At Spring Auctions, Big Names Are Selling, and Being Sold
29.04.2006 By CAROL VOGEL
Picasso's "Repose" is estimated to bring up to $20 million.
Some of the greatest hits in art history are coming to Sotheby's and Christie's in Manhattan this weekend: a van Gogh portrait of Madame Ginoux, the proprietress of the Café de la Gare in Arles, France, which the artist frequented until his suicide in 1890; a 1941 Picasso painting of his mistress Dora Maar with a black cat perched on her shoulder, not publicly seen for more than 40 years; and a haunting 1902 Blue Period Picasso of Germaine, one of his earliest muses.
Lovers of postwar and contemporary art will have lots to ogle this weekend too: a Warhol soup can with its top cut open; three of Donald Judd's signature wall stacks; Jeff Koons's vacuum cleaners encased in a Plexiglas box; even a lamb submerged in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst. (Phillips, de Pury & Company also has a sale of contemporary art on May 11, filled with newer works by some of today's hot artists.)
Those studying the catalogs of the important auctions of Impressionist, modern, postwar and contemporary art — two weeks of back-to-back sales starting Tuesday — may wonder who is selling these famous images, and why. It is the pros who are cashing in this season. As the art market continues to spiral upward, the consignors are, for the most part, familiar names in the art world. Not only do they believe that rising prices make it the right moment to sell, but they also see many new collectors. In the last year the newly rich from markets like Russia and Asia have become a presence at auctions.
Some sellers are seasoned collectors, like the British advertising executive Charles Saatchi and his ex-wife, Doris; the newsprint magnate Peter Brant; and the financiers Eli Broad of Los Angeles, Mitchell P. Rales of Washington and Henry R. Kravis of New York. A surprising number of dealers are also selling works, among them Irving Blum of Los Angeles and his ex-partner Joseph Helman, as well as Marianne Boesky and Christophe Van de Weghe of New York. Several well-known names are parting with works, among them Happy Rockefeller; L. Dennis Kozlowski, the former chairman and chief executive of Tyco International; and Gunter Sachs, the German industrialist who became famous in the 1960's as a playboy who married Brigitte Bardot. Even two former chief executives of Phillips are trying their luck at auction this season: Daniella Luxembourg and Louise T. Blouin MacBain. (Ms. MacBain gave her business to Christie's, Ms. Luxembourg to Sotheby's.)
The record-breaking prices at last fall's auctions in New York and those in London in February encouraged sellers, making the war between Sotheby's and Christie's so cutthroat that both houses have been doling out large guarantees — undisclosed amounts promised to sellers regardless of a sale's outcome — to win the business. Their financing arrangements also include giving sellers a percentage of the buyer's premium and finding third parties to supply some of the money necessary to make good the guarantees.
"There's definitely a greater demand for guarantees," said David Norman, a co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art for Sotheby's worldwide. "People feel they are selling in a strong market, but they also want protection."
But when big money is on the table, auction house executives are inevitably anxious. What they cannot sell either at auction or immediately afterward at a lower price, they must store in their warehouses, sometimes for years. Still, all say the market is so hot they are not concerned about their guarantees.
"This season was deal driven; it was not about specific loyalties," said Brett Gorvy, a co-head of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's. "For the best material we had to stretch and be very aggressive."
Two of the top paintings at Christie's Impressionist and modern art auction on Tuesday night — the van Gogh and the 1932 Picasso — have no such strings attached. "The sellers felt that a guarantee wasn't necessary when selling such iconic works in a market as majestic as it is today," said Guy Bennett, head of Christie's Impressionist and modern art department.
By far its most famous image is van Gogh's "L'Arlésienne, Madame Ginoux" (1890). One of the most recognizable faces in art history, the subject was painted extensively by both van Gogh and Gauguin. Christie's estimates the work could fetch $40 million to $60 million.
Christie's also has two important Picassos. The earliest, from 1902, is the Blue Period portrait of Germaine, which Christie's estimates at $12 million to $18 million. The other, "Repose," a startling, almost demonic 1932 depiction of Picasso's mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter, is being sold by Bernard Picasso, the artist's grandson. Christie's expects it will bring $15 million to $20 million.
Although the Picasso is its prize painting, the cover image of Sotheby's sale catalog is Matisse's "Reclining Nude, View of Her Back" (1927), estimated at $12 million to $15 million. While the catalog does not designate the seller, art experts say he is Mr. Kravis.
Sotheby's is also auctioning two paintings famous for reasons other than artistic merit. Tyco is selling the Monet and the Renoir that once belonged to Mr. Kozlowski and have been at the center of a tax evasion scandal; he was indicted in 2002 for evading more than $1 million in New York State taxes by having art dealers ship empty boxes to Tyco's offices in New Hampshire while having messengers bring the paintings to his Fifth Avenue apartment.
As in the last several years, the postwar and contemporary market is exploding. This season Christie's sale on May 9 is packed — 94 lots — and starts at 6:30 p.m., a half-hour earlier than usual. The sale includes 26 Donald Judd sculptures that the Judd Foundation is selling to create an endowment to support its permanent installations in New York and Texas. Primarily late works from the 1980's and early 90's, they range in estimate from $30,000 to $40,000 for a small wood block from the 1960's to $1.5 million to $2 million for a 1993 stacked plywood sculpture. Getting the foundation's property was highly competitive; Christie's promised it more than $20 million.
It also had to give a generous guarantee to Mr. Blum, who has been selling portions of his collection over the years. This season he is parting with "Small Torn Campbell's Soup Can (Pepper Pot)," an early hand-painted work from 1962 estimated at $10 million to $15 million. (Experts say Christie's has guaranteed Mr. Blum about $10 million.)
Sotheby's has invested a lot of money on another Pop figure: Roy Lichtenstein, whose 1964 painting "Sinking Sun" is being sold by Mr. Helman. Sotheby's experts believe it will bring around $20 million. (Experts say it has guaranteed the painting for around $17 million.)
Collectors and dealers frequent Phillips for less expensive, more cutting-edge images. Phillips's May 11 sale features the work of popular painters like Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig and Marlene Dumas. Michael McInnis, its worldwide director of contemporary art, said about 20 percent of the sale comes from dealers and the rest from collectors. "People are inspired by the recent high prices," he said. "They feel it's too good to ignore the potential returns."