Auction of Billy Wilder’s Art Fetches $32.6 Million


A $32.6-million auction of film maker Billy Wilder’s collection Monday night at Christie’s kicked off a heady week of Impressionist and modern art sales.

Enormous prices are on the agenda this week and Christie’s and Sotheby’s are predicting record sales, but the Wilder affair got off to a shaky start. Several pieces brought less than their low estimates and a few others failed to sell. The auction soon gathered steam, however, and eventually exceeded Christie’s most optimistic estimate by more than $1 million.

The 83-year-old collector kept his wit during the fray. “It was less nerve-wracking than a film preview,” Wilder said, and proclaimed himself pleased with the results amid a crowd of friends and fans.


“Head of a Woman,” a 1921 classical pastel portrait by Pablo Picasso, brought the auction’s top price of $4.8 million but less than Christie’s low estimate of $5 million.

Two works by Joan Miro more than made up for the Picasso. A sprightly 1936 gouache, “The Farmer and His Wife,” valued at $1.5 million to $2 million, brought $2.7 million from an unidentified American dealer. “The Star,” a 1927 oil inspired by a dream, commanded $2.6 million--significantly more than Christie’s high estimate of $1.6 million.

Seven works sold for more than $1 million each, including Picasso’s “Two Nude Women and Head of a Woman” ($1.98 million) and Alberto Giacometti’s painted bronze sculpture “Standing Woman II” ($1.1 million).

Records were set for 12 artists. Balthus’ painting of a teen-age nude, “La Toilette,” sold to a European dealer for a record $2 million. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s painting “Two Nudes on a Blue Sofa” brought $1.5 million, a high for the German Expressionist.

The auction also set records for Joseph Cornell ($495,000), Nicolas de Stael ($638,000) and Mario Marini ($671,000).

Wilder, who was born in Austria and worked in Berlin as a young man, moved to Hollywood in 1934. He acquired most of his modern art in the late ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. Those were his prime film-making years, when he directed the Academy Award winners “The Lost Weekend,” “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment,” as well as “The Seven Year Itch” and “Some Like It Hot.”

Although Wilder lacked the means to buy major paintings by renowned artists, he snapped up high-quality works on paper and small sculptures and developed a sharp eye for new talent.

The works sold at Christie’s range from figurative to abstract and cover nearly 100 years, but they reflect a fondness for Expressionist nudes, literary twists and spicy wit.

Wilder’s modern art covered the walls of his former home in Beverly Hills and his present apartment on Wilshire Boulevard.

A Los Angeles contingent including his wife, Audrey, actresses Claudette Colbert and Angie Dickinson and writer Dominick Dunne watched the auction from Christie’s boardroom, but Wilder joined the crowd in the sale room.

He has not revealed what he plans to do with his millions.

Impressionist and modern art auctions will continue tonight with a big-ticket sale at Christie’s, including 14 works from the Paul Mellon collection valued at $85.5 million to $90 million. Drawings and watercolors will go on the block Wednesday morning at Christie’s, followed by relatively low-priced paintings and sculptures in the afternoon.

The auction crowd will move to Sotheby’s on Wednesday night for the season’s most highly publicized event--the sale of Picasso’s “Au Lapin Agile.” Sotheby’s officials have predicted that this 1905 cafe scene depicting the artist as a harlequin may break Picasso’s record of $47.9 million and possibly bring more than the $53.9 million paid for Vincent van Gogh’s “Irises,” the world’s most expensive artwork.