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Art Market Watch

With its new “First Open” sale of contemporary art for “new collectors,” held the day after the end of the Armory Show on Mar. 15, 2005, Christie’s seems to have launched a hot new spring auction (the next First Open is scheduled for the fall). The sale, overseen by Alicia Bona, totaled $5.47 million, with 172 of 192 lots finding buyers, or about 90 percent. Top lot was Dirk Skreber’s Untitled (1991), which sold for $396,800, well over the high presale estimate of $180,000 and a new auction record for the artist.

Several other lots in the top ten sold above their estimates, including a little-seen sculpture from 1967 by Andy Warhol titled Bomb -- a 47-inch-tall, silver painted piece of antique ordinance -- that went for $312,800 over a presale high estimate of $180,000; Alma ThomasRed Violet Nursery Viewed from Above (ca. 1970), which sold for $144,000, above a presale high estimate of $60,000; and Ed Ruscha’s Black Yes (1983), which sold for $120,000 above a presale high estimate of $60,000.

Auction records were also set for Kai Althoff, whose ca. 11 x 12 in. watercolor from 2000 sold for $78,000, above a presale high estimate of $7,000, and Barnaby Furnas, whose watercolor from 2000 sold for $45,600, above a high estimate of $15,000.

The healthy art market seems to have gone straight to Sotheby’s bottom line. The auction house announced that 2004 auction sales totaled almost $2.7 billion, an increase of 59 percent from the almost $1.7 billion in 2003. Auction revenues increased 43 percent, to $443.1 million in 2004 from $309 million in 2003. Sotheby’s notes that the higher revenues are partly offset by lower commissions, since the increase came from high-end works for which commissions are typically lower due to competition for such items.

Sotheby's sold eight of the top ten auction lots in 2004, including Pablo Picasso's Boy with a Pipe ($104.2 million), Paul Gauguin's Maternité (II) ($39.2 million), Amedeo Modigliani's Jeanne Hébuterne (Devant une Porte) ($31.4 million), Johannes Vermeer's A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals ($30 million) and John Singer Sargent's Group with Parasols (a Siesta) ($23.5 million).

What’s more, the current year is starting well. Sotheby’s February sales of Impressionist and modern art in London totaled $103.8 million, up 37 percent from 2004. Sotheby’s London contemporary art sales totaled $42 million, an increase of 19 percent from last year.

In January, Sotheby's New York Americana sales were also up, totaling $25.3 million for the week, an increase of 86 percent from 2004. The result was largely due to the sale of American furniture and other property from the Goddard Family, which totaled $13.1 million, well in excess of its presale high estimate of $8.7 million.

Sotheby’s New York Old Masters sales totaled $44.2 million, above its high estimate of $39.8 million. The top lot was a bust of an “Ill-Humored” man by Franz Xavier Messerschmidt that sold for $4.8 million, almost ten times its $500,000 presale high estimate.

Sotheby’s said its sales for the first two months of 2005 are 41 percent higher than in 2004. Sotheby’s stock closed Friday at $15.69, about in the middle of its 52-week range of $12.72-$19.24.

Christie’s New York sale of American art on Mar. 3, 2005, totaled $3,208,680; of 184 lots offered, 161 were sold, or 88 percent. The sale set a new auction record for Louis Comfort Tiffany, whose Florida, an oil on canvasboard painting of an overgrown ruin, sold for $156,000, well above the presale high estimate of $50,000. Records were also set for Malvina Hoffman, whose La Frileuse (ca. 1913), a 39-inch-tall bronze of a shivering girl, sold for $66,000 (est. $25,000-$35,000) and Hugh Bolton Jones, whose Barbizon-y painting The Meadow Brook sold for $57,600 (est. $20,000-$30,000).

In its second auction in New York devoted entirely to Israeli art, held on Mar. 15, 2005, Sotheby’s achieved a total of just over $4 million, with 123 of 177 lots finding buyers, or 69.5 percent. According to Rivka Saker, head of Sotheby’s Tel Aviv, the total represented a 50 percent increase over last year’s sale. Top lot was Mordecai Ardon’s lyrical painting of a card game, Patience (1962), which sold for $228,000 (est. $120,000-$180,000). Reuven Rubin’s Outskirts of Tel Aviv (1923) sold for $204,000 (est. $150,000-$250,000). New auction records were set for Ludwig Blum ($60,000), Abel Pann ($78,000), Lea Nikel ($51,000), Moshe Kupferman ($39,000), Yosef Zaritsky ($126,000), Itzhak Danzinger ($174,000), Manashe Kadishman ($72,000) and Adi Nes ($102,000).

Big oil isn’t the only business with designs on the Middle East. This April, Christie’s plans to open an office in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, headed by Lydia Limerick, an art consultant and promoter who has been based in the emirate since 2001. The office is premiering with an exhibition of highlights from forthcoming sales, including Kiswah curtains, Iznik pottery, jewelry and watches, at the Madinat Jumeirah Conference Centre in Dubai, Apr. 4-8, 2005. Dubai is currently in the process of converting its oil-based economy into one that includes tourism and trade, and is home to the luxurious Burj al-Arab Hotel and the Burj Dubai, which may be the world’s tallest building when it is completed in 2008.

