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|Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
|The auction market for post-war and contemporary art survived a triple-whammy this month -- an unresolved presidential election, a discouraging stock market and a slew of sky-high estimates -- and did so with ease and style.
As to why things went so well, the only logical explanation is that the quality of the material was high and collectors and dealers are still in good shape financially. As for speculation that money has moved out of the stock market and into the collectibles market, it's still too early to tell.
One thing is for sure: most works of art have now found their price range. Well, there will always be a few surprises, but in general the auction houses seemed to get most of the estimates right. When buyers feel like they can accurately determine what something is worth, it becomes a lot easier to buy with confidence.
There was also a lot of talk about whether Phillips auction house has muscled its way into the big leagues. While Phillips still doesn't have the cachet of Sotheby's and Christie's, it does offer the seller an increasingly viable alternative. Given the much discussed anti-trust suit against the "big two" auction houses, anything that creates more competition is good for the art business.
This season's auctions featured a disturbing new trend -- the sale of works by a young artist -- Cecily Brown -- that were created only last year. Fortunately for the painter, the works sold above estimate. Had they gone into the tank, a promising career could have been permanently damaged.
It seems that it's time for the auction houses to start acting a little more responsibly, perhaps by creating a five-year moratorium (from the date the work is created) before an artwork can be auctioned off. However, don't look for this to happen any time soon. There's simply too much money to be made on hot artists of recent vintage.
As to why brand new paintings doubled their gallery prices, one has to assume that the possibility exists that a major collector of Brown's work is manipulating prices, or possibly one of the artist's dealers is supporting the market. Then again, maybe a few anxious collectors were shut out of buying a Brown during a gallery exhibition and paid up.
As mentioned earlier, every sale has its surprises. Among this season's off-the-wall developments was the wild price paid for a life-size (that is, 1/4 x 1/2 x 3/4 in.) sculpture of a fly by Tom Friedman. This minute work, featured on the cover of the catalogue for Christie's day sale, has to be seen to be believed.
Appropriately titled Fly, the work is composed of plastic, hair, wire, Play-Doh, fuzz (whatever that is) and paint. Estimated before the sale at $40,000-$60,000, the handmade fly brought $88,125. Come on, people. Tom Friedman is a nice artist, but if you scan the catalogues and look for what else you could have bought for the money, you'd probably agree that there is far better value out there. For example, you could have purchased one of several Joseph Cornell boxes that came up at Christie's, and still have gotten change back.
Another curious spectacle was the sale of a Willem de Kooning drawing at Christie's evening auction of post-war art. The charcoal drawing, titled Monumental Woman, was created in 1953, and had been previously auctioned for $695,000 at Sotheby's New York back in Nov.1994. This time it was on the auction block with a pumped-up estimate of $1.5 million-$2 million.
The auctioneer that night was Christopher Burge -- universally considered to be the best in the business. Burge started the bidding at $900,000. The bidding quickly escalated to $1.5 million, and Burge brought has gavel down and said, "Sold!" Within a few seconds, he was approached at the podium by the dealer David Nash. After a quick huddle, Burge announced that there had been a mistake and he was going to re-auction the drawing.
Apparently, Nash also had his paddle up at $1.5 million, but was seated directly behind the buyer, Robert Mnuchin of C&M Arts. Nash had successfully protested that Burge had missed his bid. With that, Burge started the process all over again at $900,000.
The bidding quickly jumped back to the original $1.5 million -- and then kept going -- all the way up to $2.4 million! After Burge uttered "Sold," he then finished the sentence with a smile, "to the same buyer for an additional $900,000!" A ripple of nervous laughter swept through the audience.
I'm sure that Mnuchin didn't find the proceedings very funny. The bottom line is that, with the buyer's premium, he spent an extra million dollars on Monumental Woman, whose final selling price was $2,646,000.
Finally, the sale of the Mark Rothko painting, featured on the cover of a separate evening sale post-war catalogue at Christie's, proved to be anticlimactic when it passed. This was almost predictable, given the picture's wild $15 million-$20 million estimate. The bidding climbed to $9 million, but Christopher Burge mercifully put it to rest when he couldn't coax another bid from the audience.
On a more positive note, one of the best Francis Bacon paintings in memory to come up to auction sold for a record $6.6 million. The same sale also saw one of the finest Andy Warhol paintings of Elizabeth Taylor (with a gorgeous blue background) sell for a robust $4.4 million.
Another Warhol price of interest was the record $347,000 for a 24-inch-square Flowers painting (yellow flowers, green background) -- raising the bar on this bellwether series for Warhol prices by approximately $100,000.
All in all, it was a remarkably successful fall season. Despite the realistic fears about the economy slowing down, it appears that the market for high quality art, created after 1945, is solid.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at Polskyart@aol.com