Magazine article The Spectator

Hands Up

Magazine article The Spectator

Hands Up

Article excerpt

Sotheby's auction-room was brimming, and the television crews were back, hoping to catch some crazy bidding - and some of the euphoria - of the good old, bad old days of the Impressionist sales of the booming Eighties. Cameramen and crowd were not disappointed. As the news bulletins and headlines were soon to inform us, a Degas pastel of a resting ballet dancer, slumped on the bench in exhaustion and massaging an aching foot, was sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for an astounding L17.6 million.

Moreover, the sale was not one of those typical top-dollar auction contests where two macho members of the super-rich grittily slug it out it, bid by bid, like cowboys in a Western. Sotheby's employees bidding for clients on the telephone last week more resembled a class of super-keen schoolboys desperate to secure sir's attention. As bidding commenced, hands flew up in every direction; there must have been at least ten contenders in the fray at L5 million, and four were still there at L10 million.

While the pastel certainly sold way over estimate - three times the published amount (Sotheby's were quoting L10-12 million just before the sale) - it was, at least, a ravishing drawing, everything that one could wish from a Degas. There had been nothing like it on the market for 15 years - and it was coming to the block for the first time. One of a group of six works by the artist acquired by the French industrialist Jules Emile Boivin, bought either directly from Degas or through the great Impressionist dealer Durand-Ruel, it had remained in the family ever since. Boivin's celebrated Degas painting `La femme aux chrysanthemes' is now in the Met, another pastel of a group of dancers went to the Musee d'Orsay in lieu of tax a few years ago. The two pastels here - `Femme assise devant un piano' sold bang on target for L3 million - were sold as there were now more Boivin heirs than pictures.

Far more perplexing was the fate of a mediocre Matisse of two women lounging around a hotel interior. `Robe jaune et robe arlequin (Nezy et Lydia)' came with an estimate of L2-3 million and finally went for L7 million. The buyer was an American collector -- rumoured to be a newly successful Hollywood producer (he certainly felt it necessary to wear shades) - with a wonderfully irreverent bidding technique of raising his hand and not dropping it - until, at least, bidding got tough; then he called out half bids. …

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