Sotheby’s has scheduled its first New York auction of Russian art for Apr. 21, 2005. The sale features a large Beaux Arts painting of the Judgment of Paris by Konstantin Egorovich Makovsky (est. $750,000-$1,100,000), a work that won a gold medal at the 1889 Paris World’s Fair and that has been in the collection of the Pabst Brewing Company since the 1920s. Other paintings in the sale include an Expressionist scene of four sailors in a Marseilles café by Boris Dmitievich Grigoriev (est. $200,000-$300,000), an Art Deco-style portrait of Vera Fokine, wife of the 20th-century ballet pioneer Michel Fokine, by Zinaida Evgenievna Serebriakova, sold by the Fokine family (est. $200,000-$300,000), and a painting from the 1920s titled the Unknown Singer by Nicholas Roerich ($120,000-$180,000). The sale also includes a group of four important Fabergé hardstone figures from the Charles R. Wood Foundation in Glens Falls, N.Y., that carry presale estimates of $400,000-$800,000 each.

The multimillion-dollar art collection that the late Gianni Versace kept in his Upper East Side townhouse is scheduled to go on the block at several sales at Sotheby’s New York this spring. The total collection carries a presale estimate of $12.3 million-$17.4 million; Sotheby’s sold the furnishings of Versace’s Miami home for a total of $10 million in 2001.

First up is 19th century art on Apr. 20, featuring William Adolphe Bouguereau’s ca. 1857 Wounded Eros (est. $200,000-$300,000) and Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s Le soldat de Marathon (est. $150,000-$200,000).

Next is Sotheby’s May 4-5 Impressionist and modern sale, which includes several works by Roy Lichtenstein from the Versace collection. Top lot is Lichtenstein’s Blue Nude (1995), depicting a naked blonde reflected in a mirror (est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million); the sale also includes the artist’s 1982 Still Life with Envelope (est. $600,000-$800,000), and Ritual Mask, a ca. 51-inch-tall stainless steel and enamel sculpture from 1992 that Lichtenstein depicted in several paintings (est. $300,00-$400,000). Two later works, Still Life with Diana and Still Life with Ajax, among the artist's last paintings, were commissioned by Versace; each is estimated at $400,000-$600,000.

Sotheby’s contemporary sale on May 10-11 features several works by Jean-Michel Basquiat from the Versace collection, including a 1982 untitled painting (est. $1,200,000-$1,800,000) and the 1986 painting Taxi (est. $900,000-$1,200,000). Two collaborative works made by Basquiat and Andy Warhol in 1986 are also part of the sale: Amoco (est. $900,000-$1,200,000) and GE ($400,000-$600,000).

Other Versace works going on the block include drawings by Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani and Edgar Degas, watercolors by Marc Chagall and Raoul Dufy, sculpture by Giorgio de Chirico and paintings by Fernand Léger.

The designer’s heirs include sister Donatella, Brother Santo and niece Allegra.

Top lot in Sotheby’s evening sale of Impressionist and modern art on May 3, 2005, is Wassily Kandinsky’s Two Riders and Reclining Figure (1909-10), which carries a presale estimate of $15 million-$25 million. The artist painted the work on the back of another painting, Study for Improvisation 5, and gave the double-sided painting to his fellow painter Alexej von Jawlensky, who separated two works, which were painted on millboard, at some later date. Two Riders passed from Jawlensky to his studio assistant, Lisa Kummel, and has been in the hands of her family ever since. The two paintings were reunited last December in a show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, where Study has been in the museum collection since 1967. Last November, Sotheby’s offered a 1912 Kandinsky abstraction with an estimate of $20 million-$30 million, but failed to find a buyer.

Sotheby’s May 10 sale of contemporary art is to feature Warhol’s Liz (1963), which is estimated to sell for $9,000,000-$12,000,000. One of a series of 13 portraits of the star, each measuring 40 inches square, this particular version has a desirable red background. The painting comes from the collection of Irving Blum, who has owned it since 1965.

Christie’s New York has landed the collection of Helen and David B. Pall for its spring sales, a group of 49 works that are being sold at least six different Christie’s auctions during the season. One star lot is Edward Hopper’s Chair Car (1965), a 40 x 50 in. oil painting of several passengers in a plush railroad car that was one of the last paintings the artist made. According to Christie’s, the painting is one of the last major Hopper paintings in private hands. It is being sold in Christie’s post-war and contemporary sale on May 11, rather than in the American art sale. The Hopper auction record, set in 1990, is about $2.4 million. According to Carol Vogel in the New York Times, the painting carries an unpublished estimate of $15 million-$20 million; the Pall heirs, Vogel reports, have been guaranteed by Christie’s a sum in the neighborhood of $17 million.

David Pall died last year at age 90; his second wife, Helen, died in 1998. He was a chemist and an inventor who designed dozens of sophisticated filters, ranging from those used to separate uranium on the Manhattan Project to filters designed to purify blood for transfusions, and was head of Pall Corp., a $1.1-billion global business based in East Hills, L.I.

The Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas, has opted to raise funds for future acquisitions of Western art by selling an Old Master at Christie’s New York. Going on the block on May 25, 2005, is Gerrit Dou’s A sleeping dog beside a terracotta jug, basket and a pile of kindling wood (1650). According to Christie’s Old Master expert Anthony Crichton-Stuart, the picture has attributes of a vanitas painting, though its exact meaning remains unknown. The painting was purchased by Henry Jacob Stark in 1927; the museum was founded by his widow, Nelda Stark, after his death in 1965.