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The Arts Investor, 5-2: Blue-Chip Stocks
Heavy-weight sales for heavy-weight artists at Christie's New York
Copyright 2012 Paul Ben-Itzak
It's a lot easier to fathom an Impressionist or classic Modern artwork going for eight figures at auction than it is to understand why certain Contemporary artists can fetch six figures. A Mary Cassatt oil of a bourgeoisie girl seated in a chair reading a blue book may be no less banal than a pale David Hockney watercolor of a house in the London suburbs, but the $1,538,500 Cassatt's 1909 "Francoise in a Round-Backed Chair, Reading" sold for at Christie's New York for last night's Impressionism and Modern Art Evening Sale can at least be explained by one incontestable factor, even if the subject and technique in themselves are unalluring: Cassatt's dead, so there's a limited stock available. If the caché attached to Hockney can seem arbitrary, having more akin with equities or, better, futures speculation in the inscrutability of its market valuation, the six to eight figures most of the 31 lots brought in last night in a sale that totaled $117,086,000 (21 works went for more than a million) seems more based on their proven place in history. Let's face it: As the art market goes, Picasso, Cézanne, Matisse, Bonnard, Miro, Braque, Modigliani, Renoir, Gaugin, and Monet are the blue-chip stocks.
Unlike some of the exorbitant results of recent Contemporary sales -- which seem based on arbitrary market factors having little to do with taste -- none of the winning bids for the 31 lots on sale in last night at Christie's New York left me scratching my head (or banging it against my blank wall in existential exasperation). Considering both that it hadn't been seen in 60 years and that it was a preparatory study for a recognized, and influential, masterwork, Cézanne's "Card Players" study seems to merit the $19,122,500 it garnered, just under the top estimate. And considering the seminal role it played in inventing the next big movement after Impressionism, Fauvism, it's no surprise that Matisse's "Les Pivoines" (The Peonies), produced in 1907 in full flush of the artist's Collioure period, equalled Cezanne, at $7 million more than its top estimate. Less clear to this long-time art and dance-watcher is why art-buyers never seem to tire of Degas's dancers, with his pastel "Les Danseuses," made circa 1893-98, going for $2,546,500, $46,500 above the top estimate. The two Bonnard works on sale -- the 1901 "Jardin en Dauphiné" and the 1928 "Femme endormie," respectively -- went for higher and lower than anticipated, while Picasso continues to be the one of the most consistent gold standards, with his 1932 oil "Le Repos (Marie-Therese Walter)" selling for $9,882,500, nearly $3 million above the top estimate, and his 1933 watercolor "Sur la terrasse" $1,594,500, twice the top pre-sale estimate.
That someone would pay nearly $20 million for a work hand-created by Cezanne, an essential link between Impressionism and Modern Art, a work that is thus not just art but artifact, makes a lot more sense to me than Time-Warner paying $300 million for the Huffington Post, which doesn't exist in any tangible form and is hardly generated by original talent. But art buyers, or at least Impressionist and Modern art-buyers, appear to be even smarter on another level: While the Matisse has intrinsic beauty going for it, what to make of Claude Monet's 25 1/2 by 30 1/2 inch oil "Les demoiselles de Giverny" going for $9.6 million? If at first glance the painting seems like one of the less luminous of Monet's works, its value as milestone is startling. Not exhibited publicly for 50 years -- since the exhibition "French Impressionism in Argentinean Collections" at the Museo nacional de Bellas Artes in Buenos Aires in 1962 -- this work, created in 1894, predates and predicts the artist's end of life shift into Abstractionism -- the Japanese bridge and water-lilies of his dear Giverny melted into pure color -- by nearly 30 years. It may not be as dazzling as Paul Signac's 1916 "Les bricks-goelettes. Antibes," which brought in $3,778,500 after a pre-sale estimate of $4 million - $6 million, but it's a lot more significant, its higher sale price thus revealing a shrewdness in the buyer that Wall Street traders would do well to emulate. And a shrewdness in the auction house, which achieved a sale-through rate of 90% by lot and 96% by value. (Only three of the 31 works -- by Dali, Chagall, and Giacometti -- were removed from the floor because they did not fetch the reserve price. Two lots sold for over $15 million, seven for over $5 million, and 21 for over $1 million.)
"This was a carefully edited sale that brought together collecting options at the highest level of market while hitting the market 'sweet spot' of mid-priced works by blue-chip artists like Picasso, Matisse, Monet, and (Henry) Moore, " said Marc Porter, chairman of Christie?s Americas. "As a result, we saw our strongest sell-through percentages for this category in New York since 2006, which is a testament to the market-savvy of our Impressionist and Modern Art team. We are particularly pleased with the results achieved for Cézanne?s study for 'Card Players' and for our cover lot, Matisse?s 'Les Pivoines (The Peonies)', which proved to be the perfect ode to spring in New York."