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    Art Market Watch
by Caroline Krockow
Rufino Tamayo
Sandías (Fette d'anguria)
at Sotheby's
Nov. 20, 2000
Armand Julien Palliere
Panorama of the city of São Paulo
at Sotheby's
Nov. 20, 2000
Alfredo Ramos Martínez
India Xochitl
at Sotheby's
Nov.20, 2000
Candido Portinari
Girl combing her hair
Remedios Varo
La expedición de aqua aurea
Emiliano di Cavalcanti
Mulher deitado com peixes e frutas $886,000
at Christie's
Nov.21, 2000
Sotheby's and Christie's each held Latin American art auctions in New York just before Thanksgiving on Nov. 20 and 21, respectively. All in all, the results were mediocre.

Sotheby's sold 64 percent, or 136 of 211 lots, for a total of $9.9 million, below the presale estimate of $11.5 million-$15.3 million. Christie's results were even sadder, with 82 of 167 lots sold -- only 49 percent. The sale made $6 million against an estimate of $15 million-$20 million.

Buyers primarily came from the U.S. and Latin America, according to the auctioneers. Collectors from Spain and other European countries were largely absent, which could be a result of the current high exchange rates.

The reasons for the slump in the Latin American art market are uncertain. Some observers faulted the quality of the works and over-optimistic presale estimates. Another complaint targeted the size of the sales, which were said to include too many regional artists. "They need to curate their selections better," said one dealer. "The way it is, they're definitely hurting the market."

As for the auction houses, they blamed the difficult political and economic situation in Latin America. Indeed, the timing of the auctions was hardly perfecto. Argentina, Venezuela, Ecuador and Columbia are all experiencing economic and political crises. Even in Mexico, in normal circumstances a strong player in the art market, political uncertainty is prevalent with the country divided after the presidential election of Vincente Fox.

Sotheby's director of Latin American art Isabelle Hutchinson tried to be upbeat, noting, "Against this background it was a very positive sale reflecting reasonable estimates."

To be sure, in Sotheby's evening sale on Nov. 20 bidders vied for pictures of qualidad, and several works sold for prices in the six and seven figure range. The star lot, Rufino Tamayo's Sandias (1958), an almost abstract array of overlapping red and pink slices of watermelon, sold to an anonymous buyer for $1,215,750 (est. $900,000-$1,200,000).

Sotheby's set an auction record with the sale of Arnaud Julien Pallière's Panorama of the City of Sao Paulo (1821) for $830,750 (est. $600,000-$800,000). The 19th-century painting, only recently rediscovered, depicts what is probably the earliest known view of what was then a colonial settlement of 20,000 people. The painting has been declared to be part of Brazil's national patrimony and cannot be permanently exported. It sold to a Brazilian collector in a flush of applause.

Another electrifying lot was Alfredo Ramos Martínez's India Xochitl (1950), which soared past a presale estimate of $60,000-$80,000 to sell for $225,750, setting a new auction record for the artist. The painting depicts a beautiful Indian woman in a golden dress, surrounded by flowering plants and holding a flower in her hands. The work is from the collection of the Hollywood actor Gary Cooper, and sold by his heirs.

But if Sotheby's sale was disappointing, the Latin American art auction at Christie's on Nov. 21 was disastrous, at least according to most observers. Ana Sokoloff, Christie's Latin American expert, wasn't having any of that, however. At the post-sale roundup, she noted record-setting prices for works by Emiliano di Cavalcanti ($886,000) and Francisco Toledo ($446,000), and six-figure results for several works each by Botero and Tamayo. "If you would look for these works privately," Sokoloff proclaimed, "you would have to pay more!"

Unfortunately for Christie's, the buyers often demurred. One star lot of Christie's sale, depicted on the catalogue cover, was Candido Portinari's neo-classic Cuboid Girl Combing her Hair (1941), which was bought in (est. $800,000-$1,000,000). Measuring ca. 29 by 23 inches, the work shows a strongly built Brazilian mulata holding her comb in her fist, as if to emphasize solidarity with Brazilian workers.

The top lot by the Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo also passed. Pájero agresivo (1948), a mystical night scene of two men attacked by a pink bird (move over, Alfred Hitchcock), was estimated at $900,000-1,200,000. Also failing to sell was Remedios Varo's La Expedicion de Aqua Aurea (1962), a fanciful picture of four hooded alchemists in sled in a snowy landscape, in search of the "magical elixir that heals." It was estimated at $700,000-$900,000.

It was not all malo, however. Emiliano di Cavalcanti's Mulher deitada com peixes e frutas (1956), mentioned earlier, sold to a Latin American phone bidder for $886,000, a new record for the artist. The colorful, neo-Cubist painting -- symbolic of the fertility of Brazil -- shows a sleeping nude framed by a horse, a Buddha statue, a basket of fish and some fruit. The former Cavalcanti record was $138,000, set in 1966.

The record-setting Toledo painting, Plano de Juchitán (ca. 1961), is an abstraction of gold and earthy patterns, which sold for $446,000 -- somewhat below the presale estimate of $500,000-$700,000. Toledo's former record was $387,500, set in 1978.

The top lot for Tamayo, his Dos amantes contemplando la luna (1950), showing two strange, bluish creatures under a crescent Mexican moon, sold for $721,000, just below its estimate of $800,000-$1,000,000.

Let's hope that the Latin American sale in May takes place under a more favorable moon.

CAROLINE KROCKOW is an assistant editor at Artnet Magazine.