Tamara de Lempicka's Art Deco portraits are known for mixing “lighting by Caravaggio, tubism by Fernand Léger and lipstick by Chanel,” and for radiating bisexual power. Art.view anticipates a sale of her work at Sotheby's ...
When three of Kees van Dongen’s garish women sold in the same sale at Christie’s for a combined total of over £8m ($11.7m) in February 2008, the specialists at Sotheby’s must have been gnashing their teeth. Only twice had any of the Dutch Expressionist’s works topped £2m at auction, and here was one painting being bid all the way up to £5m. When the same London auction house notched up another success with another pile of van Dongens the following year, it became clear that selling pictures in batches didn’t flood the market, as many would have argued, but actually encouraged it.
Now Sotheby’s is hoping to have its revenge, with a bunch of Tamara de Lempicka portraits that have all of van Dongen’s in-your-face eroticism with some Cubism thrown in for good measure. De Lempicka has been widely collected by Hollywood figures such as Barbra Streisand, Madonna and Jack Nicholson. These pictures have been consigned by a German designer, Wolfgang Joop, thus offering an immaculate modern pedigree combining fashion and celebrity.
Four of the paintings will be included in the prestigious evening sale in New York next month, with six more offered the following day. Not to be outdone, Christie’s has an important de Lempicka of its own, “Portrait of Madame M”, with an even bigger estimate ($6m-8m).
The highest price a de Lempicka has hit at auction is just over $4m, so auction houses’ optimism is hardly consistent with the mood of the moment. But then de Lempicka has a very particular appeal that may make her immune to economic downturn. In the days before the sale, Sotheby’s reported considerable interest from Russia and the Far East, much of it from first-time buyers.
The strongest of Mr Joop’s de Lempicka pictures are bound to do well, whatever the climate. Born, most likely, in Moscow in 1895 (though she liked to say it was Poland in 1902) to a wealthy family that emigrated, before the second world war, first to Paris, and then to California and New York, de Lempicka was glamorous, spoilt, demanding and bisexual. All of those attributes emerged in her painting.
Two of the pictures here show at her dramatic best, and are even stronger in the flesh than they are in the catalogue. The 1932 portrait of Marjorie Ferry (pictured above), which Mr Joop bought in 1995 for $500,000 and for which he is now asking $4m-6m, shows a figure resembling Carole Lombard wrapped only in a sheet, casting a knowing look over her shoulder. With her hair in gold twists and her sheet that seems bent rather than draped, the texture is metallic as much as celluloid, conjuring up the sleek gleam of cars in the age of speed.
Muscle rather than metal is the theme of the 1925 portrait of Marika, the Greek-born Duchesse de la Salle de Rochemaure, which carries the same estimate. Tall, well-rounded and boasting a beauty spot above her lip, the sitter has all of de Lempicka’s trademark characteristics, once described as “lighting by Caravaggio, tubism by Fernand Léger and lipstick by Chanel”. The picture radiates bisexual power. The Duchesse appears at first to be wearing black riding jodhpurs tucked into her boots, but when you look more closely it could just as easily be a black skirt pulled up almost to the crotch to reveal a powerful inner thigh.
Despite being regarded by some as the finest Art Deco painter, de Lempicka does not always sell easily, and buyers should beware. Of the last 20 of her pictures offered at auction, eight did not sell at all. Some of Mr Joop’s paintings have characteristics similar to those failures. The first de Lempicka he bought, “A l’Opéra”, has something shallow about it, and may have been a mistake. “La Couronne de Fleurs II”, which was painted around 1932 and then seems to have later been reworked by the artist, has something religious about it that may not appeal to many of those looking for a recognisable de Lempicka work.
“La Clé” is a still life, and doesn’t look like a de Lempicka at all. And “Femme à la Robe Noire”, which Mr Joop bought in 1992 for $93,100 and for which he is now asking $500,000-700,000, brings to mind the portrait of Madame Vanetos that was offered for sale in November 1998. On that occasion it carried an estimate of $250,000-350,000. The picture failed to sell. Consigned again two years later, this time with a lower estimate ($150,000-200,000), it failed again. You can have too much of a good thing.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern sales are in New York on May 5th and 6th. Christie’s sales are on May 6th and 7th