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Do megabuck sales actually cheapen art?

By Theodore F. Wolff / June 14, 1983

New York

I wish Cezanne, Monet, Van Gogh, and Degas could have been there. Had they been, I doubt any of them would have believed it. Certainly not Cezanne and Van Gogh, and most assuredly not Degas. He would have been most surprised of all.

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He would have had good reason. No pastel has ever sold for such a sum as $3. 74 million - or even come close to it. And it was one of his.

The fact that the sale was the highlight of an end-of-season series of major art auctions at Sotheby's (one of the world's two great auction houses) would have meant little to him - nor would the fact that the sale had attracted many of the world's major collectors, dealers, and museum curators.

What would, however, have stunned him, was the unbelievable price his pastel sold for. The $3.74 million figure certainly surprised me. I had expected it to go for $2 million at most, and I wouldn't have been surprised if it had gone for several hundred thousand dollars less. It was, of course, a great picture, but it was a pastel, and as such, technically ''only'' a drawing.

But ''Waiting,'' a medium-size study of a young ballet dancer and an older woman seated on a bench, triumphed over the usual prejudice against works on paper, and scored entirely on merit. I was pleased, as I also was by the response to other works by Degas and his great Impressionist and Post-Impressionist colleagues. And by the interest shown in the other auctions at Sotheby's (and at Christie's, the other major auction house) devoted to 20 th-century art.

I wasn't pleased, however, by the circus atmosphere that pervaded these sales , nor by the social and commercial attitudes that dominated them. The values of art were shoved aside by the concerns of wealth, power, and position to the point where the purchase and possession of art often became more a matter of prestige than of aesthetic pleasure.

All this shouldn't have bothered me, considering how long I've been a part of the art world and the number of years I've acted as an art appraiser. But it did , and I suspect it always will. I simply will never get over seeing art, the product of great passion, delight, love, and caring, treated as though it were nothing but a valuable piece of property, or something to hang on one's wall, at times just to impress the neighbors.

I realize there were genuine art lovers at these viewings, but I doubt they were among those individuals I overheard saying they needed a Klee to go with their tiny Dubuffet, or wanted a particular Picasso pencil portrait because it would look so impressive in their hallway. And I'm positive two young men deep in discussion about the advisability of bidding for the Schnabel were thinking almost entirely of their margin of profit, should they sell it in two or three years. If they weren't, why were they so concerned about the stability of Schnabel's reputation?

It's a pity art has become such a high-powered commercial enterprise. And yet there are compensations. These two series of auctions at Sotheby's and Christie's added up to some of the best art viewing of the season. Anyone interested in art could have seen hundreds of outstanding paintings, sculptures, constructions, drawings, etc., - as well as a handful of masterpieces - totally free of charge.

Of particular importance is the fact that such viewings are often the only time certain works will ever be seen by the public. Many of them come from private collections, and disappear into other private collections once the auctions are over. South America's Botero