Pierre Auguste Renoir's joyful depiction of an open-air dance hall in Paris, "Au Moulin de la Galette," was auctioned Thursday for $78.1 million, two days after a haunting portrait by Vincent van Gogh sold for a record $82.5 million.
The large canvas of an afternoon crowd of revelers in a sun-filled garden framed by acacia trees had a pre-sale estimate of $40 million to $50 million, the same as Van Gogh's record-breaking "Portrait of Dr. Gachet."
The bidding for the Renoir started at $25 million and went up in increments of $1 million. As it got beyond $40 million, the audience started gasping. The painting, whose auction price was by far a record for a Renoir, went to an unidentified phone bidder. It surpassed the $53.9 million paid for Van Gogh's "Irises" at a 1987 auction and now places second on the all-time list.
"Au Moulin de la Galette" was the highlight of a sale of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's. The auction house estimated that the 70 offerings would bring $212.7 million to $284.6 million.
However, bidding for much of the rest of the 69 lots was expected to reflect the scaling back of the art market. This trend was evident at Tuesday night's sale at Christie's, where "Dr. Gachet" was the star painting, and last week's contemporary art sales.
The Christie's sale brought a total of $269.4 million, only $67,000 less than the record for an art auction held by Sotheby's. But 24 of the 81 offerings went unsold and some that did sell went for significantly less than their pre-sale estimate.
"When you have a tremendous painting, like the Van Gogh or the Renoir that's coming up . . . you're going to get extraordinary prices," said Milton Esterow, editor and publisher of ARTnews.
Otherwise, he said that "the market is correcting to a more realistic level" after the frenzied buying of recent years.
Although Renoirs previously had not fetched the top prices achieved by Van Goghs, art experts said that no Renoir of the caliber of "Au Moulin de la Galette" had been on the auction block.
Art historian John Rewald has described it as "the finest work Renoir painted."
The highest price paid for a Renoir before the Thursday sale was $17.7 million in April, 1989, for "La Promenade." It was bought by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu.
Esterow noted that more Renoirs have been on the market than Van Goghs and that their quality is less consistent. Moreover, he said, Renoir does not have "the glamour, the romance, the drama" of the troubled Van Gogh.
Renoir painted two versions of "Au Moulin de la Galette" in 1876. The one offered for sale at Sotheby's was the property of Betsey Cushing Whitney, widow of John Hay Whitney, the financier, publisher and former ambassador to Britain. A larger version hangs in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.
The Whitney picture is painted in a more fluid manner than is the Paris version. However, the two are so similar--even the ribbons on the women's dresses are faithfully repeated--that art experts dispute which was painted first.
The Van Gogh was purchased by the Kobayashi Gallery of Tokyo for an anonymous client, identified by a Tokyo newspaper as a Japanese businessman. And David Nash, senior vice president in charge of fine arts at Sotheby's, said he expected Japanese bidders to play a role in Thursday night's sale.
"Renoir is extremely popular in Japan," he said.
Five of the 11 most expensive paintings sold at auction have been bought by Japanese bidders.
Other important works put up for sale at Sotheby's were three paintings from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum--Kandinsky's "Fugue," Modigliani's "Boy with a Blue Shirt" and Chagall's "Anniversaire."
Their total pre-sale estimate was $22 million to $31 million.
The Art Institute of Chicago consigned Monet's seascape, "Saint-Georges Majeur," estimated at $7 million to $9 million.
After the third-ranked "Irises," the most expensive paintings are:
--"Les Noches de Pierrette" (Pierrette's Wedding) by Pablo Picasso, $48.9 million, sold by Drouot-Montaigne, Paris (bid from the Bunkamura Shibuya auction house in Tokyo in a televised satellite hook-up), Nov. 30, 1989.
--"Yo Picasso" by Picasso; $47.85 million, sold by Sotheby's in New York, May 9, 1989.
--"Au Lapin Agile" by Picasso; $40.7 million, sold by Sotheby's in New York, Nov. 15, 1989.
--"Sunflowers" by Van Gogh; $39.9 million, sold by Christie's in London, March 30, 1987.
--"Acrobat and Young Harlequin" by Picasso; $38.46 million, sold by Christie's in London, Nov. 28, 1988.