Paintings still available included a Cezanne Still Life of apples on a table, which was expected to reach dollars 4m-dollars 5m ( pounds 2.68m- pounds 3.35), a Modigliani portrait of his friend Annie Bjarne (dollars 5m-dollars 6m), and a large Monet boating scene (about dollars 7m). 'It was just like the stock market when everyone panics,' one New York art dealer said afterwards.
The failure starkly highlights the extent to which art prices reflect the mood shifts of the mega-rich, as opposed to intrinsic value. It is often argued that the very best art is saleable even in troubled times, but on this occasion some of the best pieces came unstuck, including the Cezanne, the Modigliani and a very rare Italian Futurist painting by Gino Severini, unsold at dollars 2m, against an estimate of dollars 2.5-dollars 3.5m.
It is hard to trace any clear rationale for what happened. Christopher Burge, Christie's American chairman, confessed to being 'bewildered'. Christie's and Sotheby's seem to have been overconfident that the art market was recovering from the 1990 crash; they took in too many big-ticket items at reserves (minimum sale prices) that were higher than last year. But at the same time, the failure of the contemporary art sales in New York the previous week had probably made big buyers jumpy.
The sale started with brio. Christie's had seven major paintings from the estate of Jack Koerfer, a German industrialist, well-known as a connoisseur. Lot 1, a slight pencil drawing of a cushion by Cezanne ran to three times estimate at dollars 101,500; next came a rare landscape by Maurice de Vlaminck painted in 1905-06, in the blazing colours typical of the Fauve movement, which almost matched the auction record for the artist at dollars 6,822,500; lot 3 was also fiercely competed for, a Cubist oil and collage on canvas made by Picasso in the spring of 1913 which made dollars 6,272,500.
Then came a minor Braque which sold below estimate, followed by an early Picasso portrait of his mistress, Fernande Olivier, sewing which nobody wanted; it was left unsold at dollars 1.1m (estimate dollars 1.5- dollars 2.5m). That is when confidence began to ebb; Koerfer's handsome Pont-Aven landscape by Gauguin was allowed to sell for only dollars 4,182,500, where dollars 5m-dollars 7m had been hoped for.
The Koerfer estate was followed by 15 paintings from Meshulam Riklis, a retailing tycoon, and the corporate collection of his company, the McCrory Corporation. McCrory has filed for bankruptcy protection, while Mr Riklis is in the middle of a divorce - hence the need for money.
This psychology did not appeal to buyers who would not touch his best pictures, leaving an early Leger unsold at dollars 2.4m, the Modigliani at dollars 3.5m and the Monet at dollars 4.2m. And that was the end of any confidence in the room.