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Will Buyers Ignite New York Auctions? : Art: Despite some big-name works on the block, uncertainty is heightened by years of falling prices and big estate liquidations.

May 01, 1995|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

Will New York's spring auction season light a fire under the art market or fizzle after a blaze of publicity? Will collectors and dealers snap up multimillion-dollar pieces by Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or will the artworks go begging?

The outcome of the sales is anybody's guess as the season begins Tuesday with a $40- to $57-million round of contemporary art auctions and continues next week with Impressionist and modern art, valued at $191 million to $261 million. The estimates amount to a mere fraction of sales totals in the late 1980s, when a single painting could command a higher sum than an entire 50-item auction today.

But Sotheby's and Christie's officials have high hopes for the upcoming auctions, based largely on a bonanza of Impressionist and modern art.

During the last few years, as potential sellers have waited for art prices to rise before consigning their treasures, the auction houses have had difficulty finding enough desirable works for their semiannual big-ticket sales. That is still true in the field of contemporary art, but this spring's supply of Impressionist and modern art is so plentiful that four consecutive evening sales--instead of the usual two--are scheduled May 8-11. Fueling the number of artworks available is a large group from the estates of two New York collecting couples, Donald and Jean Stralem and Ralph F. and Georgia Colin.

Adding to the excitement are a Picasso, a Renoir and a Matisse consigned by Pamela Harriman, the U.S. ambassador to France; a Toulouse-Lautrec owned by Parisian auctioneer Maurice Rheims and a Van Gogh portrait from a European collection.

"We're feeling pretty confident," says Diana D. Brooks, president and chief executive officer of Sotheby's. "We've always said that when we have great things, they will sell well, and we have very strong Impressionist and modern sales."

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The star picture, from the Stralem collection, is Picasso's Blue Period portrait of his artist friend, Angel Fernandez de Soto. The painting is valued at $12 million to $15 million, according to Brooks, but some experts speculate that the price will go much higher.

David Nash, Sotheby's director of Impressionist and modern art, says the melancholy portrait is "the most important Picasso to appear at auction since 'Yo Picasso,' " which was sold in 1989--the height of the market--for $47.9 million.

Another Stralem picture, Matisse's "Hindu Pose," a 1923 depiction of a model in a brilliantly patterned interior, is expected to "do very well," Brooks says. The painting is valued at $8 million to $10 million.

Christie's is equally bullish on its cache of Impressionist and modern material. Amedeo Modigliani's "Seated Nude With Necklace" ($7 million to $10 million) and Joan Miro's "The Poetess" ($2 million to $3 million) are among the most prized paintings in the Colin collection, according to Michael Findlay, Christie's senior specialist in Impressionist and modern art.

The jewel of Harriman's consignment is Picasso's "Mother and Child," a tender image of his wife, Olga, and infant son, Paulo, painted in 1922. The auction house has not published an estimate of the painting, but experts say its selling price is likely to exceed $10 million.

Still struggling to revive confidence and interest in a market that is only beginning to recover after five years in the doldrums, auction house officials privately worry that the May sales offer an overload of Impressionist and modern material, particularly in unusually large groups of works by relatively minor figures such as Edouard Vuillard.

"It's a concern," Brooks admits. "One of the big questions this spring is whether the market will absorb all this material." But Sotheby's is banking on the Stralem collection's quality, "freshness to the market" and conservative estimates, she says.

American buyers are expected to dominate the sales. Europeans are likely to be active participants, but the Japanese, who bought Impressionist art voraciously in the late 1980s and then disappeared from the auction scene, have not returned. Wealthy Mexican collectors might be expected to bid on some of the star Impressionist and modern items, but their participation is in question because of Mexico's economic unrest. Some auction watchers speculate that Mexicans may not want to be seen spending vast sums on art, while others argue that they may view art as a good investment.

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Sotheby's will kick off the season on Tuesday night with a sale of 46 works of contemporary art valued at a total of $15.8 million to $24.5 million. A yellow-and-blue abstraction created by Willem de Kooning in 1961 has the highest published estimate of $2 million to $3 million. On Wednesday night, Christie's will put 53 lots of contemporary art on the block at an estimated total value of $13.3 million to $17.5 million. Roy Lichtenstein's 1962 Pop painting, "Kiss II," is expected to bring the top price of $2.5 million to $3 million.

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