Glittery with high presale estimates and jittery from a wildly volatile stock market, New York's fall auction season is off and running. A Gutenberg Bible from the Estelle Doheny Collection set the pace Oct. 22 when Japanese book seller Maruzen Co. Ltd. bought it for $4.9 million. Christie's had predicted the rare Bible would bring $1.5 million to $2 million.
Now auction watchers have shifted their gaze to the next big attraction, in fact the season's crown jewel: the sale of Vincent van Gogh's "Irises," Nov. 11 at Sotheby's. The third work from Van Gogh's highly prized late period to go on the block this year, "Irises" is expected to bring between $21 million and $39 million. If the selling price falls within that wide range, "Irises" will be the second most expensive painting to sell at auction, but it will not break a record for the modern Dutch master. (Auction houses typically estimate selling prices prior to sales and publish them in catalogues.)
The most costly painting ever sold at auction is Van Gogh's "Sunflowers," purchased for $39.9 million last March by Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance in Tokyo. The Van Gogh sale more than tripled the previous record ($11.1 million, paid in 1986 for a Paris street scene by Edouard Manet) and stunned the art world.
While some observers have worried that the price of art has gone out of sight for all but the world's wealthiest collectors, others have argued that the "Sunflowers" purchase was an aberration, brought about by Japan's abundance of cash, the Japanese love for Impressionism and the popularity of an image strongly identified with a painter perceived as a tragic hero. Both sides felt vindicated in June when another late Van Gogh, "Le Pont de Trinquetaille," was sold for $20.2 million to an unidentified German-speaking collector in Europe.
Offered in the wake of the stock market plunge and subsequent fluctuations, "Irises" may prove to be the most closely watched Van Gogh yet. Collectors who say that "Irises" is a better, though admittedly less popular, painting than "Sunflowers" speculate about a new record, while others foresee a return to reason, forced by an unstable economic climate.
Painted in 1889, the year before the artist's death, the canvas depicts a corner of the garden in the Saint-Remy asylum where he spent his final days. The painting is in the late Joan Whitney Payson's collection and has been on extended loan to Westbrook College in Portland, Me.
Van Gogh is not the only artist who has collectors talking. In the same sale with "Irises" are Georges Braque's 1914 Cubist oil "Le Violon," from the Phillips Collection in Washington (expected to bring $3 million to $4 million); Claude Monet's shimmering Impressionist garden "Le Jardin Fleuri" ($3 million to $4 million), and Paul Cezanne's airy landscape "Arbres et Maisons au Bord de l'Eau," from the Art Institute of Chicago ($2 million to $3 million). Among 10 works by Pablo Picasso are a 1952 painting of a woman and a baby carriage ($2.5 million to $3 million) and an early (1901) Impressionist street scene, "Boulevard de Clichy" ($2 million to $3 million).
In Christie's $40-million sale of Impressionist and modern paintings and sculpture on Nov. 10, Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele's 1914 painting of a contorted nude couple, "Liebespaar (Mann und Frau I)," is a rare offering, expected to bring $4 million to $5 million. One of Monet's waterlily paintings bears an estimate of $2.5 million to $3.5 million, while a whimsical abstraction by Joan Miro, a richly colored landscape by Wassily Kandinsky, a small portrait of a young man by Paul Gauguin and a dark vase of flowers by Van Gogh are all in search of buyers who have more than $1 million to spend on a single painting.
The Impressionist and modern sales are expected to rack up the season's biggest totals for fine art, but New York branches of Sotheby's and Christie's also have scheduled major sales of contemporary artTuesday and next Wednesday and American paintings and sculpture Dec. 3 and 4.
A bonanza of 10 prime works by Georgia O'Keeffe from the estate of her sister, Anita O'Keeffe Young, will go under the gavel Dec. 3 at Sotheby's. Including paintings of enlarged flowers from the '20s and later fiery landscapes done in New Mexico, the works' estimates range from $100,000 to $150,000 for a pastel up to about $1 million for the two largest flower paintings.
Southern Californians can see five of the O'Keeffes today and Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Sotheby's Beverly Hills office (308 N. Rodeo Drive). A primitive "Double Portrait" by John Brewster Jr., to be offered at the same sale of American art and expected to fetch $1 million, is also on view in the second-floor showroom.
Christie's Dec. 4 auction of American paintings and sculpture includes an O'Keeffe bone painting ($1 million) as well as five sculptures ($4 million total) by Elie Nadelman, to be sold for the benefit of American Ballet Theatre.