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Cézanne chromatic still life sells for US$59.3m at auction

Cezanne's Bouilloire et Fruits, painted in Aix-en-Provence in 1888-1890, is the most valuable of several distinguished American estate collections coming to the market this week.

New York

A PAINTING by Paul Cézanne owned by billionaire magazine publisher S I Newhouse Jr sold for US$59.3 million on Monday night at a Christie's sale of Impressionist and modern art, kick-starting a week of marquee auctions in New York that is expected to raise at least US$1.6 billion.

The Cézanne was one of 11 trophy artworks being offered over two evenings at Christie's by the family of the late Mr Newhouse, who died in 2017.

It is the most valuable of several distinguished American estate collections coming to market this week, and the Newhouse provenance gave a lift to the sale's top lots - five Newhouse entries brought a total of US$101 million.

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But a more significant test of its appeal - and of the market as a whole - will come when his more fashionable contemporary works, such as Jeff Koons' iconic Rabbit, will be sold on Wednesday.

Cezanne's chromatic still life, Bouilloire et Fruits (Pitcher and Fruit), a mature work painted in Aix-en-Provence in 1888-1890, sold to one of three telephone bidders well above its estimate of US$40 million, but competition was measured, as it so often is now at "Imps and mods" auctions.

The work had been acquired by Mr Newhouse at an auction back in 1999 for US$29.5 million, according to the Artnet database of salesroom results.

"It was a great Cézanne and it deserved its price," Richard Nagy, a dealer based in London, said. "But it's not exactly current taste."

Mr Newhouse began to buy Impressionist and modern pieces relatively late in his collecting career, having spent decades buying (and selling) masterworks by artists of his own era. Six of those will be offered on Wednesday evening.

The collector acquired Vincent van Gogh's 1889 painting, Arbres dans le Jardin de L'asile (Trees in the Garden of the Asylum), from Gagosian Gallery of New York in 2004.

The painting, one of a celebrated group of expressive works that van Gogh produced at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence after the breakdown he suffered at Arles in 1888, sold to another telephone bidder for US$40 million against a low estimate of US$25 million.

The other potential trophy of the evening was the Amedeo Modigliani limestone sculpture Tête, dating from about 1911 or 1912. With crossover appeal to both collectors of modern and contemporary art, Modigliani's sculptures have been on a roll at auction in recent years, achieving a price of US$70.7 million in 2014. But this one had been repaired and was "less ascetic and more decorative" than those other examples, according to Giovanna Bertazzoni, Christie's co-chairman of Impressionist and modern art, who is based in London. As a result, it sold to one bidder for US$34.3 million.

The visually problematic 1939 painting Thérèse sur une Banquette, by French artist Balthus, showed a provocatively posed teenage girl in a short skirt.

From the collection of Dorothy and Richard Sherwood, based in California, the image was out of step with today's cultural times. Nonetheless, it sold slightly more than estimate for US$19 million, an auction high for the artist.

"Solid works, solid sales, but no fireworks," said Thomas Danziger, a New York lawyer who represents clients who buy and sell at the top end of the market.

He thought bidding would not have been significantly affected by Monday's 2.4 per cent decline on the bench mark S&P 500 index, the steepest fall in US stocks for months.

"People would have decided what they were going to do long before the auction," he said. "If you're going to spend US$10 million, you're not going to worry about what happened in the previous three hours."

Tastes have changed. Impressionist and modern works that lack appeal to a contemporary sensibility can struggle to hold their value. Édouard Vuillard's fine 1895 post-Impressionist canvas La Table de Toilette (The Dressing Table), the sister painting of similar decorative panels by the artist in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the Museum of Modern Art, sold at auction for US$7.7 million in 1989, at the height of the Impressionist art boom. Thirty years later, on Monday at Christie's, it sold for US$8 million.

Overall, Monday's sale raised US$399 million from 63 lots, of which 14 per cent were unsold.

This was slightly below the US$415.9 million that the equivalent sale at Christie's achieved last year from just 37 pieces. The market for Impressionist and modern art isn't the place to make a quick buck. NYTIMES