As fall auction sales get underway, it's hard to predict their results. Never before have the sales been so dependent on the mood of the nation. One day America seems to be winning the war against terrorism, the next day it suffers a setback. One day the stock market is up, the next people take profits and it's down. The old axiom, of taking things one day at a time, seems to be in order.
If there's an encouraging sign, it's the results of the Oct. 10 sale of the Fred Hughes Collection at Sotheby's. As most people know, Fred Hughes was Andy Warhol's extraordinary business manager. However, Hughes was also a serious collector. Even though his collection was largely furniture, folk art and antiques, he also owned a handful of Warhol paintings -- including two blue Jackies. Both sold for above their $80,000-$120,000 estimates -- one brought $137,500 and the other $187,500. By the way, the vast majority of Hughes' antiques sold for strong prices, with the sale grossing $3.3 million.
Another hopeful sign is that the auction houses have been able to put together impressive sales. Although both Sotheby's contemporary and Christie's post-war are top-heavy with German material, there are also some wonderful American works. Over at Christie's, the post-war evening sale on Nov. 13 boasts Tom Wesselmann's Still Life #28. This relief painting is constructed around an actual, working black and white television set. The painting has been in the collection of the Abrams family (Harry Abrams founded the Abrams publishing firm) since its original creation in 1963. Estimated at $600,000-$800,000, it could be the first million-dollar Wesselmann. Even if it sells for the low end of its estimate, it would still set a record (Wesselmann's current auction record is $528,000).
Christies' post-war evening sale also has the finest Sam Francis "Blue Balls" painting ever to come on the auction block, Why Then Opened II. This canvas is estimated at $1 million-$1.5 million. Once again, if this work sells at its low estimate, it will set a record for a "Blue Balls" painting (Francis's current "Blue Balls" record is $990,000). Other sale highlights include an Ed Ruscha work on paper, Honk; Andy Warhol's multi-panel portrait of art dealer Holly Solomon, Holly; and a 1951 Willem de Kooning drawing, Woman.
Christie's contemporary sale on Nov. 15 is less interesting. The cover lot is a "candy" piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Blue-Placebo), estimated at $600,000-$800,000. As anyone familiar with the artist's work knows, Gonzalez-Torres is placing large piles of colorful wrapped hard candy in various configurations on the floor or in a corner. The viewer is encouraged to interact physically with the piece by removing a candy and eating it. Although the esthetics of these works are sound, conceptually they come off as "one-liners." What's humorous to note is how the catalogue essay, which accompanies the piece, harps on the work's generosity of spirit. Give me a break.
The sale does offer a more conservative masterpiece, Alex Katz's Blue Umbrella #2, a large painting of the artist's wife protecting herself from a downpour. The work is fully estimated at $500,000-$700,000. Once again, this is the best Katz to ever appear at auction and should obliterate the artist's previous auction record of $121,000. Although, this writer is not a Katz fan, this happens to be a museum-quality picture. The rest of the sale also contains a provocative selection of large-scale German photography (Gursky, Struth, etc.). It will be interesting to see if this previously "hot" sector of the market maintains its temperature.
Over at Sotheby's, the big news is the Douglas Cramer Collection on Nov. 14. Sotheby's has given the sale the royal treatment -- which makes sense, since the house allegedly gave Cramer a guarantee. The collection has some first-rate works, although several have estimates that err on the high side. For instance, it's hard to know what the specialists at Sotheby's were thinking about when they estimated Jasper Johns' Montez Singing at $3.5 million-$4.5 million. This work would be fortunate to bring half of that. On the positive side, the terrific Roy Lichtenstein painting, Mirror #1, might very well live up to its lofty $1 million-$1.5 million expectations. This work is the finest example from this underrated series to come on the market in some time.
Another Cramer sale standout is an Ed Ruscha silhouette painting of a Standard gasoline station, Untitled. Painted in 1989 and measuring 60 by 112 inches, the work is a later day follow-up on Ruscha's memorable 1960s Pop paintings of the same subject matter. Cramer's painting is estimated at a modest $250,000-$350,000. An educated guess is that when he bought it out of its Castelli show, he paid only $25,000.
The rest of Sotheby's contemporary evening sale has another fine Lichtenstein work, an early drawing called George Washington. There is also a gorgeous Andy Warhol portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, Liz. While the painting's turquoise background makes it one of the better examples from this series, the painting's $4 million-$5 million estimate seems a bit rich. There is also a fine Warhol yellow Electric Chair, which Sotheby's has a financial interest in. The painting's $1.2 million-$1.8 million estimate is a reflection of a similar size Electric Chair bringing $2.3 million over the summer. These numbers are significant when you realize that back in May, the going rate for one of these 1960s icons was only around $700,000.
In summary, the auction houses have the ammunition, in terms of good quality works that are fresh to the market. You also sense the buyers are out there -- at the right price. What it may all come down to is the consignors. If the majority of sellers are willing to put realistic reserves on their property, the evening sales should do fine and may even surprise some people with their strength.
RICHARD POLSKY will be taking a break from writing the Art Market Guide to devote time to his latest project: a nonfiction book titled I Bought Andy Warhol, a story about the contemporary art market to be published by Harry N. Abrams.