David Norman was for more than 30 years a senior specialist at Sotheby’s in Impressionist and Modern art. Here he discusses the long transition in market preference from classic works of Impressionism by Monet to the late, series works like the grainstacks, an example of which (above) is on offer at Christie’s next week. In the members area you’ll get a detailed look at the trajectory of prices over more than a century.
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An entry dated October 30, 1891 in the ledger book of Knoedler Gallery (a branch of the French dealers Goupil & Cie) lists that the once fabled gallery, seller to the great American collectors of the Gilded Age and several succeeding generations, bought for resale hot off Claude Monet’s easel a work titled in english, (Haystack) Last Ray of the Sun, a heavily encrusted painting depicting a monumental grainstack in the French countryside.
The grainstack (commonly, yet erroneously, referred to in Monet’s oeuvre as a haystack), a symbol of agrarian france, is made massive by its position in the extreme foreground of the painting; the horizontal canvas cannot even contain its proper left edge. The hulking pyramidal form has been modelled by a molten array of lavender, pinks, and rust reds with glimpses of blue and green underlayers. It’s crest wears a thin halo of lapis blue and the whole is backlit by the faint and fading peach-and-yellow glow of the setting sun over a progressively darkening ridge of blue-green mountains. Its is a study in closely arranged colors, so subtly varied that the edges of the grainstack softly meld into the ground upon which it sits.
When many artists are typically searching for a new direction in their art, Monet in mid-career devised one of the greatest innovations in painting of his era. During the 1890s, he conceived multiple bodies of works built around a single subject: such as a field of Grainstacks viewed over several seasons, the facade of Rouen Cathedral viewed over successive times of day, and a row of Poplar Trees backed by changing skies, and some years later he created series of cityscapes of the bridges of London and grand views of Venice under the envelope of different weather conditions and times of day. Of course, the notion of creating bodies of works conceived as a series reached its final peak with the great cycle of the Waterlillies. These series transcended the Impressionist concept that our visual world is not fixed by, but rather the product of, transient perceptions with no visual permanence. In each case, Monet used a singular subject purely for its abstract, formal qualities and as a visual record of the passage of time and environment.
The French public first stood in front of this work and 14 other canvases from the series at Paul Durand-Ruel’s eponymous gallery in 1891. The single theme exhibition was a shrewd marketing tool; and Durand-Ruel was one of the first to curate single artist selling exhibitions. Today, we can stand in front of it at Christie’s pre-sale exhibition for the Impressionist & Modern Art sale to be held on November 16th. (More available to AMMpro members.)
Paintings from the series of grainstacks, known as Les Meules, sold quickly. Knoedler snapped up this particular painting for 3000 francs or roughly $600. In March of 1892, the gallery records show the painting was sold to the great Chicago-based collectors, the Potter Palmers for 5000 francs ($1,000.) That was a neat—nearly 70%—profit in just 5 months. To add to their winnings, Knoedler sold another grainstack painting at auction at American Art Associates (Sotheby’s distant predecessor) for $1200.
At the time, Mrs. Potter Palmer was on a furious buying spree having purchased 25 works by Monet in 1891 alone. (Collectors buying in bulk the work of a contemporary artist is hardly a recent phenomenon!). At the time she bought the present painting, Knoedler also sold a view of Antibes by Monet from the 1880s for the nearly identical price (4700 francs) and just a few years later galerie Georges Petit auctioned an 1874 view along the seine entitled Au Petit-Gennevilliers for the princely sum of 11,500 francs, more than twice the price of Meule.
In 2016, earlier this year, Au Petit-Gennevilliers returned to auction and sold for $11,350,000 (sales results will be rounded for the purposes of this article). In 2014, a dazzling view of Antibes, not unlike the one sold over 120 years ago at Knoelder’s, made an auction price of $13,000,000. Next week, Christie’s will be selling Meule, first owned by the Palmers, with an unpublished estimate in the region of $45,000,000. Tastes do change!
Change comes slowly, though. It took generations for the price differential between the more highly valued works from the classic earlier phase of the Impressionist movement (the 1870s and 1880s) and the many works from the series paintings of the 1890s and on to slowly invert.
According to the Knoedler ledgers, In 1920, a grainstack was still priced the same as a view of Antibes. Auction records from the 1940s record a grainstack selling for $800, a Rouen Cathedral for $900, a classic Waterlilly was $2200, and all were half the price of earlier more classic Impressionist landscapes of the 1870s and 1880s.
Even during the art market boom of the late 1980s, when bidding from Japan swelled the market to a bubble of ideal proportion for bursting, bidders still valued the early paintings the majority of the time higher than those of the series paintings. A view of two grainstacks covered in cold pale blue snow and illuminated by the pink rays of the rising sun sold in 1989 for $6,700,000, less than a third of the $24,560,000 price set just a year before for an 1876 painting of Monet’s wife Camille reclining in a field of tall grasses dotted with pale white daisies. That painting of Camille, Dans la Prairie, dropped by a third in price when it resold in 1999 for $15,400,000. In that same year, Meule (the painting now up for auction) nearly doubled the price of its predecessor in 1989 and sold for $12,000,000.
Yet another example of the divergence in growth—or lack thereof—in price between a classic representation from the birth of Impressionism to a late work conceived as part of an ongoing series, is the case of an 1870 beach scene set at the fashionable resort of Trouville and one of the artist’s most audacious, late serially conceived paintings from the Waterlillly cycle. That 1870 picture sold at auction in 1988 for $10,780,000. In 2000, it climbed in price to $16,560,000, before slipping back at a sale in 2008 when it fell 10% to $15,000,000. In 1988, Sotheby’s sold a Waterlily for the nearly identical price of the 1870 beach scene, $10,590,000. By 2000, another view of the lilly pond broke $20,000,000 and in 2007, yet another nearly doubled that price again to just shy of $37,00,000.
This record of shifting prices is, of course, subject to many exceptions. There are paintings from the first decades of Impressionism that have also risen in price by multiples, but these works tend to possess more powerful compositional devices that lend them a more modern feel, such as the great Railway bridge at Argenteuil constructed with the powerfully geometric form of the receding structure which rose from $12,500,000 in 1988 to over $40,000,000 in 2008. We could partially attribute the differential to the fact that the relative supply of the best of the classic early works to the later series works are in museums. The market also is seeking out quality and today may be found with some greater degree amongst the mid- and later- periods. But seen as a whole, the market has born witness to successive generations of collectors valuing paintings within a single artist’s oeuvre very differently from their predecessors. A minority of artists continue to consistently innovate throughout their careers. For Monet, we see a progression towards a more abstract and daring conception of what a painting can be. It is precisely this quality that collectors today respond to most strongly and value most dearly.