Led by a $2.2 million still-life by van Gogh, completed just a month before the painter's suicide, and a $1.6 million portrait by Renoir of "The Gypsy Girl," which set an auction record for pictures by that artist, 41 objects from the remarkable collection of the late Andre Meyer fetched an unexpected total of $16,463,500 last night in the crowded salesrooms of Sotheby Parke Bernet.
Henry Ford II -- who auctioned off 10 of his pictures for more than $18 million in New York last May -- is the only American whose art collection has ever sold for more.
The French-born Andre Meyer (who pronounced his name May-AIRE) was a nearly legendary figure in international finance. For more than three decades he was the active senior partner in Lazard, Freres & Co., the Manhattan investment banking house. The art collection sold last night was the second he had formed. The first was taken by the Germans during World War II. Though Meyer fled Paris in 1940 with the Gestapo on his heels, (he had helped hire an assassin to kill Hitler) he managed to accumulate perhaps half a billion dollars before his death at 81 in 1979.
A sometime escort of Jacqueline Kennedy, Meyer was widely known for his cunning, his philanthropies and his exquisite taste. In the early '60s, his firm bought control of Avis Rent-a-Car for $7 million -- a company it sold to ITT for $52 million in 1965. He gave paintings by Gauguin and van Gogh to the Jeu de Paume in Paris, and a major Cezanne to the Museum of Modern Art. The 19th century collection of the Metroplitan Museum of Art is permanently housed in exhibition galleries that bear Andre Meyer's name.
David Rockefeller called him "the most creative financial genius of our time." Meyer was also nicknamed "the de Gaulle of the financial world," or, more personally, "Zeus."
It was often said on Wall Street that there were three things that he loved; beautiful women, great art and complicated deals. "The first two are really one," he responded, "and the third is not always the case."
Of his works of art, perhaps half were images of women or young girls, many of them naked. Meyer kept them in his Carlyle Hotel apartment, just across Madison Avenue from the Sotheby salesrooms where they were sold last night.
Of the 41 lots placed upon the block, 35 fetched more than their high presale estimates. Six -- two van Goghs, the Renoir, a Degas, a Cezanne, and a 1905 Picasso -- fetched more than $1 million apiece.
The $1 million Degas, "The Mante Family," set an auction record for pictures by that artist. A second Meyer Degas, a portrait of his friend, the Philadelphia painter Mary Cassatt (a picture that she regarded as "repugnant") went for $800,000. New auction records were also set last night for works by Daumier, ($280,000); Fantin-Latour, ($240,000); Bonnard, ($310,000); Juan Gris, ($320,000); La Tour, ($60,000); and -- very briefly for Edouard Vuillard ($230,000). The buyers, m ost of whom were dealers from aboard, actually paid more. New York auction houses nowadays add on the so-called buyer's premium -- a 10 percent commission.
"There seems to be a great deal of money chasing very few pictures," said David Nash, Sotheby's director of fine arts sales. "People are afraid to own currency. In the last month or two, we have seen very high prices for all works of art."
Perhaps a thousand people were jammed into the salesroom last night. They stood in doorways, sat on stairs and stood in rows against the walls. "We've never had so many people threaten never to come here again if they didn't get into the salesrooms," Nash said.
After the Meyer sale 47 additional works were offered. They earned a total of $8,860,000 -- with 20 percent unsold. Three artist's records were set in the second sale. A 1940 Miro went for $410,000 to a South African dealer. A large work by Henry Moore, "Double Standing Figure" (1950), sold for $310,000, a record price for a living sculptor, to a German private collector, and a Vuillard landscape fetched $310,000, breaking the record set just an hour earlier. Last night's total sales were $25,323,000.