While thumbing through the catalogues for the evening sales of contemporary art in New York this week -- Sotheby's kicks off the action on May 10, 2005, with Christie's following on May 11 and Phillips on May 12 -- I was struck as much by what wasn't there as by what was. Given all of the talk about outrageous prices, art investment funds and market peaks, you could have expected even more great material than what appears. If you are an investor, you have to take this as a positive sign. To put it bluntly, collectors and dealers have for the most part restrained themselves from cashing out.
What this might mean is that we're entering a period of stability, albeit at rather high price levels. If someone asked me, "Will prices be higher five years from now?" I would have to answer, "Maybe a little, but not much more (with the exception of a few special works)." If it's true that the contemporary art market has found its range, then it should be a lot easier for dealers to conduct business and collectors to plan their acquisition strategies.
That being said, let's take a look at the sales. We start with Christie's, where two lots immediately stand out -- Edward Hopper's Chair Car and Diane Arbus' Boy with a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Post-War Parade, N.Y.C., 1967. Give Christie's credit -- the house made an aggressive move to include works in the contemporary sale that typically belong in two other auction categories. Ordinarily, the Hopper would be part of an American Paintings sale and the Arbus would be included in Photographs.
Despite its transparency, the move speaks of inspiration. By incorporating work from another era, Christie's is encouraging collectors do the same with their own collections. In fact, it makes esthetic sense. Hopper's painting, while full of nostalgia, does fit well within the context of contemporary art. Then you have Arbus. Years ago, when the auction houses made a conscious marketing decision to include Cindy Sherman in the contemporary sales, they were merely acknowledging the obvious -- that collectors who bought paintings had also been buying photography for years.
The Hopper is listed as "estimate on request." When you make your request to Christie's, you are told that the house expects it to bring at least $15 million. This estimate also sends a subliminal message -- that great contemporary art is cheap. At least compared to key works from earlier periods.
As for the rest of the sale, the standouts include a pair of magnificent Joseph Cornell boxes. Never have better Cornells come to auction. Both Untitled (Medici Princess) and Untitled(Pinturicchio Boy) are estimated at $700,000-$1,000,000. The estimates are low. You are about to see your first million-dollar Cornell at auction. The current record, $495,000, was set way back in 1989 for Grand Hotel Pharmacy from the Billy Wilder collection. Cornell's former dealer Allan Stone has called Cornell "the most under-priced of all major American artists." This is the sale where that description goes by the wayside.
Another standout is the cover lot, Franz Kline's Crow Dancer. This classic Kline is reasonably estimated at $4 million-$6 million. The painting has everything going for it: scale, year, imagery and the all-important freshness to the market. Quality Abstract Expressionism has become such a rarity at the auctions that it's hard to understand how any collector can decide to begin a collection of it. All you can do is put yourself on a "ten-year plan" and be very patient.
The Jasper Johns miniature sculpture, The Critic Sees, is a familiar icon to any student of art history. Along with The Critic Smiles, it makes a lasting statement about how Johns views those who attempt to analyze his work. Although The Critic Sees is worthy of a museum, given its diminutive size (under seven inches in any dimension), its $3.5 million-$5 million estimate may be pushing things.
The Jean-Michel Basquiat painting, Untitled (lot number 59), comes with an interesting story. It was originally purchased directly from the artist by the Atlanta dealer Fay Gold. According to Gold, her physician husband gave her a birthday gift of $5,000, with the understanding that she would use it to buy a diamond bracelet. Instead, Gold went with her instincts and bought this Basquiat. She sold it a few years ago for close to seven figures. While the painting is currently listed at $2.5 million-$3 million, Gold should have no regrets.
Just as an aside, when Gold met with Basquiat, she also purchased a group of drawings from him and wound up mounting a show back at her gallery. While she was in Basquiat's studio, she took a liking to his cat, Rasputin. Not long after, she got a call from Basquiat, who said he was traveling too much, couldn't take care of the cat and was sending it to her as a present. The cat was put on a plane to Atlanta, arrived in good shape and was promptly renamed "Basquiat" by Gold.
The rest of the Christie's sale has still more noteworthy artworks, including a sculpture of two life-size policemen turned on their heads, by Maurizio Cattelean -- one of the auction market's current superstars. The work is estimated at $1.4 million-$1.8 million. Finally, it's difficult not to comment on Jeff Koons's Red Butt(Close Up), a large and graphic color photo on canvas of intercourse (displayed at the presale exhibition behind heavy black curtains and with a warning sign). Even for non-prudes, this work borders on the pornographic. Its artistic merit is questionable because it smacks so heavily of "anything to get attention." Still, it's likely to find a buyer (the estimate is $400,000-$600,000) -- some collector who probably thinks he's being hip and edgy by buying it and displaying it in his home.
