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Regarding the outstanding questions facing the Corcoran Gallery of Art on the eve of its negotiated demise, museum-watchers are no closer to any answers in May than they were in April. The Corcoran, the National Gallery of Art, and George Washington University—the three parties involved in negotiations to split up the Corcoran museum and the Corcoran College of Art + Design—remain tight-lipped about their plans.
But one small puzzle will be resolved today: “Nymphéas,” a 1907 painting by Claude Monet and the subject of a long legal battle involving the Corcoran, is going up on the Christie’s auction block tonight, starting at 7 p.m. Some proceeds from the sale will go directly to the Corcoran—and from there, presumably, to some other party.
The auction is part of the epic settlement of the estate of Huguette Clark, a reclusive heiress to the great Corcoran benefactor William A. Clark. The younger Clark’s will was hotly contested by a number of parties, including the Corcoran, when she died at 104 in 2011. One of the terms of that settlement: The Corcoran, which received $11.5 million in cash, also takes half of anything over $25 million in the Monet auction.
Christie’s anticipates that the painting, a highly abstracted take on Monet’s familiar water lilies, will go for somewhere between $25 million and $35 million. Yet recent auction history suggests that painting will go for more—much more.
“Thanks to the growing number of collectors willing to spend more than $25 million on a single Picasso or Rothko, along with the increasing perception of art as investment, this season more buyers are jumping at the chance to put bids in early, becoming what are called guarantors of desired works,” reports Carol Vogel, in a New York Times preview of the spring auctions.
Consider Monet a leading indicator along the likes of Picasso and Rothko (even if sales for impressionism are not soaring as high as those of post-war painting). In 2013, the 10 most expensive lots sold at auction accounted for more than 5 percent of the total value generated by auction sales, according to Forbes. Again, while most of those sales were for paintings made after 1945, Monet is no slouch when it comes to auction records. A “Nymphéas” painting from 1905 gaveled for nearly $44 million in 2012. In 2008, the artist’s “Water Lily Pond” sold for a record $80.4 million.
It’s tempting to get bogged down by comparisons between the paintings themselves—whether this “Nymphéas” really measures up to that one, and so on. But tonight’s auction is less a studio critique than an IPO. It’s important to keep in mind that Christie’s (as well as Sotheby’s) has a lot riding on this particular auction. Christie’s November 2013 post-war and contemporary art sale (which drew $691 million), combined with its May 2013 post-war and contemporary art sale ($495 million), accounted for more than 9 percent of auction sales globally.
As one of the highlights in one of the most critical auctions on the calendar, the Monet is poised to break all expectations. The $35 million high-end estimate could easily be the basement figure for a sale, given how critical U.S. auction-house sales are to worldwide art sales—and how central this auction is to auction-house sales.
Which could mean a giant cash windfall mean for the Corcoran? Again, we don’t know. Neither the Corcoran nor George Washington nor the National Gallery can say what will happen to the nearly $40 million it netted from auctioning historic carpets last June. That money is earmarked for acquiring new works for a Corcoran Gallery of Art that will soon cease to exist. For now, one big question facing the Corcoran is just how much it can generate in assets sales before it decides how to give all that money away. Using this money to save the Corcoran remains out of the question.
Image courtesy Christie’s