The Battle of the Auction Houses Heats Up : Art: Christie's has announced that it will guarantee a price for a collection, matching the practice of Sotheby's.

TIMES ART WRITER

The latest multimillion-dollar artworks to join the parade in New York's spring auctions are five modern and Impressionist paintings from the collection of the late Robert Lehman. A Vincent van Gogh self-portrait valued at $20 million to $30 million will go on the block at Christie's on May 15, along with paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Amedeo Modigliani and Kees van Dongen. Sales of the five works are expected to total between $40 million and $60 million.

In a move designed to sharpen its competitive edge against Sotheby's and reassure shareholders, Christie's has announced that it will guarantee the Lehman sale for an undisclosed price. In the past, Sotheby's has guaranteed a minimum price to some consignors--setting off a storm of controversy in the art world--but Christie's has resisted this practice.

A press release announcing the Lehman sale says that the firm has had a "long-standing concern about the possible negative impact of guaranteed sales on the art market." However, "in certain cases" Christie's has "found it difficult to compete without offering guarantees," the prepared statement says. "The firm recognizes the need to maintain its prime position in the international art market, and to maintain a flexible and competitive attitude to market pressures created by the use of the guarantee by other auction houses."

The two London-based houses are arch competitors, but lately Sotheby's aggressive tactics have pushed it ahead of Christie's. Sotheby's 1989 sales worldwide totalled $2.9 billion, while Christie's racked up about $2.2 billion.

The Lehman auction features works from the collection of a New York financier who was a major donor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Van Gogh self-portrait was painted in Arles, France, in early December, 1888, a year and a half before the Dutch master's death. The 18x15-inch painting, executed in Van Gogh's vigorous, mature style, is among the few works that the artist signed, according to the Park Avenue auction house.

Van Gogh painted himself in a yellow jacket against a bright green background and dedicated the work to Charles Laval, an artist friend who had given him a self-portrait. Van Gogh's self-portrait was shown in "Van Gogh in Arles," a 1984 blockbuster exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and it will be reproduced on the cover of a book on Van Gogh's self-portraits to be published by the Rijksmuseum Vincent van Gogh in Amsterdam.

Other paintings from the Lehman collection to be offered on May 15 are "Girl With Fur," an 1891 oil by Toulouse-Lautrec ($10 million to $15 million); Renoir's 1885 "Nude Seated" ($6 million to $8 million); Modigliani's 1917 portrait of his mistress, Jeanne Hebuterne ($4 million to $6 million); and Van Dongen's "Young Lady Rider" ($700,000 to $1 million).

While the Van Gogh self-portrait is likely to be the star of the Lehman sale, it is expected to be upstaged by another Van Gogh, "Portrait of Dr. Gachet," also offered on May 15 at Christie's. The 1890 portrait of Paul-Ferdinand Gachet, who treated Van Gogh in Auvers, is valued at $40 million to $50 million.

The auction record for a Van Gogh is $53.9 million, paid in 1987 for "Irises" by Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond. In that controversial and highly publicized sale, Bond borrowed half the purchase price from Sotheby's. His business fortunes subsequently took a plunge, forcing Bond to sell other works from his collection and consider unloading "Irises," the world's most expensive artwork.

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