NEW YORK — "This is the biggest auction in the history of the world," burbled a young journalist assigned to cover Sotheby's record-smashing sale of Vincent van Gogh's "Irises." And that was before the Wednesday-night sale even started.
Excitement built during the two-day of marathon of sales that began Tuesday night at Christie's and attracted a well-heeled international audience. The previous week's auctions of contemporary art allayed fears about the art market after the stock market collapse. The current round of Impressionist and modern art sales buoyed confidence as sales exceeded expectations.
Part of the renewed--but generally conservative--confidence was inspired by the international flavor of the art market, which reflects a balance of national economies. This week in New York one could see an astonishing number of people carrying auction catalogues and chatting in foreign languages in the tonier cafes of Midtown and the Upper East Side.
Noting a high level of bidding from the French and Italians as well as the Japanese, Michael Findlay, Christie's head of Impressionist and modern paintings, said, "It's an unbelievably global audience."
Wednesday night, for the "Irises" auction at Sotheby's, excitement spilled out onto York Avenue more than an hour before the sale was scheduled to begin as press crews battled for position and a smartly dressed international clientele presented their tickets to a platoon of guards and public relations officers.
About 2,200 people eventually crammed into the main salesroom and two additional galleries equipped with closed-circuit television. As auctioneer John Marion dispensed with the first 24 lots and "Irises" appeared on the stage beside him, members of the audience made last-minute bets on the price of the masterpiece and primed themselves for a long-awaited moment.
For a few seconds bidding hovered around the opening figure of $15 million, tentatively moved to $15.5 million and $16 million, then suddenly took off as Marion ticked off the incoming millions. Finally, he called out, "Forty-nine million dollars on the far phone" (where an unidentified European agent was bidding) and brought down the hammer to hoots and applause. (The 10% commission added to the price, brings the total to $53.9 million.)
"It sounded like a football game," said John Whitney Payson, seller of the painting, during a press conference following the stunning sale. The Maine philanthropist had inherited the Van Gogh painting from his mother, Joan Whitney Payson, who bought it in 1947 for $84,000.
Payson said he had decided to sell the flagship of the family art collection when spiraling auction prices made "Irises" too expensive to loan (as he had done in the past, to such major exhibitions as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's "A Day in the Country") and changes in the tax laws threatened to cut back on his charitable activities.
He also announced that $6 million of the sale's proceeds will fund an unrestricted grant to Westbrook College in Portland, Me. (where the painting has been on extended loan in a gallery built by Payson). Another $6 million will form a new charitable foundation to support "Maine charities, with a special focus on the arts and Maine's maritime heritage." Smaller grants (around $1 million-$2 million) will go to the Westbrook College gallery and Maine's Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, with the remainder placed in a family trust.
Sotheby's had predicted that "Irises" would fetch a price somewhere between the $39.9 million paid for "Sunflowers" last March and the $20.2 million commanded in June by "The Bridge at Trinquetaille." Payson said he had hoped the painting would yield $32 million to $34 million.
"When you think that one man could make a painting that could do so much good (for art students and charitable causes that stand to benefit from the sale), it's just wonderful," he said.
The Van Gogh sale has been a source of speculation for months, but it was only the astonishing high point of Sotheby's $110-million sale that established a record for a single-night auction. And that event was just one part of a marathon of Impressionist and modern art auctions continuing through this afternoon.
The truly hardy, braving weather that turned from rain to snow, started with Christie's Tuesday-night sale, which totaled $37.6 million, sold 10 paintings for more than $1 million each and set records for six artists--despite failing to find buyers for 22% of the properties offered.
Commanding the Christie's sale's top price of $5.28 million, paid by the Motomachi Gallery in Japan, was Pierre August Renoir's Impressionist painting "Young Girl Carrying a Basket of Flowers."
On Wednesday, Christie's racked up an additional $8.61 million in the second segment of its paintings and sculpture sale, plus $4.5 million in an auction of Impressionist and modern drawings and watercolors, bringing its two-day total to $50.6 million.