Between Thursday, October 20th, and Tuesday, October 25th, Christie’s location at New York’s Rockefeller Center auctioned off over 1,300 items as part of the collection of Ann and Gordon Getty. On previous trips to Christie’s, their exhibition galleries look like… well, galleries. But for the Getty sale, Christie’s transformed many of the ground floor galleries from exhibition spaces into lavishly decorated rooms, seemingly from an old world chateau. This was because, on top of the paintings and drawings featured during the first two days of the sale, the collection also featured furniture, rugs, textiles, clocks, and Tiffany lamps, among many other items. The Gettys were indeed some of the wealthiest people in the United States, with Gordon inheriting a $2 billion fortune from his father, the oil baron J. Paul Getty. Over six days, ten different live and online sales brought in over $150M. They kicked things off on Thursday with a live evening sale of paintings of all kinds, mainly by nineteenth- and twentieth-century artists, as well as some from the Old Masters (w/p – with buyer’s premium).
There were certainly a lot of surprises in store, starting at the very beginning. That night’s big star was supposed to be a colossal Venetian cityscape by the Italian master Giovanni Antonio Canal, popularly known as Canaletto. Venice, the Grand Canal Looking East with Santa Maria della Salute shows exactly what the title describes. The beautiful church, literally Saint Mary of Health, still sits on the Grand Canal today, close to its eastern entrance. It was so named since it was built as an act of thanks after a plague outbreak finally subsided in 1631. The work’s provenance is also extensively detailed, going back to when the wealthy English landowner William Holbech commissioned the painting sometime in the 1740s for display at his estate in Warwickshire. The picture remained in the Holbech family before Ronald Holbech sold it to the Savile Gallery in London around 1930. Everyone was incredibly excited to see the masterpiece cross the block, especially since it was featured early in the sale. The work was estimated to sell for at least $6M. But I, and likely many others, was disappointed when the auctioneer announced that Christie’s had withdrawn the work. It had been secured in a private sale finalized earlier in the day. While they did not disclose anything else at the time, later on, it was revealed that the Canaletto’s buyer was the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF).
Apart from being kept from seeing the potential bidding war over the Canaletto, the rest of the sale went incredibly smoothly, more or less. The eventual star of the sale was an 1878 portrait by Mary Cassatt entitled Young Lady in a Loge Gazing to Right. Here we see a close, very intimate view of a young woman with her fan sitting in a theater box (at least that’s what the title suggests). She sits against a mirror, creating spatial confusion similar to Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. But here, we also see Cassatt experimenting relatively early in her career with different media, combining watercolor, pastel, and gouache to create slightly different textures and color gradients. The portrait was once owned by Cassatt’s contemporary Paul Gauguin, and was last sold at Sotheby’s New York in 1992 for $2.5M w/p (equivalent to $5.4M in 2022, adjusted for inflation). Christie’s house specialists were indeed expecting the Cassatt to be among the top lots, estimating it would bring in $5M. When the hammer finally came down at $6.2M (or $7.5M w/p), it set a new auction record for a work by Cassatt.
Experts assigned another $5M estimate to Henri Matisse’s still life Bouquet, vase chinois. Executed in 1901, this oil-on-board last sold at Christie’s New York on May 11, 1995 for $1.3M w/p (equivalent to $2.6M in 2022). It eventually fell nicely within estimate when the hammer came down at $4.2M (or $5.1M w/p). Next was actually a tie for third: an Odilon Redon floral still-life Le pavot noir sold for $3.1M (or $3.8M w/p), more than double the $1.5M high estimate and more than six times what it made last time it was at auction at Sotheby’s London in 1995. Also selling for $3.1M was another of the Canaletto cityscapes that the Gettys had in their collection. This one was also looking over the Grand Canal but a little further up its course from Santa Maria della Salute. While it was not as large as the one purchased by FAMSF, it was no less detailed in terms of the architectural background and the figures on their gondolas in the foreground.
Normally, at this point, I would talk about some of the surprises featured in the sale, but I think I’ll do something a little different. I want to talk about something that surprised me personally, not because of the hammer price, but rather because of aesthetic quality. I visited Christie’s on the Tuesday before the sales began, and two things stuck out. One was the enormous size of Canaletto’s Santa Maria della Salute. The other was a work that hadn’t caught my attention before. This was possibly because I had been looking at all the lots through my computer screen. Here was Ballerine Spagnole al Moulin Rouge by Giovanni Boldini. I suppose it just caught me off-guard since you wouldn’t have thought it was painted in 1905. The quick brushstrokes surrounding the dancer, a sort of gray and blue chaos, suggest a dynamism that would be very appropriate for the portrait of a dancer. It’s almost reminiscent of the action painting of abstract expressionism not seen until half a century later. It was one of the lots I was personally rooting for when it came across the block Thursday night, and it absolutely deserved the $1.5M hammer price (or $1.86M w/p) it eventually achieved.
Even though twenty-four of the total fifty-eight available lots (41%) sold below estimate, the fact that no lots were bought in ensured that the sale as a whole fell within its pre-sale estimate. By the end, Christie’s had brought in $64.4M, with the house specialists having a 29% accuracy rate. Though Christie’s sold the Getty Collection in ten sales across six days, almost half the money made by the collection came from this one evening sale.