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    Prices Expand, Auctions Contract

    Date: 29 Apr 2008 | | Views: 5599

    Source: The New York Sun (www2.nysun.com), by Marion Maneker

    The May sales of Impressionist and Modern art are upon us next week. The viewing opens on Friday, and the art world remains in a state of suspended disbelief. Financial turmoil may be present everywhere else, but so far there is no evidence of a disintegrating art market. Even so, the auction houses don't seem to be taking any chances. This season's sales are significantly smaller than the stem-winders of 2007. Sotheby's has 10% fewer lots and Christie's has 24% fewer lots in the main event evening sales.

    If you think that smaller sales mean lower estimates, you are sorely mistaken. In both sales, nearly 70% of the works have low estimates starting at $1 million. The very best art still commands mind-boggling prices. Christie's has four works — among them Matisse's "Portrait au manteau bleu" (1935) and Monet's "Le pont du chemin de fer à Argenteuil" (1873) — annotated "estimate on request," which is auction house-speak for J.P. Morgan's famous description of yacht ownership: "If you have to ask, you can't afford it."

    Sotheby's is a little more forthcoming. The two stellar lots Sotheby's built its sale around have a combined low estimate of $59 million. Fernand Leger's "Etude pour La Femme en bleu" (1912-13), a work that combines elements of classic cubism with Leger's distinctive style, is estimated at between $35 million and $45 million. Edvard Munch's Expressionist stunner "Girls on a Bridge" (1902) comes from a period of great unhappiness and tremendous productivity in the Norwegian painter's life. It is estimated at between $24 million and $28 million. Part of the Munch painting's appeal is that it has a stellar provenance; it was once owned by two different powerhouse and taste-making collectors, Norton Simon and Donald Cherry.

    The other striking feature of next week's sales is the presence of a huge number of works by Giacometti. Both Sotheby's and Christie's have half a dozen important works each. The glut comes in part from chance and part from the growing prominence of Giacometti's work. Two of Christie's top four lots are works by the sculptor: "La Place II" and "Grande Femme debout II." Both have estimates upon request. Sotheby's "Femme de Venise" is estimated at between $8 million and $12 million, but the real story in the Giacometti — and, indeed, in the modern art market — is the rise in value of the sculptor's paintings. A handful have come to market in recent sales making ever higher prices. In November, Christie's sold "Annette au manteau" (1964) for more than $11.2 million; in February in London, Sotheby's sold "Buste" (1947) for more than $5.6 million.

    Sotheby's "Portrait de Caroline" (1964) is estimated at between $10 million and $15 million. The unnerving thing about Giacometti's paintings is the overwhelming use of gray. But even in this lugubrious register, his passion for Caroline — she was 25 when he met her as a 62-year-old artist — comes through. Christie's has "Homme debout" (1950), which is estimated at between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. Here, even more than in the portrait of Caroline, we can see why so many friends urged him to paint in color, to which the artist responded, "Isn't gray a color too?"

    Worlds away from Giacometti's gray is the Dutch Fauvist painter Kees van Dongen. An earthy painter with few intellectual pretensions, van Dongen combines the vibrancy of the fading Fauve movement with the sexual charge of Orientalist painting in "Anita en almee" (1908), estimated at between $12 million and $16 million. The estimate begins above the record price of $11 million for a van Dongen, achieved at Christie's in London in February.

    Finally, Paul Signac is another post-Impressionist artist drawing serious attention from collectors. His bright, colorful style appeals to the new taste that has reshaped the market in the last two years. Russian and Gulf State buyers are attracted to pictures with wall power. These buyers will be interested in the Munch at Sotheby's and also in the two Signacs: "Clipper" (1887), estimated at between $5 million and $7 million, and "Venise, La doaune de mer" (1908), estimated at between $4 million and $6 million.

    Harbor scenes and small boats are a recurring theme in Signac's pictures. He was an avid sailor and fond of seascapes. His interest in color and a trip to Constantinople in 1907 allowed him to give an Orientalist flair to a theme that was common for him. "La Corn d'Or" (1907), estimated at between $5 million and $7 million, is a painting of Istanbul's Golden Horn, an image exalting an Eastern locale that should hit the sweet spot of today's market.

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