Sotheby's has a more modest sale, in terms of dollar volume, but is no less interesting in terms of potential drama. First and foremost is the Andy Warhol celebrity portrait, Liz. There is a lot of rumor and innuendo swirling around this painting. Supposedly, Christie's wanted it just as badly, but after some heavy lobbying by Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer, including a reputed $10 million guarantee, Sotheby's got the assignment. Now the house has to sell it.
The painting has a lot going for it, including being sequestered in Irving Blum's collection for almost 40 years. So few Warhol masterworks have come on the market recently that the sale of this painting is an event. The media hoopla surrounding the sale last summer of Warhol's early Superman (1961), for a reported $20 million-plus, underscores this observation. However, Liz is a better painting at potentially half the price.
Sotheby's cover lot for its catalogue is Chuck Close's Photo Realist work, John. This is a terrific painting that justifies its ambitious $5 million-$7 million estimate. Sotheby's is betting heavily on its success, as evidenced by taking out a costly full-page color ad illustrating the painting in the New York Times. Here's hoping it ends up in an institution so everyone can enjoy it.
Probably the most "fun" lot in the sale is a Richard Pettibone multi-image work, whose title is too long to print here. Ever since his Jasper Johns appropriation of Three Flags shocked the art market by bringing $357,700 in last November's sale at Christie's, collectors have been flocking to sell their Pettibones. This particular example is the largest Pettibone to come up for auction and is a mini-retrospective of the artist's work. Look for a new record to be set (the estimate is $400,000-$600,000).
While Tom Friedman has become one of the more provocative artists working today, his Untitled, an accumulation of life-size sculptures of bees scattered on a wall (with one or two placed elsewhere in the room), seems expensive at $400,000-$600,000. Though it could bring that, this is a perfect example of how an auction market can hurt an up-and-coming artist. If this work lives up to market expectations, then new work by the artist will go up in price, excluding many potential serious buyers, including museums.
Perhaps the most overpriced work in the sale is the recent Jeff Koons painting, Cake. Estimated at $2.5 million-$3.5 million, this work is conceptually outdated. Having others paint your paintings is unoriginal and boring. If it sells, chances are good that the market for this body of work is being manipulated by interested parties.
The second Chuck Close work in the sale is a more recent portrait of Eric Fischl. Although Close is being touted by Sotheby's as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, that seems overreaching. To be sure, Close is a major artist. But at his retrospective a few years ago at the Museum of Modern Art, the work seemed both repetitious and formulaic. Whether Close does well during this round of sales or not, it feels like his prices have gotten a bit ahead of themselves. Perhaps not so much for the rare early paintings like John, but more for the later work like Eric.
Wayne Thiebaud's Circle Street is one of the better paintings to come up at Sotheby's. Even though it's estimated at over $1 million, the Thiebaud is a bargain compared to Jeff Koons's Cake. While everyone loves Thiebaud's paintings of food, his cityscapes may be his best works. Nobody has captured San Francisco's hill-studded environment with more verve. For that matter, these pictures are a completely fresh development in the history of American urban landscape painting.
The most glamorous part of Sotheby's sale takes place at the very end -- property from the collection of Gianni Versace. As evidenced by the catalogue, the fashion designer was a huge Roy Lichtenstein fan. The highlight of his collection was Blue Nude. Though it's a late work, this large painting holds up well. Of special interest is the way that it portrays the model with her reflection in a mirror -- an undervalued body of work within Lichtenstein's oeuvre. It's estimated at $2.5 million-$3.5 million, but look for it to go way beyond that.
Over at Phillips, their evening sale is dominated by the work of three artists: Mike Kelley, Maurizio Cattelan and Richard Prince. All of these artists have been perennial favorites at Phillips. Other highlights include a transcendent watercolor by Agnes Martin, Stars; the Basquiat painting, Catharsis; and Philip Taaffe's Skeletal Totem. If you're a Chris Ofili fan, here's your chance to own Afrodizzia -- a trademark mixed-media work with elephant dung, estimated at $500,000-$700,000. Entering the realm of the absurd are two Marlene Dumas paintings, each estimated at $800,000-$1.2 million.
In summary, every auction season is alike. The catalogues arrive, the anticipation is great, and the event is always entertaining. When the results are in, everyone who participates in the art market collectively exhales. It's always a relief to know where things stand for the next six months. Prices are adjusted, new bets are made and then, before you know it, it's time to do it all over again. But like a new season in professional sports, hope springs eternal for the success of your home team. The art market is no different.
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RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer based in San Francisco. Comments can be directed to Polskyart@msn.com.