Getty Purchases 1878 Manet Work for $26.4 Million


Edouard Manet's 1878 street scene "La Rue Mosnier With Flags" sold for $26.4 million to the J. Paul Getty Museum on Tuesday, a world auction record for the artist, Christie's auction house said.

John Walsh, director of the Malibu museum, said the acquisition "represents another big step toward having an important group of 19th-Century paintings at the Getty. We always admired the picture but didn't dream we would have a chance to buy it."

The painting is expected to go on display by early December.

Despite the price paid for the Manet, the big-ticket auction of Impressionist and modern art at Christie's issued a public warning that the market for multimillion-dollar paintings may have a limit.

The sale brought a total of $232.4 million, a record for an auction of Impressionist and modern art. Forty-six works sold for more than $1 million each and nine artists' records were set. The bad news was that 29 of the 97 lots offered failed to sell, including several that were expected to command some of the auction's highest prices.

Six of the 14 works from the collection of philanthropist Paul Mellon did not find buyers--"Death of the Harlequin," a 1906 painting by Pablo Picasso (expected to bring up to $20 million); "Laborer in the Fields at Arles," an ink drawing by Vincent van Gogh (valued at $1.2 million to $1.6 million); three wax sculptures of dancers by Edgar Degas (estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million each), and "Still Life" by Henri Fantin-Latour (valued at $500,000 to $700,000).

The record-setting Manet, titled "La Rue Mosnier aux Drapeaux" in French, had been expected to go as high as $30 million, but the sale still more than doubled Manet's record of $11.1 million, set in 1986 for a similar painting, "La Rue Mosnier With Pavers."

Mellon bought his Manet in 1958 for $316,000, a record at the time, at an auction of Berlin financier Jakob Goldschmidt's collection. Manet sold the work in 1879 to a Parisian collector for about $100. By 1913, when the painting came up for auction in Paris, it brought about $13,000.

"La Rue Mosnier With Flags," painted from Manet's studio window, is thought to represent France's first public celebration after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-71. A colorful array of flags lends the picture a cheerful air, while a one-legged veteran struggling through the street on crutches provides a reminder of the ravages of war.

Among the evening's disappointments, seven of 15 paintings from the estate of George N. Richard, founder of the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford, Conn., also failed to sell. The top-priced painting from the Richard collection, Claude Monet's "Le Parlement, Soleil Couchant," brought $9.9 million--considerably less than the $14.3 million paid last May for a work from the same series in the Hal B. Wallis collection.

The Tuesday night auction at first seemed highly charged with excitement and the sale room was crowded to the point of claustrophobia. Bids were placed on all works offered, but competition often stopped before the figures reached the lowest selling price established by the seller and the auction house.

Competition was surprisingly fierce on many lower-priced items, however. "Sleeping Muse III," a marble sculpture of a head by Constantin Brancusi, brought a record $8.25 million--significantly more than the high estimate of $6 million.

Edouard Vuillard's painting "The Dressing Table (in the Flowers)," valued at up to $3.5 million, fetched $7.7 million. "The Seine at Chatou," a vividly colored landscape by Maurice de Vlaminck, sold for $7.15 million, a record for the artist and twice the painting's estimate.

Japanese buyers probably saved the auction from being perceived as a disaster. Kiyotaka Kori of Aska International Co. in Tokyo bought eight paintings by Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, priced as high as $8.8 million.

"I think we have obviously strained the market," said Michael Findlay, head of Christie's Impressionist painting department, at a press conference after the sale. "I've seen a market that is racing and the brakes are being applied, somewhat gently and in certain areas."

"The number of people willing to pay from $1 million to $10 million is vast," he said, but there has been "some resistance" to paying more than $10 million for a single work of art. "Many people in the room spent $20 million tonight, but not on a single painting," Findaly said.

If that pattern continues, Sotheby's auction of Impressionist and modern art may be in trouble tonight. The top-priced item is Picasso's "Au Lapin Agile," valued at more than $40 million, and five other works have been estimated at more than $10 million.

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