Several times a year, I spend money vicariously at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Phillips, or another one of New York’s upscale auction houses. This year I indulged myself at Christie’s. Given the escalating prices of admission fees to museums, visiting upcoming auctions is one of New York’s best bargains; even the girl at the coat checkroom does not accept tips.
Going to these exhibitions is different from visiting a museum. Works are hung pell-mell, and you have to decide whether any are museum quality, the minor work of a great painter, so-so or just plain bad. I love testing my identification skills. Is that work by Henri Matisse or by Andre Derain, by Picasso or Juan Gris?
This year, magnificent works of art abounded at Christie’s. There were scores of Picassos, including a small profile of Marie Therese, one of his mistresses, sleeping. There were paintings by Matisse, Munch, Braques, Leger, and Rouault, and an unusually large number of works by Rene Magritte, the Belgian Surrealist.
The most coveted prize of this sale is a watercolor sketch of Paulin Paulet, one of five paintings in Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players series. The sketch arrived in the United States with Mr. and Mrs. Ernst Eichenwald, who fled the Nazis in Germany in 1936. Their son Heinz, a renowned Texas pediatrician who died last year, inherited the painting. His widow consigned it for sale. The remarkable portrait has not been exhibited in public since 1953, and had been considered lost by some. The pre-auction estimate for the painting is $20 million, but it may very well bring more since the last of Cezanne’s Card Players in private hands was reputedly sold to the Qatar royal family in February of this year for $250 million.
The sketch of the card player brings up the best reason for visiting auction exhibits: it may very well be the only or last chance that you will have to see these works. Once sold, Cezanne’s lovely portrait is likely to enter a private collection and vanish from public view. In 1990, Vincent van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet, also brought to America by refugees from Hitler’s Reich, moved to Japan, along with Renoir’s glorious Bal du moulin de la Galette. In 2006, four hotly fought-over Gustav Klimt paintings, formerly owned by Vienna’s Bloch Bauers, and restituted that year by Austria to their heirs, were auctioned at Christie’s. The names of the buyers is still secret. A lucky accident brought van Gogh’s famous Irises to the Getty Center in Los Angeles. That painting too had been sold for a record $54+ million, but the buyer could not come up with the payment, giving the Getty a chance to make a successful offer.