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Auction season: a good time for viewing art

This is the height of the art-auction season, when anyone can stand in front of a Cezanne or Van Gogh and think to himself, "All I need to get this for my very own is a few million dollars." And when those with more modest means can bid for and get a good drawing or a first-rate print for under a thousand dollars.

It's the time when Sotheby Parke Bernet and Christie's, the two major New York auction houses, pull out all stops to present some of the best and most interesting art sales to be found anywhere. An incredible amount of first- and second- rate art changes hands after a few moments of high drama.

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As a result, it's also the time for some of the best art- viewing around. Why this is not more generally known is one of the mysteries of the art world. Perhaps it has to do with the false notion that auction sales at Christie's and Parke Bernet (pronounced, by the way, as it is spelled and notm as "Ber- nay"m ) are only for the extremely rich, and no one else is welcome to enter their exhibition halls.

While it's true that one needs a great deal of money to bid successfully for a first-rate painting by a master, it's also true that one can pick up many fine items for a few hundred dollars. But buying isn't necessary. Most of the people who attend these exhibitions and sales do so with no specific intention of buying. They come, probably with one eye cocked for something of particular interest, but mainly to enjoy some of the best free exhibitions of art to be found anywhere.

Consider what was available for viewing and bidding during one recent week this monthz:

The Garbisch collection of impressionist and modern paintings, drawings, watercolors, and sculpture at Parke Bernet. Among its highlights were Picasso's "Saltimbanque Seated With Arms Crossed," which set a record at auction for 20 th-century art by going for $3 million (plus 10 percent buyer's premium), Van Gogh's "Portrait of Adeline Ravoux," which went for $1.8 million (plus 10 percent), and Gauguin's "Tahitian Women Under the Palms," which went for the same figure. But these were only the outstanding items among a number of important pieces by Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Lautrec, etc.

Dramatic as these figures were, they were exceeded the following night at Christie's when ten major paintings from the collection of Henry Ford II and a group of other impressionist and modern works went for a total of $25.5 million.

The most exciting moment came when $5.2 million was successfully bid for Van Gogh's "Le Jardin du Poete, Arles," the second highest amount ever paid for a painting at auction. But the evening had more surprises, including the $3.9 million spent for Cezanne's "Paysan en blouse bleue," the $2.9 million for Gauguin's "La plage au poudu," and the $660,000 for Degas's "Etude de Nu." (Here again, the 10 percent buyer's premium must be added to the bid price.)

That same week Christie's held an important sale of impressionist and modern drawings and watercolors. For collectors of art on paper, this was one of the major events of the year. Particularly fine examples by Lautrec, Matisse, De Chirico, Klee, Moore, Feininger, and Sutherland went up. The quality of these pieces was so high that the small room in which they were exhibited before the auction had the appearance of belonging to a major museum.

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On Thursday and Friday Christie's held three auctions of Impressionist, Modern, and Contemporary art. For those interested in a Pollock, Still, Smith, De Kooning, Warhol, Kline, etc., this was their big chance to pick one up. The selection was broad and generally of high quality.

In one week, then, one could have seen an incredibly wide range of the art of the past century. And if one's tastes run to art of a slightly older period, Parke Bernet is scheduled to auction off a major oil by Joseph Mallord Turner on May 29. "Juliet and Her Nurse" is the most celebrated painting by this master to remain in a private collection and will certainly create a dramatic moment when it is given to the highest bidder.

With very little effort and no expense, a viewer could have availed himself during this one week of several excellent exhibitions.

While this was an exceptional week, it was by no means unique. Other important sales occur at different times during the year. What must not be forgotten is that these auction houses deal in all types of art, as well as in antiques, rare stamps, manuscripts, glassware, etc. Their auctions of fine prints remain just about the best means of viewing and handling a wide assortment of etchings, engravings, and lithographs from Rembrandt and Durer to Matisse, Dine, and Motherwell. And as far as buying is concerned, there are bargains galore. All one has to do is go and look. No one will pressure anyone into buying. And neither will anyone set out to intimidate the person not familiar with auction procedures.

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