, naked women have charm? Yes but they are expensive.  Sotheby’s has staged the 1946, Nus a la statue economically alongside the deadzone Les Cariatides, that they sold in May 2011 over the same estimate, for $9M. Given the amount by which Les Cariatides exceeded its estimate perhaps the under bidder will return and recreate the miracle.

Acknowledgement: All research courtesy


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