Published: May 15, 2001
By Carol Sims
NEW YORK CITY – If anyone ever doubted the inevitability of Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg entering the upper echelon of the auction world, those doubts would have been put to rest by the Impressionist and Modern Art Sale held Monday evening, May 7, at their brand new auction facility, 3 West 57th Street.
Before the auction, excited bidders lined up outside awaiting permission to pass the tightly secured entrance to the building. Each bidder had a ticket with a number corresponding to their reserved seat. Phillips chairman and auctioneer Simon de Pury said that they easily could have had an auction for the 214 seats on the bidding floor. They probably could have, with such anticipation (and speculation) about the sale of the Heinz Berggruen Collection.
Not only was the bidding floor itself packed, the second and third floors had remote access to the bidding. So did the ”Magic Room” of the LVMH Building (Moet Hennesy Louis Vuitton), also on 57th Street. (Phillips is a subsidiary of LVMH, as are the magazines Art and Auction and Connaissance des Arts). Altogether the auction had a capacity for 600 direct bidders. Bidding was active from the third floor. The phones handled the rest – especially those bids that reached the upper millions.
Put in perspective, at a grand total of $124,079,000, the May 7 sale tripled Phillips’ most recent Impressionism sale. (The one before that hardly registered a blip on the auction scene.) Simon de Pury attributed their exponential growth to the acquisition of the auction firm by LVMH in 1999 and the merger with de Pury & Luxembourg Art in 2001. Dainiella Luxembourg, president of Phillips, was very visible during the auction, standing in front of the room on the platform next to de Pury’s podium. She took some of the larger bids by telephone.
Still, there is room for improvement. Only 63 percent of the lots sold, reaching 69 percent by value. Many lots sold for less than the low estimate to an inactive crowd. People who came expecting fireworks were a bit surprised.
Forbes magazine’s May 1 Web page reported industry buzz that put the sales potential of the Berggruen Collection’s feature painting, a landscape by Paul Cézanne titled ”Le Montagne St Victoire,” as high as $82 million. There were whispered bets on the bidding floor that it might go as high as $70 million. As it turned out, Phillips’ estimate of $35/45,000,000 proved much more accurate. It sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $35,000,000 ($38,502,500 with buyer’s premium), just edging up to the low estimate. Unless otherwise noted, all prices quoted include the buyer’s premium.
That price of $38,502,500 should still be good news for Heinz Berggruen. It is the most expensive landscape by Paul Cézanne ever sold, and the second most expensive painting by the artist to have sold at auction. (The most expensive was a still life.)
German journalist Andreas Conrad of Der Tagesspiegel recently interviewed Berggruen at the small Berlin castle that houses the public portion of his collection. The popular little museum has attracted 750,000 visitors since its opening in 1996. ”Berggruen bought the painting in 1982 for $4.4 million,” reported Conrad.
Of the 41 lots in the sale, seven were from the Berggruen Collection: five paintings by Cézanne and a pen and ink drawing and a painting by Van Gogh. Three of the Cézannes sold within their estimates, and one was passed. The Van Gogh drawing sold for the low estimate of $4,000,000 and the painting, a gorgeous landscape entitled ”Le Jardin D’Automne/Le Jardin Public,” was passed at a bid of $26,000,000 in front of a hushed crowd. It had been estimated at $30/40,000,000. During a press conference immediately following the sale, de Pury said that the Van Gogh already had a potential buyer and that they were in negotiations.
Sometimes passed lots are returned to the consignors. For the Berggruen Collection, Phillips took away this risk, committing itself with a sales guarantee. This policy gave the seller peace of mind and upped the ante for the auction house. By underwriting the sale, Phillips may have sent the message that these works of art are now on the market, period. Were bidders sensitive to this new leverage?
The bidders did show fervent desire for some of the lots. A Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot was hard-won at $640,500, surpassing its high estimate of $350,000. Alfred Sisley’s ”Le Pont de Sevres” also sold for $640,500. It was estimated at $300/400,000. A Soutine oil of a boy entitled ”Le Valet de Chambre” also beat its high estimate of $1.8 million, ending up at $2,092,500.
Phillips’ main sales room is a physical representation of the new direction of the company. Sleek and polished with the latest technology, it is much smaller than Christie’s or Sotheby’s New York auction rooms. When the mezzanine at Phillips is completed, 80 more seats will be added to the current 214. In spite of the standing-room-only crowd, the room remained cool and comfortable.
”We are very pleased with the intimate feel of our sales room,” said de Pury. They intend to keep Phillips smaller ”with a lighter infrastructure [than the competition] and greater emphasis on personal connections,” said de Pury. ”Our objective is to become very profitable,” continued de Pury.
The New York venue will focus on Impressionism, Modern Art, contemporary art, Eighteenth Century furniture, jewelry, Twentieth Century design, and American art.
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