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Paintings for Sale - Cheap!
What happens to the paintings artists do which they cannot sell? They accumulate. They accumulate in attics, dank basements, stuffed closets, overstuffed garages, and on the walls of the artists' friends and families. In 1874, and 1876, after the First and Second Impressionist Exhibitions, the artists had a similar problem. While some 3,500 individuals viewed the first exhibition, for example, few paintings sold and those that did went for very low prices. In 1874, a Paris bricklayer earned about 50 francs per week (around $25). Claude Monet's paintings sold during the shows for between 150 to 300 francs. An auction was held after each show to unload those works that had not sold. One of Renoir's paintings, Pont des Arts, Paris, 1867, sold for a mere 70 francs (and from that he had to pay a percentage to the auctioneer). The auctions were held at the Hotel Drouot and they were both bargain basement buyers' markets.

The Impressionist painter Gustave Caillebotte, who had organised and funded the Second Impressionist Exhibition, walked away from one of these auctions with Edouard Manet's 1869 painting, The Balcony for 3,000 francs. Monet's massive, life-size painting of his wife, Camille (The Green Dress) sold for a mere 800 francs. Renoir's Pont Neuf brought 300 francs. His Blue House in Zaandam from 1871-72 was sold for just over 400 francs. An Alfred Sisley painting entitled Floods at Port-Marley sold for 180 francs. Twenty-two years later, the same painting sold for 43,000 francs. A painting by CÚzanne entitled The House of the Hanged Man, which failed to sell even at auction, sold 25 years later for 6,200 francs. With a combination of shrewdness and intestinal fortitude, and prices like these, there was money to be made buying Impressionist art.

Who was buying? Who stood to make the big bucks...err...francs? Men like Paul Durand-Ruel, who was the first to make a substantial investment in the Impressionists. The Second Impressionist Exhibition was held at his gallery, in fact. But he didn't sell them in Paris (at least not very many there). He sold them in London, and New York, and Amsterdam. More than any other individual, Durand-Ruel was responsible for the success of Impressionism on the international market. His rival, Georges Petit was buying too. In fact, he not only bought paintings he bought artists, signing them to exclusive contracts to handle their work in his own gallery. Another man, Victor Choquet, a collector rather than a dealer, took a fancy to CÚzanne and upon his death in 1891, his estate realised huge profits. These were the men who made Impressionism and they stand on an equal footing with the artists themselves. For without these financially brave and astute entrepreneurs, Impressionist paintings might today be gathering dust in Paris attics instead of the Louvre.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
22 January 1999

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