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|Art Market Watch
by Caroline Krockow
|Last month's contemporary art sales in New York -- Nov.13-17 at Phillips, Christie's and Sotheby's, totaling $151 million -- felt like a "market top." More than 30 new records were set for artists ranging from Alexander Calder ($4,185,750 for the red steel mobile Stegosaurus) to Donald Baechler ($149,000 for the 1989 beach ball painting, Conversazione).
So what to make of the increasingly gloomy news from Wall Street, predicting an inevitable downturn? Art-world insiders look to next spring's auctions for an answer. In the meantime, the market for contemporary art -- sexy, chic, provocative -- is hot as a pistol.
Everyone knows about the top lots in the evening sales -- $2.2 million for Charles Ray's Male Mannequin; $1,656,000 for a Felix Gonzalez-Torres bead curtain, $830,750 for a Robert Gober sink sculpture, $750,500 for Damien Hirst's double butterfly painting, $305,000 for an enamel painting by Christopher Wool that reads, "If you can't take a joke get the fuck out of my house."
But for truly speculative plays, you have to look at the day sales. These auctions, which run from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. and include more than 300 lots by contemporary and post-war artists, are the place to read early signs of major collector interest. Plus, they're more fun.
Begin with Mariko Mori, the Japanese-American fabulist whose Love Hotel photograph sold at Sotheby's for $58,250 on Nov 15. This 1994 image of the artist wearing a futuristic, sexy sailor uniform and posing on a round four poster-bed (it comes in an edition of 4) was priced at $3,000 four years ago, when it was exhibited at Deitch Projects in SoHo, and subsequently fetched $19,550 at a Sotheby's auction in 1997.
The sharp climb in value, says Sotheby's contemporary expert Wendy Cromwell, is easily explained -- Mori's work is highly respected and difficult to acquire on the primary market.
In the world of new media, Mori's four-year market climb seems sluggardly compared to that of Young British Artist Sam Taylor-Wood, whose panoramic Five Revolutionary Seconds XII (1998) sold for $75,500 at Sotheby's on Nov. 15, considerably above its presale estimate of $25,000-$35,000. What makes the price all the more remarkable is the size of the photo, which is 15 inches tall by 82 in. wide. Taylor-Wood has only had five works come up at auction, and the first was only a year ago (estimated at £2,000-£3,000, it was bought in).
The appeal of Taylor-Wood's panoramic image is undeniable. This particular photo was taken with a camera that panned 360 degrees around the home and studio of the British artist Gary Hume, and is accompanied by a tape loop of the ambient conversation recorded when the photo was taken. Taylor-Wood is, of course, the wife of British dealer Jay Jopling, and shows at his gallery, White Cube. Taylor-Wood's auction record, by the way, is $110,300, set two days earlier for a substantially larger photo sold at Phillips evening sale.
Another woman photographer whose prices are soaring is Rineke Dijkstra, an Amsterdam-based Dutch photographer whose Selfportait, Marnixbad, Amsterdam (1991) sold for a record $102,800 at Christie's on Nov. 17 -- five times the top presale estimate of $20,000. In the large, 60 by 50 inch photo, Dijkstra stands in the center of a communal shower wearing a striped bathing suit (quasi see-through) and a shocked expression.
The price is a dramatic high for Dijkstra's work. Only two days earlier, a small Dijkstra photograph of a mother and child, Hilton Head island, S.C., USA (1992), went for a bargain $5,100, within its presale estimate $4,000-6,000. Other photos from her beach series -- albeit slightly larger -- sold that week for $22,325 (est. $10,000-15,000) and $19,975 (est. $10,000-$15,000).
Similarly, the auction results for New York-based Milanese artist Vanessa Beecroft are all over the map. A year ago, large-scale photographs from her performances and videos were routinely offered at art-fair booths for $6,000. But since her stunning Navy Seal presentation on the U.S.S. Enterprise in the Hudson River, Beecroft has swelled in esthetic stature.
On Nov.17 at Christie's, Beecroft's Untitled (US Navy) (1999), a dramatic four-by-five-foot photograph of a phalanx of sailors in their dress whites, sold for $35,250. Though well above the presale estimate of $12,000-$18,000, the price is not a Beecroft auction record. That honor goes to the $45,000-plus paid at Christie's London on June 28, 2000, for a somewhat smaller color photo of girls in Gucci bikinis and stilettos. It's nice to know that Venus still trumps Mars.
The flood of photos to market was nowhere more evident than with Sotheby's offering of multiple lots by Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman, a pair of 1980s classics who both had auction records set this May at Sotheby's at $269,750. What are they, separated at birth?
Top lot of the six photos by Prince was a 1980 set of four images of women with their backs turned, which sold for $49,625, while the artist's sexy Laura (1982) sold for $46,750 (both est. $35,000-$45,000). Meanwhile, a joke monochrome with a woman saying "Am I too late for the garbage?" and the garbageman replying, "No, jump in." doubled its high estimate, selling to a humorous buyer for $104,250 (est. $40,000-$60,000).
Sotheby's brought 15 photos by Sherman to the block, and everything sold, many for above their estimates. Top price came when Untitled #76 (1980), a 20 by 24 inch image of the artist pensively sipping a beer, sold for $81,250 (est. $60,000-$80,000). The low price was $14,400, right in the middle of the presale estimate for Untitled #128 (1983), a somewhat larger portrait of the pixie-like artist with a devilish look in her eye -- one of an edition of 18.
Lets turn on the testosterone for a minute and take a look at the collectible objects from Matthew Barney's series of Cremaster films. On Nov.15, Sotheby's sold a custom-framed photo of Barney as a beastlike looking man with Spock ears, entitled Cremaster 4 -- The Loughton Candidate (1994, edition of 30) for $46,750 (est. $15,000-$20,000). That prices the entire edition at over $1.35 million. Now that's a monster, as the kids say.
Curiously -- as a sign of how anecdotal, rather than scientific, the auction market is -- the same print sold last May at Christie's for $76,375. Are Barney's prices going down? His auction record, $387,500, was paid for an elaborate vitrine sculpture at Christie's in May, 1999.
One of the few African-American artists whose works are traded at auction is Glenn Ligon, whose oilsticks on canvas from the early 1990s present hard-hitting texts on race in a rough-hewn stencil format. Three of his works were up for sale during auction week, and all did better than their estimates. At Sotheby's on Nov. 15, his Study for Frankenstein #1 (1992) sold for $26,625 (est. $15,000-$20,000), while Untitled (I remember the very day) (1991) sold for $10,200 (est. $6,000-$8,000). And two days later at Christie's, his Untitled (invisible man) (1993) fetched $54,050 (est. $25,000-$35,000).
Max Protech, who represents the artist in New York, comments, "It is a good sign for Glen that these prices are achieved for small canvases of his text paintings, but it makes sense. I sold one of Glen's earlier works for $100,000 this week."
After a ten-year pause, works by '80s art star Kenny Scharf also seem to be back in art-auction play. His Fertility (1983), showing a two-headed blue moonman, was estimated $10,000-15,000 but sold for $79,900. That's the second-highest price ever paid for a Scharf work at auction; his record is $93,500, set ten years ago in February 1990.
In spite the spending mood in the contemporary art market, everything has its limits. Mike Kelley found his when the gruesome Uniforms (1997) -- a drawing of a boy with a cut-off penis and chopped off foot -- was bought in (est. $10,000-$15,000). His auction record is $167,500, set in 1999 at Christie's.
CAROLINE KROCKOW is an editorial assistant at Artnet Magazine.