DiCaprio Livens Up Christie’s Impressionist Auction

Claude Monet
Les Peupliers
Oil on canvas
Est. $20,000,000–$30,000,000
Sold: $22.5 million


An appearance by Leonardo DiCaprio brought frisson to Christie’s staid Impressionist and Modern art auction last night. Poorly disguised under obligatory blue baseball cap and puffy black parka, DiCaprio was the evening’s hottest accessory, appearing as a sidekick of New York dealer Helly Nahmad.

The May 4 auction totaled $156 million, missing the presale projected range of $162 million to $231 million. The final tally was less than half of the $335.5 million raised a year ago on the strength of material consigned by the estate of collector Frances Brody. Without any marquee estate property this season, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s offered a grab bag of artworks, wildly ranging in quality. Sotheby’s May 3 sale bested Christie’s, fetching $170.5 million.

“There is a whiff of uncertainty left over from the past couple of years,” said dealer Andrea Crane of Gagosian Gallery. “We are looking at sales that were cobbled together. Collectors are still sitting back and determining whether this is the right time to sell.” Other market professionals agreed that shaky economic conditions kept trophies off the block. “The world is so uncertain that collectors have decided that what they own, they’d rather keep, instead of figuring out what to do with the cash,” said dealer David Nisinson.

The evening’s biggest-ticket works barely fell within aggressive presale estimates. Claude Monet’s 1891 Les Peupliers sold for $22.5 million, scraping by a $20-million low estimate. It found only just two suitors. The price was more than triple the $7 million the same work had garnered at Christie’s in 2000. Last night’s seller was a Taiwanese collector, according to dealers. The buyer was an unnamed American collector who bid by phone. The nearly 4-foot-tall painting features a row of towering poplar trees on a cloudy afternoon. Rendered in limes, baby blues and pastel pinks, it lacked the punch and verve of other examples from the same series, such as The Four Trees, full of ravishing plums and lavenders and owned by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The evening’s standout was a 1905 Fauvist landscape by Maurice de Vlaminck, comprising a flurry of brushstrokes and dominated by a golden yellow. Paysage de banlieue depicts the Parisian suburb where the artist resided. Despite the painting’s undeniable magnetism, the $18-million to $25-million estimate was outlandish. Vlaminck’s previous auction record stood at just $10.8 million. The “anonymous” seller, hedge fund manager Steve Cohen—whose identity was bandied about in presale coverage—clearly lobbied for a high price tag and won. The stratospheric estimate narrowed the number of interested buyers. Last night Acquavella Galleries, who had previously sold the work to Cohen, fended off one competitor and bought the painting for $22.5 million on behalf of a client, according to Nicholas Acquavella.

More evidence of the general uncertainty surrounding pricing was the number of works Christie’s sold for less than their low estimates, including paintings by Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Léger.

The sale included 57 lots, a solid 82 percent of which sold, with a few clunkers. The biggest casualty was Iris Mauves, a blue, green and purple late Monet, dated 1914–17. Estimated to earn between  $15 million and $20 million, the loosely painted vertical canvas attracted not a single bidder. Dealers said the work had been previously owned by tax fraudster Marc Rich, but that he was not the seller. In 1997, the painting sold at Christie’s for $3.5 million. (The sale included five Monets, who tied for most works with Picasso).

The Christie’s sale reflected a growing interest in Surrealism, evidenced earlier in the week at Sotheby’s. San Francisco dealer Rowland Weinstein bought paintings by Delvaux and Tanguy for his stock and clients. “Every time I raised my paddle I had competition,” said Weinstein. “Surrealism’s been overlooked, and it seems like a deal right now, but prices are getting higher and higher.”

Auctions resume next week with the contemporary sales at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury & Company.