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Art Market Watch

A Young Woman Seated at the Virginals, the tiny (8 x 10 in.) oil that was recently reattributed to Johannes Vermeer, goes on the block as part of the Sothebys London sale of Old Master paintings on July 7, 2004. Owned by the estate of the Belgian collector Baron Freddy Rolin, the work is cautiously estimated at 3 million (about $5.46 million at the current exchange rate of 1 = $1.82) -- but press reports suggest that it could go for ten times as much.

Though the painting (which is dated to ca. 1670) doesnt show up in the Vermeer literature until 1910, a long investigation supervised by Sothebys Old Master specialist Gregory Rubenstein has convinced many experts of the new attribution. For instance, the picture does contain lead-tin yellow, a pigment that fell out of use after the 17th century; it shows extensive use of expensive ultramarine blue pigment, a Vermeer trademark; and it is painted on a canvas that closely resembles that of Vermeers Lacemaker in the Louvre, which is the same size.

The putative Vermeer is the eighth lot in an evening sale that includes 63 works. Among the other offerings at Sothebys are Peter Paul Rubens oil-on-panel Night Scene with an Old Lady Holding a Basket and a Candle, a Young Boy at Her Side about to Light His Candle from Hers (ca. 1616-17) (est. 2,000,000-3,000,000), and Peter de Hoochs oil on canvas, Card Players at a Table (1670-74) (est. 1,000,000-1,500,000).

The New York auction world has all but closed down for the summer, with one notable exception for bargain hunters in contemporary art -- the monthly house sale at Christies New York, slated this month for July 13 and 14, 2004. The sale includes more than 1,200 lots and begins with modern and contemporary works of art before moving into a range of carpets, furniture and decorative arts.

Among the eye-catching lots on offer is a Victor Vasarely geometric abstraction from 1962 titled Kiu-siu (est. $4,000-$6,000) and a polished aluminum wall relief of a figure from 1972 by Ernest Trova ($6,000-$8,000). Relics from the 1980s include a 1989 painting by Neue Wilde sensation Rainer Fetting of Luis (est. $4,000-$6,000), a largish canvas from 1986, printed with canvas pattern, by Meyer Vaisman called Painting without Context (est. $3,000-$5,000), and a small gray abstraction by 1984 by Ross Bleckner (est. $3,000-$5,000).

Many of the lots have no reserves, including an early painting by Jane Wilson, Rain on Avenue B (est. $400-$600), originally shown at Tibor de Nagy Gallery; an alluring painting of a woman bathing by Buffie Johnson done in 1936 (est. $300-$500); a shaped and painted Harp Chair from 1985 by East Village cartoonist Rodney Alan Greenblat (est. 1,000-$1,500); a painting of horns in gold on a page of Kafkas Amerika by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (est. $400-$600); and a painting by ABC No Rio founder Bobby G of two of his Lower East Side neighbors (est. $400-$600).

Bargains are hardly guaranteed, needless to say. Sothebys arcade auction on June 29-30, 2004, totaled almost $4.5 million, a record for an arcade sale.

The global art market reaches a fever pitch in New York City in May with a rush of sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art and more -- and then it moves to London for June, where it heats up all over again. By way of illustration, Sothebys London Impressionist and modern sale on June 21, 2004, totaled 61,476,800 (almost $113 million), the highest London total for this department since 1989. Eighteen lots sold for over 1,000,000.

Top lot was Amedeo Modiglianis Garcon a la veste bleue (1918), which sold for 6,165,600 (about $11.2 million; est. 3,500,000-4,500,000). The painting is one of several sold by the Guggenheim Museum back in 1990 not long after director Thomas Krens took over management of that beleaguered institution; back then it sold for $10.5 million. The seller this time around is reported to be Prince Jefri Bolkiah of Brunei (who has four wives and 35 children, and has been sued for $15 billion over charges of mismanagement of Bruneis overseas investments in the 1980s and 90s); Prince Jefri reportedly also consigned two Renoirs and a Picasso to the sale.

In a story in the New York Times (bizarrely titled Roll Over, Renoir, and Tell Monet the News), auction reporter Carol Vogel characterized the London sales as representing a seismic shift in whats fashionable and whats not, with interest in 19th century Impressionism languishing in contrast to rising prices paid for classic modern and contemporary art. The sale taught another lesson, as Vogels report showed -- that fine art is hardly a dependable investment, especially at the top of the market.

In addition to the poor return on the Modigliani, a nude by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Young Woman Bathing (1888), that sold for $11.5 million at Christies in New York in 1997 went for 4 million ($7.4 million) this time around, and an Edgar Degas equestrian scene from 1871-72 that sold for $9.7 million at Christies in London in 1991 sold for 4.1 million (about $7.6 million) at the London auction. A 1932 Pablo Picasso portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, Femme couchée à la mèche blonde, which sold for $4.6 million in 1994, went for 5.1 million (about $9.3 million) in London (to Nahmad Gallery, according to Vogel), a somewhat better return, though doubling your money over 10 years hardly gives you bragging rights.

