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Art Market Watch

The star lot of Old Master week in New York, Andrea Mantegna's Descent into Limbo (ca. 1492), was knocked down at Sotheby's this morning for $25.5 million to a bidder on the telephone to Sotheby's Old Master expert George Wachter. The small picture, done in tempera and gold on a panel measuring just over 15 x 16 in., had been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick Collection, and shows Christ raising Adam and several Old Testament prophets from a cave-like Limbo.

Auctioneer Henry Wyndham started the bidding at $14 million, quickly advancing it to the $20 million level before things became a bit more deliberate with a telephone duel between two potential buyers, the price increasing at $500,000 increments. As the action paused at $25.5 million, Wyndham sought one last bid, saying, "There's plenty of time," a quip that elicited laughter from the audience -- which then applauded as the sale was hammered down. With Sotheby's new premium added in (20 percent on the first $100,000 and 12 percent on the remainder), the total comes to $28,568,000, within the $20,000,000-$30,000,000 range of its presale estimate. Seller was band-aid heir Barbara Piasecka Johnson.

The auction gods did not smile on the morning sale's other star lot, a Profile Portrait of a Woman by Sandro Botticelli, dating from the 1480s, which carried a presale estimate of $3,000,000-$5,000,000 and failed to find a buyer. Though the picture has the artist's trademark linearity, and the sitter wears an attractive choker and veil, she is perhaps less beautiful -- more jowly -- than the Botticellian ideal.

The auctioneer Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg is expected to give up its posh 57th Street headquarters in Manhattan and shut down its Impressionist and modern art auction departments, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal by Alexandra Peers. The move comes after three years of attempting to compete with its much larger rivals, Sotheby's and Christie's. Under the restructuring, which is to expected to be formally announced today, Phillips would continue its New York operations in its huge warehouse space on West 15th Street in the art gallery district. According to insiders, the firm still hopes to conduct auctions in New York, selling photographs in April, contemporary and American art in May and contemporary design in June.

Fast on the heels of the Outsider Art Fair 2003 -- currently on view at the Puck Building in SoHo, Jan. 23-26 -- Christie's New York is holding the first major auction completely devoted to self-taught and outsider art on Monday, Jan. 27, 2003. The 121-lot sale, which carries a total presale estimate of $1.5 million-$2.2 million, largely features works from the collection of Robert M. Greenberg, the R/GA ad agency head whose clients include AOL Time Warner, Nike and Bed Bath & Beyond. Top lot in the sale is William Edmondson's Untitled (Ark), which carries a presale estimate of $400,000-$600,000 -- "outrageously overestimated," according to John Ollman of Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia. "There's never been a piece that sold for more than $305,000," Ollman told the New York Times. Other highlights include a panoramic Henry Darger drawing (est. $50,000-$70,000), two constructions by James Castle and works by Adolph Wolfli, Martin Ramirez and the Swiss artist Aloise Corbaz.

Sotheby's New York four-day series of sales of Americana this month brought a total of $15.9 million, within the presale estimate of $12.9 million-$18.9 million. The Chippendale Bombé chest of drawers, made by Boston artisan Nathan Bowen in 1772, sold for $1,464,000 ($1 million-$1.5 million) to furniture scholar Luke Beckerdite. New York antiques dealer Leigh Keno bought the 1725 William and Mary walnut gateleg table for $680,000, well above its $350,000 high estimate. Keno was also the buyer of the ca. 1770 Philadelphia Chippendale "hairy-paw" tea table for $1,072,000 (est. $800,000-$1,200,000). The total for the Appell Family Collection was $3,720,080, more than double its presale high estimate of $1.5 million, with the top lot, a federal eagle-inlaid mahogany games table from Massachusetts, ca. 1795, going for $153,600 to C.L. Prickett Antiques. Top lot among the folk art items was a 1780 Maine weathervane of a rooster in carved and gilded pine that sold for $120,000 (est. 4100,000-$150,000).

At Christie's, the Russell B. Aitken collection of wildfowl decoys was 100 percent sold, realizing a total of more than $2.8 million. Top lot was a pintail drake decoy by the master carver Elmer Crowell (1864-1954), which sold for $801,500, far above the previous record for an American waterfowl decoy. The buyer was Boston dealer Stephen B. O'Brien, Jr.; the same work had previously sold at public auction in 1986, for a then-record $319,000.

The people who bring us Art Miami every January are introducing their operation to New York City. Art New York, the New Contemporary Art Fair makes its debut at the Jacob Javits Center at 11th Avenue and 34th Street, Feb. 27-Mar. 3, 2003, with galleries from more than 12 countries. Art Miami director Ilana Vardy is consulting on the fair, which is directed by Joyce Jamison. For more info contact (330) 487-1875.