Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Christie's Modern and Impressionists Auction

Christie's, one of the two preëminent auction houses, had the pleasure of my company yesterday. It was for a preview of their Valentine's Day Modern and Impressionsists auction, scheduled a day before Sotheby's auction in the same category.

I'd been to galleries before, but never an auction house. And certainly never among a crowd that could afford such things. It looked like any MoMA gallery, only with price tags -- generally in the $20,000-$30,000 range. Which, if you're familiar with today's art market, is alarmingly modest.

I was pleased to see a few Impressionists I recognized -- a mediocre early painting by Monet (1858, expected to sell for between $15,000 and $20,000), a rather nice watercolor by Renoir (c. 1896, bidding at between $60,000 and $80,000), and a blue crayon drawing by Gustav Klimt (c. 1900-07, bidding at around $25,000-35,000), which was being sold by a Pittsburgh university.

That Klimt is notable because of the untold story -- why is Park Point University getting rid of it, and how did they acquire it? -- and because Klimts are fetching astronomical prices right now -- Ronald Lauder (of Estee Lauder cosmetics fame) recently paid $135,000,000 for a Klimt painting, a 1905 portrait of a Vienna industrialist's wife, Adele Bloch-Bauer. That's the highest (at least for the short term) price ever paid for a painting. Lauder bought it for the Neue Galerie, a small but lavish Austrian and German art museum down the street from the Met. But if I'm reading Christie's's (can I do that with apostrophes?) auction notes right, the little blue crayon study fetched a mere $24,000.

But then, can we trust these notes? A Hannah Höch painting (that, to be fair, Christie's was hyping) that was estimated at $8,000-$12,000 sold for ... $824,000? I must be reading this wrong. There must be other paintings in the lot.

But what caught my eye was a Renoir. It was a hideous thing. A portrait of a young girl framed in an oval the size of a deck of cards. Her eyes and facial features were blurred, as they often are in Renoir's paintings, but here they were obscured to the point of desecration. This little painting was ugly. And it was estimated at $30,000-$40,000. As I stood and gawked at it, a well-dressed but dusty-looking little old man shuffled over with his wife, an equally tiny person in a slightly less-worn outfit of a black and white hound's tooth pattern. Expecting to hear some learned wisdom from this diminutive collector, I pricked up my ears.

I didn't catch the first thing he mumbled to his wife about the painting, but I caught the important bit clearly: "She looks stupid," he spit, ambling between me and the painting. In a gallery full of millionaires, this pleased me.

And speaking of those millionaires, I was impressed with the way these people dressed. I saw all sorts of stereotypes -- the cultivated version of Paris Hilton, tall and lean with patterned stockings; a pair of gay hedge funders, wide-eyed and campy but very smartly appointed; and a tall, eccentricly-dressed old man in a fur hat who was either an aging modern painter, or was playing the part very well. I saw women who looked like they were trying to show off recent implants, and one who looked like she was trying to hide her natural endowments. What I didn't see was evidence that I was among anyone like myself, a salaryman.

Later, when I was getting ready to leave, I passed the little old man and his wife again -- the ones who admired the Renoir with me. In the lobby, they made their way by a few modern pieces that looked like outsider art. One painting depicted a stone building in a cobblestone courtyard, tediously painted with the same grid pattern for both the building and the street. "Stupid!" Proclaimed the old man.

I could see I was among connoisseurs.

[The top photo shows Christie's lobby, featuring a wall painting (1999) by Sol Lewitt.]



Blogger The Masticator said...

The Klimt drawing had this note with it:

"As an additional point of interest, the inscription featured to the right of the figure's contorted body has been identified as the name, address and telephone number of the model depicted here."

Obviously this was intended as a study, not as a piece for sale. Is there something wrong with selling something that was never intended for the public for that much ($24,000) money?

10:48 AM  

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