“This is the most important Fauve portrait to come to market, bar none,” you can hear Brooke Lampley, Christie’s Impressionist/modern department head, assert to the press in this CultureGrrl Video.
Expounding upon Derain’s “Madame Matisse in a Kimono,” 1905, the second-highest estimated work in the sale at $15-20 million, Lampley added:
I try not to use the words ‘museum quality’ too lightly. We’re tempted to, in our field. This is truly a museum quality work. The synergy and synthesis of aesthetics and narrative here are relatively unparalleled.
What that alliterative last sentence means, I haven’t figured out yet. Neither, apparently, did prospective bidders (let alone museums), who left poor Madame stranded in her chair, downcast. Unsold at $13 million, she was the biggest failure in this week’s Impressionist/modern bid-athon.
Faring barely better was Christie’s highest-estimated work, Soutine‘s “The Little Pastry Chef,” c. 1927, which may have been “a signal, emblematic piece in the artist’s body of work,” as Lampley described it, but nevertheless failed to attract a single bid above the $16 million ($18.04 million, with buyer’s premium) that the auction house’s chairman for postwar and contemporary art, Brett Gorvy, had told us a third party had formally promised to bid. That surprising advance disclosure of the usually confidential amount of the “irrevocable bid,” as it’s called, may have had the effect of setting not only the floor but also the ceiling.
The relatively recent practice of pre-rigging auctions with irrevocable bids is a phenomenon that merits rethinking and, I think, reform. What should be a straightforward, level-playing-field process has become compromised, if not corrupted, by all manner of secret side deals.
Still, the Soutine’s preordained price set an auction record for the artist, in a sale that otherwise performed much like Sotheby’s outing last night—respectably, not spectacularly.
Christie’s sold percentage was better than Sotheby’s by lot (94%, compared to 84.5% at Sotheby’s). But Christie’s sold percentage by value was inferior (90%, compared to 95.2% at Sotheby’s), due in part to the Derain’s expensive failure. Christie’s sales total, including buyer’s premium, was $158.51 million, compared to $230.04 million at Sotheby’s. Christie’s total hammer price was $137.53 million, near the low end of the presale estimate of $131.4-190.5 million.
Auctioneer Andreas Rumbler, Christie’s deputy chairman and international director, Impressionist and modern art, earned deserved applause at the end of the evening, not so much for the sale results as for keeping the action lively and well paced. New to New York’s evening auctions last November, he seems to have acquired some of his vocal mannerisms (with a certain growl in the high numbers) from Christie’s retired bid-meister, Christopher Burge. He sometimes “leans in” (apologies, Sheryl) at the podium, in a way reminiscent of Burge.
So far, however, Rumbler lacks Burge’s graceful gestures and flashes of wit. There were a few lighter moments, which may become more frequent as Rumbler rumbles on (and gets some better material to work with).
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post gave an outdated title for Rumbler, which I had found on Christie’s website.