Art Retakes Center Stage: $10.3 Million For van Gogh By CAROL VOGEL Published: May 1, 1996 Forget the $2.6 million diamond ring, the $772,500 golf clubs and the $453,500 rocking chair gobbled up last week at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis extravaganza at Sotheby’s. Last night at Christie’s, buyers happily snapped up a van Gogh for $10.3 million and a Degas pastel for $5.4 million. The market for Impressionist and modern art proved to be as solid as ever among an international crowd of collectors hungry to buy, but discerning all the same. The sale totaled $76.1 million, just below its low estimate of $77.2 million. Of the 67 works up for sale, only 9 failed to find buyers. The most noticeable change as this spring’s important art auctions began was the presence of Asian bidders, largely absent since the market soured in 1990. “Sixteen percent of the buyers tonight were Asian, which is up very significantly,” said Michael Findlay, senior director of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s in New York. “Asians were not only successful buyers; there were many bidding on lots they didn’t get.” But in contrast with the boom years of the 1980’s, when Asians epitomized conspicuous consumption in the market as they tended to pay hugely inflated prices for second-rate works, last night’s Asian buyers were, as Mr. Findlay said, “private collectors buying as individuals, not dealers buying speculative stock, as we saw a decade ago.” In addition, Western buyers last night were evenly split between Americans and Europeans. For several seasons, Americans have dominated the buying. The evening began with a gallop as Christopher Burge, Christie’s chairman in America and the evening’s auctioneer, speeded through the first 20 works, a majority of them selling nicely above their estimates. Then kerplunk! The room suddenly went dead. One of the evening’s most touted paintings, Gauguin’s “Still Life With Hope” (1901), from the estate of Joanne Toor Cummings, a New York philanthropist, failed to sell. Expected to bring $7 million to $10 million, the painting, which had hung on the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 12 years, failed to sell. Mr. Burge couldn’t raise a bid and finally gave up at $5 million. But that was one of the evening’s few disasters. “It was an extremely solid sale,” Mr. Findlay said, “with bidding by seasoned collectors who were connoisseurs, collectors who came into the market since 1991 and a handful of courageous new buyers, who in some cases were reaching into the $2 million and $3 million mark for the first time.” (Final prices include the auction house’s commission, 15 percent of the first $50,000 plus 10 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.) The evening’s hottest attraction was van Gogh’s “Interior of a Restaurant” (1887-88), a rare subject for an artist best known for outdoor scenes. It was sold last night to James Roundell, who headed the departm’nt of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s in London until he went into business for himself last year. Christie’s had expected the painting to fetch about $10 million, which is exactly what it did. Three bidders slugged it out until Mr. Roundell finally won at $10.3 million. The Danforth family of Rhode Island was the seller. Most of the best property last night came from estates, and Christie’s got the best of them this season. A prime example is works that once belonged to Joseph H. Hazen, a lawyer and film producer who died two years ago. Sotheby’s sold some of Mr. Hazen’s property last fall; Christie’s got the rest. Degas’s pastel “Woman in a Tub” (1884), estimated at $6 million to $8 million, elicited a painfully slow battle between two anonymous telephone bidders. It finally sold to one of them for $5.4 million. Picassos did well last season, but there were fewer last night and the best performed badly despite the “Picasso and Portraiture” show that just opened at the Museum of Modern Art. “The Reader,” a 1932 portrait of the artist’s mistress Marie-Therese Walter, failed to sell. Bidding never went above $4.8 million. Christie’s had estimated it would bring $6 million to $8 million. “We were within a whisper of selling it,” Mr. Findlay said. William Rubin, longtime head of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, who organized the Modern’s Picasso show, was at Christie’s last night and seemed unfazed by the painting’s failure to sell. “The Picasso had been on the market too recently,” he said. “But all in all it was a healthy sale. The market is definitely firmer.” The sale total was helped in large part by several hefty prices paid for pretty Impressionist paintings. Monet’s “Contarini Palace” (1908), a view of the Venetian palace with its reflection in the Grand Canal, was estimated at $4 million to $6 million. It sold to the dealer David Nahmed for $4.2 million. Bidders also fought over Monet’s “Charing Cross Bridge,” a dreamy 1899 scene. It brought $3.9 million, above its estimate of $2.8 million to $3.5 million. One unexpected moment of madness occurred when a small Matisse, “Lemons on a Pewter Plate,” estimated at $1.5 million to $2.5 million, prompted a frenzy. Several bidders were dying for the 1926 still life, which finally sold to an unidentified European collector for $4 million. A group of works by Alberto Giacometi from the Cummings estate were so popular they could have been sold many times over. Richard Gray, the Chicago dealer, bought “Woman of Venice,” one of nine bronzes Giacometti cast from a series of plaster figures around 1957. Estimated at $1.2 million, it brought $1.6 million. Mr. Gray looked pleased as he left the salesroom last night. “It was a healthy sale,” he said. “Look at the percentage of things that sold for more than their estimates. You can’t ask for more than that.”   Painting, Oil on Canvas – 65.5 cm × 81.0 cm Arles: August, 1888 Private collection F: ;549a, ;JH: ;1573