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$92-Million Art Auction Reveals Thriving Market

May 13, 1997|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

NEW YORK — Confirming claims that the art market is back in full force, but without the speculators that drove it crazy in the late 1980s, Christie's racked up $92.7 million Monday night in an auction of 29 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works from the collection of the late John and Frances L. Loeb.

With a Cezanne portrait bringing in $23.1 million and a Manet self-portrait fetching $18.7 million, the auction's take was the highest in a single evening since the art market crashed in 1990 and the largest sum ever realized at Christie's for any group of artworks consigned by a single owner.

"It was an extremely exciting sale," auctioneer Christopher Burge said following the hourlong event, in which he coaxed higher and higher prices from the packed salesroom and from collectors who placed their bids by telephone. "It was very gratifying to see the depth of bidding and the enthusiasm for these great works of art."

The auction house had estimated that sales would total between $73.2 million and $98.7 million.

The Loeb sale, which followed last week's successful round of sales of contemporary art at both Christie's and Sotheby's, offered high-quality material from a well-known New York collection at a moment when the art market seems to be enjoying renewed confidence. The sale had been the most eagerly awaited art auction in several years and was expected to bring out heavy hitters. It did, though buyers remained unidentified immediately after the sale.

The top price was paid for Paul Cezanne's 1888-90 portrait of his wife, "Mme. Cezanne Seated in a Yellow Chair," but it brought $23.1 million, slightly less than its high pre-sale estimate of $25 million. Although the artist painted many likenesses of his model and wife, Hortense Fiquet, during their long relationship, the Loeb painting is from an important series of four portraits in which she wears a red housedress and sits calmly, either folding her hands or holding a flower.

Purchased by the Loebs for $125,000 in 1956, it is the only one of the series that had remained in private hands. It is not known whether that is still true, because the buyer was identified only as European. The other three portraits are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Museu de Arte in Sao Paolo.

Commanding the second-highest price of $18.7 million was Edouard Manet's "Self-Portrait (Manet With Palette)." One of only two paintings in which the artist depicted himself alone, it offers a penetrating view of Manet's face with his torso and arms loosely painted, as if caught in the process of picking up pigment on his brush and moving it toward an unseen canvas.

Created around 1878, the painting was valued at about $15 million and easily surpassed that mark, finally going to a telephone bidder. The Loebs had purchased the painting in 1958 for the then-hefty price of $176,800 at Sotheby's London's celebrated sale of the collection of New York investment banker Jakob Goldschmit, which marked the moment when prices of Impressionist art finally exceeded those of works by Old Masters.

"Seated Dancer in Pink Stockings," Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's pensive portrayal of a ballet dancer resting backstage, was estimated at $8 million to $10 million. Burge finally cracked his gavel at $14.5 million, ending a protracted battle among telephone bidders. The price broke the artist's record of $12.9 million, set in May 1990, just before the market crashed, for a painting "Mademoiselle Jeanne Fontaine."

A Cezanne landscape, "View of l'Estaque," depicting a seaside village near Marseilles, where the artist often rented a cottage and garden, also was valued at $8 million to $10 million. It was sold for $12.6 million.

When the sale came to a close, 14 of the 29 works had commanded prices higher than the most optimistic estimates. Only one piece, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's landscape, "La Seine at Argenteuil," estimated at $1.2 million to $1.6 million, failed to find a buyer.

Although works by beloved Impressionists captured the spotlight, the sale's roster of works by 21 artists included the relatively little-known names of Giovanni Boldini, Henri Edmond Cross, Armand Guillaumin and Moise Kisling. Ranging from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th century, the artworks also represented a variety of aesthetic viewpoints, from boldly adventurous modern ideas to sweetly nostalgic portrayals of pretty girls.

This spring's auctions have been hailed as the strongest season since 1990. So far, the prediction has come true, but additional auctions are yet to come. Sales of Impressionist and Modern art will continue tonight at Sotheby's with an auction of 67 pieces valued at $76 million to $105 million. Christie's will hold its regular spring auction of Impressionist and Modern works Wednesday night, when it expects to rack up an additional $88 million to $119 million.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Going, Going, Gone . . .

Two works from the Loeb collection sold Monday show a strong market for blue-chip Impressionism:

$23.1 Million

* Title: "Madame Cezanne Seated in a Yellow Chair," 1888-1890

* Artists: Paul Cezanne

* Buyer: An unnamed European

* About the Painting: The image is one of a series of four classic portraits of the artist's wife

****

$18.7 Million

* Title: "Self-Portrait (Manet with Palette)," 1878

* Artists: Edouard Manet

* Buyer: Anonymous

* About the Painting: This is one of only two solo self-portraits by the Impressionist painter

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