Christie’s Lower Sales of ‘The Modern Age: Property from the Hillman Family Collection’
Christie’s held the auction The Modern Age: Property from the Hillman Family Collection. Set as a landmark event and a true connoisseur’s sale, the Hillman Family Collection and the Collection of Alice Lawrence offered an exceptional ensemble of key works including paintings, sculpture and decorative arts spanning a full century across Europe and America by history’s most emblematic artists. The November 5 sale brought together works by Edouard Manet, Paul Cézanne, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, Amedeo Modigliani, Chaim Soutine, Giorgio De Chirico, René Magritte, Mark Rothko, Morris Louis, John Chamberlain, Milton Avery, and Arthur Dove with decorative works of art by Louis Comfort Tiffany and elegant design by Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann, Jean Dunand and Pierre Chareau.
Early in the summer, well before the world financial picture darkened, Christie’s secured art collections from the estates of two New York philanthropists: Rita K. Hillman, who was president of the Alex Hillman Family Foundation, named for her husband, a publisher who died in 1968; and Alice Lawrence, the widow of Sylvan Lawrence, a Manhattan real estate developer who died in 1981. Since both collections center on late 19th- and 20th-century art, Christie’s decided to put the two collections together and hold a special sale that it called “The Modern Age.”
From a sales standpoint, estate items are usually attractive because they are perceived as fresh material that has not been on the market for years. But in this case the works were not good enough to warrant the estimated prices, given the grim financial climate.
“The estimates were from an earlier time, and the market has changed now,” said Christopher Burge, honorary chairman of Christie’s in America and the evening’s auctioneer.
In the case of the Lawrence property, Christie’s had given the estate a guarantee — an undisclosed sum regardless of the outcome of the sale — so the auction house could set its own reserves (that is, the undisclosed minimum prices that bidders must meet for the art to be sold). Even after those reserves were lowered, the audience barely bit.
The two collections brought a total of $47 million, less than half of its $104 million low estimate. Of the 58 lots, 17 failed to sell. (Final prices include the commission to Christie’s: 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1 million, and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
One of the few works that several people were willing to reach for was Magritte’s “Empire of the Lights” (1947), a gouache of one of the artist’s most famous images — a nocturnal street scene featuring a spookily shuttered house and a brilliant blue sky with puffy white clouds. David Benrimon, a New York dealer, bought the work for $3.1 million ($3.5 million including Christie’s fees), just above its high estimate of $3 million.
The evening began with 28 paintings and works on paper from the Hillman collection. In the hope of warming up the audience, Christie’s had choreographed the sale so that several lower-priced drawings went on the block first. But that did not help. Early on, a Cézanne watercolor landscape from 1904-6, “The Cathedral at Aix From the Studio at Les Lauves,” was expected to bring $4 million to $6 million. It failed to sell. One bottom-feeder was willing to pay $2.8 million.
One work that sold for about its low estimate was Léger’s “Study for a Nude Model in the Studio,” an oil and gouache on paper from 1912. It not only was a study for a painting he completed the following year but also prefigured his iconic series “Contrast of Forms.” The black-and-white work of curves and angles sold to a telephone bidder for $2.9 million, or $3.3 million with fees, right at its low estimate.
The evening’s most expensive work turned out to be De Chirico’s “Metaphysical Composition,” from the Hillman collection, a 1914 oil on canvas in which a bizarre assemblage of objects like a foot and an egg form a still life in an outdoor setting. The painting has a particularly distinguished past: it initially belonged to the artist’s dealer, Paul Guillaume, and after his death was owned by a succession of writers and artists including Paul Éluard. The painting had three bidders, and it sold to an unidentified telephone bidder for $5.4 million, or $6.1 million with Christie’s fees, just above its $6 million low estimate.
More expensive works had no takers, including Manet’s “Young Girl on a Bench,” an 1880 portrait of a girl with a wide-brim hat that was expected to bring $12 million to $18 million.
After the sale, many people criticized Christie’s for trying too hard to market what were not perceived as great collections. The auction house had printed separate hardbound catalogs for each collection and several promotional brochures trumpeting the sale. “It was all down to packaging,” Mr. Roundell said. “It was mutton dressed as lamb.”
A version of this article appeared in print on November 6, 2008, on page A30 of the New York Times
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