The silly season of major evening sales of Impressionist/Modern and Contemporary art is again upon us, when we turn back the clock and ramp up the hype. Euphemistically called “auctions,” these tightly choreographed spectacles of conspicuous consumption, which reconvene this evening at Sotheby’s and tomorrow night at Christie’s, are increasingly pre-engineered, with much of the bidding predetermined by guarantees, irrevocable bids and other contrivances, calculated to minimize both the risk and the spontaneity.
It looks like this go-round will run true to form: From the presale exhibitions and estimates, it appears that Sotheby’s will outshine Christie’s in the Impressionist/Modern field but Christie’s will lead in Contemporary, the most lucrative category (notwithstanding the prodding by activist investors in publicly traded Sotheby’s to ramp up its performance in its Contemporary sales).
Total presale estimates for Impressionist/Modern evening sales are “in excess of $300 million” for Sotheby’s; “in excess of $110 million” for Christie’s. For the Contemporary evening sales next week, estimate totals are “in the region of $600 million” for Christie’s; “in excess of $400 million for Sotheby’s” (which includes contemporary works in the Monday evening Bunny Mellon sale, as well as in the various-owners sale the following night).
Perhaps trying to counter recent publicity about mercenary art-flipping by crass speculators seeking quick profits, both houses at the press previews for the major sales emphasized their longstanding, close relationships with collector/consignors and the fresh-to-the-market appeal of their wares. To me, fresh-to-the-market means something that hasn’t changed hands in my lifetime. But others’ lifetimes (and others’ memories of past sales) are shorter.
By Christie’s definition, as this pie chart from its Impressionist/Modern press release indicates, “freshness” means that something has been been off the market for a mere 10 years:
So who can blame Sotheby’s senior VP, Simon Shaw, for boasting (as captured in my CultureGrrl Video previewing the Impressionist/Modern sales, below) that “it’s been a long time—the late 1980s, as a matter of fact—since a great van Gogh still life was offered at auction….This [“Vase with Daisies and Poppies,” pictured at the top] is…a really terrific example, totally fresh to the market, in great condition.”
I had taken than to mean that it hadn’t been shopped around in a very long time, but some of the bloom is off these poppies now that Dan Duray of ARTnews reported that it had failed to sell at Christie’s in November 1990 (during a market slump), against a presale estimate of $12-$16 million.
In my video, you’ll hear Brooke Lampley, Christie’s Impressionist/Modern head, suggestng that Manet’s “Spring,” in a private collection since 1909 (that’s fresh!), might “go to an institution.” It had been on loan to the National Gallery of Art for almost 21 years, until last May.
I got my first glimpse of that lushly verdant Manet as it was being unceremoniously carted into Christie’s gallery, just as the press preview was about to get started. (She had been out partyting the previous night, at an event for Christie’s clients at the Mandarin Oriental.)
I agree with Lampley that “no matter how well you illustrate it or put it in videos,…it always looks better in person, because it is that…fully worked and richly detailed.” I was completely unprepared for how this symphony of delicately rendered frills and greenery, harmonizing the woman’s attire with her surroundings—the took my breath away.
But what really made me gasp is the $100 million that Sotheby’s is expecting for its top lot—an art historically important anorexic, not nearly as instantly endearing as Manet’s voluptuous eye candy. But there’s a precedent for this estimate.
Come with me now to meet these and a few other Impressionist/Modern offerings for which the auctioneers have high hopes: