Art Market Direction Still a Question Mark : Auctions: Sotheby’s big fall sale generally followed patterns established the previous evening at Christie’s--the total sale was way under estimate.


As the final gavel fell in a three-day marathon of Impressionist and modern art auctions and the last registered bidders turned in their numbered paddles, observers puzzled over the state of the market.

Had prices finally bottomed out at pre-boom levels, as some auction house officials contended? Was this week the beginning of an upswing? Or is any attempt to put a happy face on the high end of the art market just a desperate public-relations gesture?

Sotheby’s big fall sale of Impressionist and modern art Wednesday night generally followed patterns established the previous evening at Christie’s. Twenty-two of the 69 works offered at Sotheby’s did not find buyers and 17 were sold for less than their low pre-sale estimates. The auction house had expected sales to total between $48 million and $65 million, but the total came to only $27 million.

Still, the closely watched auction was not the disaster that some observers had feared. When compared with Sotheby’s paltry $18-million auction last May, it even offered signs of encouragement.


“This sale is 50% higher than the one we had last spring,” Sotheby’s President Diana D. Brooks said after the Wednesday night auction. Doomsayers quickly noted that the $27-million take is less than 10% of Sotheby’s record $286-million sale in May, 1990, when speculative art-buying hit its zenith.

“It’s all relative,” Brooks said. “You’ve got to start somewhere.” Instead of comparing this week’s sale to the record high, it should be considered in the context of the entire art market, which has seen little action during the past six months, she said.

“We are pleasantly surprised that as many things sold within or above estimate as did,” Brooks said, noting that Sotheby’s and Christie’s had taken in a combined total of $70 million in Impressionist and modern art sales in a little over 24 hours and that the week’s total would exceed $75 million.

The international audience that filled Sotheby’s sale room to standing-room-only capacity witnessed a fast-moving event in which nothing fetched more than $2.42 million--the selling price of Giorgio de Chirico’s “Delights of the Poet"--and collectors appeared to be looking for bargains. Now that speculators have fled and few Japanese participate in New York’s auctions, the Impressionist and modern art market seems to be reorganizing around the tastes of Europeans and Americans.


Five of the six top lots, including De Chirico’s painting of a deserted piazza, were purchased by unidentified Europeans. Aristide Maillol’s lead sculpture, “Monument to Paul Cezanne” ($2.2 million); Edgar Degas’ pastel, “Danseuse” ($1.65 million); Henri Fantin-Latour’s painting, “Fleurs et Fruits” ($1.54 million); and Vincent van Gogh’s drawing, “Garden With Weeping Tree” ($1.32 million), all went to Europeans. An unidentified American dealer bought Maillol’s bronze sculpture, “Les Trois Nymphes” for $2.2 million.

The two Maillols, plus a bronze nude by the French sculptor that was purchased for $577,500, were sold from the Los Angeles-based collection of the family of Howard Keck, the former chairman of Superior Oil.

Fifteen works were consigned by the family of the late Leonard Yaseen, a real estate mogul from Harrison, N.Y. Sotheby’s had guaranteed the Yaseen family an undisclosed sum to win the consignment, but the gamble apparently paid off. All but one of the works were sold and the majority reached or exceeded their estimated prices. “The Yaseen family and Sotheby’s are both very pleased,” Brooks said.

Auctioneer John L. Marion moved the sale along quickly, calling out “Pass” when a work failed to reach the lowest price that the buyer had agreed to accept and dispelling gloom with humor.

“Where have you been all night?” he asked a client who suddenly joined the bidding on a Henry Moore sculpture.

“Now, you see what a little competition can do,” Marion joked when spirited bidding escalated the price of a 1906 Picasso drawing, “Tete de Femme,” to $715,000, more than double the high estimate of $350,000.

Next week, a new crowd is expected to turn out in full force for a round of contemporary art auctions beginning Tuesday night at Christie’s and winding up on Thursday at Sotheby’s.