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Monet and Money

Nymphéas en fleur, Claude Monet (1840-1926), Oil on canvas, Painted circa 1914-1917, Price Realized: $84,687,500, The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller: 19th and 20th Century Art, Evening Sale on 8 May at Christie’s in New York
(CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. 2018)

Perhaps the most important exhibition in the history of art was also one of the least financially and critically successful. In 1874, when a group of young French painters including Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Sisley, Cezanne, Degas and Berthe Morisot exhibited together at the studio of the photographer Nadar, they were met with derision. It was Monet in particular who ruffled the feathers of the critic Louis Leroy: lighting on his small watery mood painting “Impression, Sunrise,” he caustically noted first that “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape” and then, with exquisite scorn, dubbed the painters the “Impressionists” in its honor — or dishonor. The painting that caused the fuss remained unsold, as did the majority of the exhibits, and it was to be more than a decade until Monet began to attract favorable attention and success.

The exhibition of 1874 was not just a slap in the face for the artists but for their dealer-patron Paul Durand- Ruel too. A few years earlier, he had spotted something promising in the fledgling group and taken the artists under his wing. He paid their rent, supplied their paints and canvases, and even gave Monet a room in his house as a studio. And he bought their paintings, hundreds of them. Not that his efforts were always appreciated. When Monet charged him with failing to promote him as vigorously as he should the dealer was forced to defend himself: “You think I am not showing your pictures enough ... They are all I am showing; they are all I have concerned myself with for some years now; I have put into them all my heart, all my time and all my fortune, and that of my family.” But nobody, it seemed, wanted to buy a Monet.

It was America that saved Durand-Ruel and set Monet on the path to becoming one of the world’s favorite painters. In 1885 Durand-Ruel sailed for New York and its unprejudiced collectors with 300 pictures in his baggage (even though Monet was concerned about seeing his canvases “leave the country for the land of the Yankees”). “The Americans do not laugh,” said Durand- Ruel, “they buy.” And so they did, and Monet eventually came to realise his debt: “We would have died of hunger without Durand-Ruel, all we Impressionists,” he said. “We owe him everything.”

More than a century later, it was therefore appropriate that Monet’s apotheosis should take place in the land where the taste for his art, so assiduously nurtured by Durand-Ruel, has never faded. At the record-pulverising three day Rockefeller sale at Christie’s New York in early May, which made $832.6 million and became the highest grossing single-owner auction in history, were works by seemingly every major painter of the 1880-1920 era. And among the paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin, Braque and Seurat was a cluster of pictures by Monet. Three works alone fetched a total of some $134 million: “Nympheas en fleur,” particularly rich in color for one of his water lily paintings, sold for $84.7 million (from an estimate of $50 million); the sun, cloud and steam railway picture “Exterieur de la Gare Saint-Lazare, effet de Soleil” went for $33 million; and “La Seine a Lavacourt,” adeliquescentriver view, fetched just shy of $16 million. As an addendum to this trio, even “Bord de Mer a Sainte-Adresse,” a tonally dour Normandy coastal scene, made a tidy if, in the circumstances, modest $2.6 million.

At the Rockefeller sale it was the “Nympheas” from 1914-’17 which came as the big surprise in an auction full of surprises: it set a new record for the artist, beating the $81.4 million paid for “Meule,” a luminous haystack painting of 1891, in 2016, and another water lily painting, “Le Bassin aux Nympheas,” a one meter by two meter sketch for one of the paintings now in the Orangerie in Paris, which made $80.5 million in 2008. The Rockefeller bidding was so intense, prolonged and many sided that the auctioneer likened it to “a tennis game with five rackets.” Picasso’s “Fillette a la Corbeille Fleurie” from 1905, may have been the star of the auction, making $115 million and becoming in the process the most expensive Rose Period work ever sold, but Monet showed again that he remains a fixture at art’s top table.

The reasons for Monet’s appeal are straightforward: his paintings are, by and large, attractive and rarely merely the “chocolate box” productions they are often dismissed as being; he is famous; he was a technical and stylistic innovator; he has a venerable auction history; he was long-lived; he is regularly exhibited (there have been two major Monet shows in London, for example, in the past six months alone), and his work is instantly recognizable. There are also quite a lot of his pictures about.

Durand-Ruel’s legacy is such that America’s collectors and museums have more works by the Impressionists than any other country outside France and it is also the place where most Monets are still sold. In the period 1987-2017 Christie’s and Sotheby’s in America have between them auctioned 389 of his paintings as opposed to 236 in their London counterparts — a nice bit of synchronicity since London was a refuge for the painter during the Franco-Prussian war and America his financial lodestar.

Over the past 30 years Monet has tended to sell well, even if somewhat erratically. His base price though has always been high: 1989, for example, saw 57 of his paintings accumulate a total of $221.6 million (an average per painting of $3.9 million). Both 1988 and 1990 saw far fewer works hit the market — 30 and 34 works which made $95.5 million and $94 million respectively — but their average prices nevertheless remained relatively stable, at $3.2 million and $2.76 million.

A blip occurred in 1991, a poor year with only nine paintings consigned. They fetched $6.5 million, but since then the trend of the sales value has been upward while the number of works sent to auction has stayed largely in the 20-to-40 paintings per year band. Peak Monet, so far, was hit in 2015, when 37 pictures made $340 million, an average of $9.2 million. Last year 39 works made $180 million, an average of $4.6 million.

Hidden within the numbers is Monet’s slightly strange position as a painter (unlike, say, Picasso and Matisse, he made very few prints and no sculptures) with a spread across all levels of the market. If the past 30 years have seen 69 of his paintings reach the $10-$100 million bracket then 102 also sat in the $10,000-$100,000 band. The majority, 366, are in the $1-$10 million band. There is, it seems, a Monet to suit pockets of every variety of depth.

