Sotheby’s 2015 Impressionist and Modern Art Auction: The Joy of a Making-Believe Billionaire

Lot 40 Property from the Collection of Anthony Goldschmidt Claude Monet Le Palais Ducal Signed Claude Monet and dated 1908 (lower left) Oil on canvas 22 ½ by 36 ¼ in. 57 by 92 cm Painted in 1908. Est. $15/20 million Sold for $23,098,000

Lot 40. Property from the Collection of Anthony Goldschmidt. Claude Monet, “Le Palais Ducal.” Oil on canvas. Painted in 1908. Sold for $23,098,000.

Art from the collections of Jerome H. Stone, a Chicago entrepreneur, Lola Sarnoff, the Samuel Goldwyn family, and Anthony Goldschmidt led off Sotheby’s spring auction. The latter included a Monet looted from Jacob Goldschmidt by the Nazis in 1941. It was restituted to his grandson Anthony in 1960. Many items, including Van Gogh’s spectacular L’allée des Alyscamps, however, belonged to one of scores of unidentified sellers. Its $66 million hammer price was the most expensive item of the Sotheby’s evening.

If I were rich I would be an art collector. Going to auction viewings is a perfect fantasy. More realistically, it allows the viewer to experience art that, like Brigadoon, the Scottish village that appears one day every hundred years, briefly emerges from one private collection only to disappear into yet another. And as opposed to the steep prices of museum admission, these events are free.

Money plays an increasingly important role in art. Most of the items Sotheby’s auctioned off this May were acquired at a time when great art was almost affordable. A Matisse bought in 1948 for $13,580 sold for over $6 million! The owner of the top-selling Van Gogh changed hands in 1985 for $11+ million! Astronomically high prices unfortunately do affect the “life” of artwork. Instead of cashing in, owners more commonly used to donate their treasures to museums.

Sotheby’s must have been excited about its 2015 sale. It decorated its elevator doors with facsimiles of some of the best works of its current sales. There were many masterpieces. Jerome H. Stone, a Chicago entrepreneur and the founder of America’s Alzheimer Foundation, bought much of his art in the 1950s. His taste was exquisite. He favored Fernand Léger. La Roue Bleue, from 1920, is a symphony of elements derived from the mechanical world: a portion of a wheel, pipes, buttresses, valves and metal cogs. Two other Légers, versions of the artist’s Pêcheurs (fishermen) series, are more representational. Their soft colors make them lyrical, even though the lines are hard-edged and the fishermen presage those of a Lego set. A version of Albert Giacometti’s Bust of Diego was also an aesthetic and financial winner. The bust is typically elongated. A delicate, almost two-dimensional head, precariously attached to an elongated neck, contrasts with a massive base.

The Goldwyns, father and son, also bought safe modern art, including Henri Matisse’s Anemones et grenades, from 1948. The master colorist arranged delicate red and purple anemones in a vase, ringed by the dark red fruit. A black square filled with an abstraction of a fern-like plant occupies the upper left corner of the picture, a nod to the artist’s penchant for including patterns. The Goldwyns also did well with a 1948 Picasso portrait of Françoise Gilot and several David Hockneys.

With several works for sale, Monet had a big day. The Stone estate included a Nymphéas that fetched $54 million. The previously mentioned Anthony Goldschmidt estate sold the painter’s Palais Ducal. Monet painted it in 1908 in Venice, where he had gone at the urging of the painter John Singer Sargent. Its subject matter is simple: A Moorish style pink palace fronted by water, lit by the Mediterranean sun. There are few details. The three wooden boat-mooring posts that occupy the foreground add depth, and the outline of a gondola floats on the shimmering sea.

Lola Sarnoff’s collection also originated in Germany. Her maternal grandfather started it in Frankfort, and through inheritance and marriage it coalesced with the Dreyfus and von Hirsch collections. The collection safely survived the art holocaust in Switzerland. In 1978 most of the collection was sold, but considerable material remained. I was much taken with the wise-looking ceramic owl by Picasso that contrasted with the artist’s very different sculpture of a bronze cat.

As I left I wished that some of this wonderful art trove would end up in a public collection. Not everyone, however, feels that way. John Quinn (1870-1924), one of America’s great collectors of modern art, stipulated that his beloved collection be sold at auction because he did not want it to stagnate in a museum. Instead he wanted it to provide the pleasure of the chase to other collectors. Nevertheless the art lovers of the time, including Abby Rockefeller and her friends, were so shocked by the loss of the collection that it reinforced their conviction that New York needed a modern art museum. They founded MoMA in 1929. I don’t know how Quinn would feel today, when owning some art has become a status symbol that can only be afforded by billionaires. Fortunately, there is much art to enjoyed by ordinary folks and much of it is quite affordable. All you need is confidence in your own taste, a bit of self-education and a love of art.

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