Monet’s painting series (Rouen cathedral, poplars, haystacks) were one of his great artistic innovations, and they help the market too in that they provide a stock of popular motifs. He painted, for example, 25 haystack paintings and 37 views of Venice, and not all of them are in museums. So if a collector misses out on, say, a particular Rouen painting there’s the chance that another from the series (more than 20 plus sketches) will appear on the market at some future point.

Of all his series the water lilies were the most personal and also the largest group; he painted some 250 of them. They have become the most sought-after of all his works: of his 19 most expensive paintings, 11 are “Nympheas” pictures and all but one of those has been sold since 2007 (the sore thumb being a painting which sold at Sotheby’s in London in 1998 for $30 million, then a record for his work). Indeed the current taste for high-end Monets means that 10 of his 12 most expensive works have been sold since 2012.

The water lily pictures became the focus of the last 30 years of the artist’s life when he lived, gardened and painted at his home in Giverny, northwest of Paris. As if to show how far he had moved on from the impecuniousness of 1874 he had a chauffeur, butler, cook and six gardeners — his automobile collection alone was worth 32,000 francs when a Paris laborer was paid 1,000 francs annually. The pictures became not just a means through which to continue his experiments with depicting the changing effects of light and shade but a memorial project— to his second wife Alice who died in 1911, to his favorite son Jean who died in 1914, and to the French soldiers who fell during the First World War. Perhaps the soft flickerings of light, water and color was a subject that suited his own failing eyesight too.

The pick of the water lily paintings, eight canvases, each 4 meters by 2 meters, are housed on the curved walls of the Orangerie in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. The oval room opened to the public in 1927, a year after the painter’s death, and became, in effect, his memorial. So when collectors pay tens of millions of dollars for a Monet water lily picture the very least of what they are buying is an image of a corner of his garden.

Behind the haystack painting “Meule,”the other premium non-water lily Monets include “The Railway Bridge At Argenteuil,” from 1873, which sold in 2008 for $41.5 million; “The Houses of Parliament: Sunset,” of 1900-1901, which sold in 2015 for $40.5 million;“Grand Canal, Venice,” from 1908, which made $35.5 million in 2015: and “Waterloo Bridge, Overcast Weather,” of 1904, which made $35.5 million in 2007. For the majority of collectors, though, the lilies are gilded, so perhaps the price made by the Rockefeller “Nympheas” shouldn’t have raised eyebrows, not least because the past 10 years have seen Monet regularly surpass expectations at auction. Between 2008 and 2017 his paintings have exceeded their estimates by more than 40 percent in no fewer than six years, with 2011 hitting 54.5 percent. Either auctioneers are being unduly cautious or they have yet to grasp fully either the demand for his work or what might represent a realistic selling point.

Sometimes though they do get it right. In 2008, “The Railroad Bridge at Argenteuil,” showing a riverbank with two trains crossing a railway bridge, sold at Christie’s New York for $41.4 million, with a hammer price of $37 million and an estimate of $35 million. What’s more, such was Christie’s confidence in the picture, an early work from the time when Impressionism was re-writing what might or might not be a suitable subject for art, that before the sale it guaranteed the sellers, the Nahmad family, a rumored $34 million. They had bought the painting 10 years earlier for $12.6 million and so made an exceptionally healthy profit.

Perhaps the seller of a 1913 canvas, “Les Arceaux de roses, Giverny,” which appeared at Sotheby’s New York in 2017 a week before the big Leonardo “Salvator Mundi” sale, hoped for a similar appreciation. If so they were disappointed: they had bought the work in Christie’s in London in 2007 for $17.8 million but a decade later it made only $19.4 million.

Getting Monet right is clearly a difficult art. The lure of the Monet name is undeniable, and his popularity in Asia was recognized by Christie’s in November 2017, when it held a sale of previously unseen works and other items owned by the Monet family in Hong Kong rather than London or New York: for the first time there was a live feed to Paris where European buyers could bid. The 51 lots comprised a mixed bag of Monet memorabilia, from letters to him (from Paul Signac and the French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, a friend and the man who encouraged Monet to paint the late water-lilies cycle, the “Grande Decoration,” for the nation), pictures he had collected (by Boudin, Signac, Rodin and Hiroshige among others), some of his own works, as well as personal items. His spectacles, for example — increasingly necessary as blindness beckoned toward the end of his life — fetched $51,000, making them surely among the most expensive pieces of eyewear in the world; a decorated garden pot that appears in at least two of his Giverny paintings made $44,500; a watercolor of a cow made $271,000; while an early example from his poplars series, “Trois Arbres a Giverny (Peupliers)” from 1887, fetched just under $4 million.

That one letter difference between Monet and money bears out what Sotheby’s Impressionist specialist Philip Hook described when he once stood in front of one of the painter’s landscapes and saw a line of trees morph into a “shimmering but unmistakable impression of a dollar sign.” It is, after all, dollars that lie behind the lengthy ongoing case about artworks once owned by the Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda now, after many years, finally going to court in New York. One of the key items whose ownership is disputed is Monet’s “L’Eglise et La Seine a Vetheuil” of 1881while his “Le Bassin aux Nympheas,” bought at the same time in 1977, was sold in 2010 by Imelda Marcos’s former secretary to a London gallery for $32 million. The painter himself would undoubtedly have had strong views on the subject. Contrary to the often sunny and calm appearance of his paintings, Monet was by nature short-tempered, crotchety and demanding. And while he accepted the plaudits of the public, collectors were a different matter.

The very people who allowed him to live in style were not those he respected since, for him, the prices they were willing to pay were proof only, he thought, of “the stupidity of the people.”

This article appears in the July edition of Art+Auction.

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