Sothebys London also sold a group of 15 works on paper by Egon Schiele, once owned by Neue Galerie founder Serge Sabarsky and put on the block by New York financier Michael Steinhardt, which totaled 9,928,800 (est. 5,950,000-8,200,000). The top lot of this group was the 1913 Liebespaar, a gouache of two lovers (apparently attempting a reverse cowgirl), which sold for 1,909,600, a new record for a work on paper by the artist. Steinhardt had reportedly bought 14 of the drawings from Ronald S. Lauder last summer for $12.5 million.

Christies London sale of Impressionist and modern art on the evening of June 22, 2004, totaled 28,957,950 (more than $52 million), with 67 percent of the lots finding buyers. Top price was set by Henri Matisses Odalisque au fauteuil noir (1942), which sold for 6,613,250 (about $12 million), the highest price of the London summer sales. The work was reportedly bought by Manhattan dealer Nancy Whyte. Seven works sold for over 1 million, and a new auction record was set for George Lemmen when his 1901 work, La modiste, sold for 173,250.

Sothebys London evening sale of contemporary art on June 23, 2004, totaled 14 million (about $25 million), and was notable for the good prices for works by Lucien Freud (1,685,600), Francis Bacon (1,573,600), Frank Auerbach (352,800) and Leon Kossoff (173,600). Top lot was an untitled painting from 1982 by Jean-Michel Basquiat that sold for 2,469,600. The sale set new auction records for Paula Rego (117,600) and Friedensreich Hundertwasser (274,400).

Christies London sale of contemporary art on June 24, 2004, totaled 14.1 million ($25.7 million), with 45 of the 50 lots (90 percent) finding buyers. New auction records were set for Anish Kapoor (229,250), Emilio Vedova (212,450) and Eduardo Chillida (363,650).

For complete, illustrated auction results, see Artnets signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

Sothebys purposely kept the estimates very low for the artworks by movie star Katherine Hepburn included in the two-day sale of property from her estate in New York, June 10-11, 2004. Though charming, her tiny stick-figure paintings (estimated to sell for as little as $500) and even the three-inch-tall bronze bust of Spencer Tracy (est. $3,000-$5,000) never pretended to be anything more than the efforts of an enthusiastic amateur.

Dont tell that to the fans, who reportedly included Louis Vuitton, Wayne Newton and Danielle Steel. Hepburns Portrait Head of Spencer Tracy, as it was titled, was the top lot in the sale, going to an anonymous buyer for $316,000. Angel on a Wave (1960), which poised a wire figure on a chunk of sea-colored glass, sold for $90,000, and a 1965 portrait of Tracy reading a newspaper went for $78,000. The grand total for the 695 lots -- everything sold -- was $5,856,100.

The master annotated draft copy of the manuscript for the Alcoholics Anonymous big book sold at Sothebys New York on June 18, 2004, for $1,576,000, more than triple its presale high estimate of $500,000. Buyer was West Coast book collector William A. Shenk.

Rock superstar Eric Clapton organized a special auction of guitars to benefit for the Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a detox Clapton founded in 1998, at Christies New York on June 24, 2004. All 88 lots sold for a total of $7,438,624, with the top lot, a Fender Blackie that served as Claptons stage guitar from 1970 to 85, going for $959,500 (est. $100,000-$150,000). Among the top lots was a Fender 2004 Stratocaster custom-painted by the graffiti artist Crash, which went for $321,100 (est. $8,000-$12,000).

The spring Latin American auctions are typically held in New York City following the celebrated round of Impressionist, modern and contemporary sales. But this year, Christies had to move its Latin American sale to Paris, since the Rockefeller Center salesrooms were preoccupied with the $32.8 million Doris Duke estate. It wasnt too long ago that the New York auction houses werent even allowed to conduct sales in the City of Light.

In any case, it seems to have been a good idea -- nine new auction records were set, for Jose Orozco ($982,061), Francisco Toledo ($550,009), Cicero Dias ($122,449), Pablo Atchugarry ($93,637), Hector Poleo ($93,637), Ana Mendieta ($50,420), Miguel Rio Branco ($37,455), Ignacio Aguirre ($23,049) and Rosangela Renno ($14,406). Of 99 lots offered in the sale on June 9, 2004, 60 sold (61 percent by lot) for a total of almost $7.9 million. Whether Christies will hold its next Latin American sale in New York or Paris remains to be determined.

Back in New York, Sothebys Latin American sales in late May totaled more than $9.8 million. The evening sale of 60 lots was two-thirds sold for a total of just under $6.8 million. Top lot was Claudio Bravos White Package (1967), one of a series of works done in response to 1960s abstraction that helped establish Bravos reputation as a Photo Realist; it sold for $1,106,000, right in the middle of its presale estimate.

The Sothebys sale also set a new auction record for Francisco Zuniga, when his sculpture Evelia Sentada sold for $400,000, well above the presale high estimate of $225,000.

Christies has appointed Nicholas Hall and Richard Knight, principals of the Old Master picture gallery Hall & Knight Limited of New York and London, as international directors of its Old Master pictures department. They join a department that already boasts Anthony Crichton-Stuart in New York and Paul Raison in London. Christies has also acquired the galleries themselves, and is maintaining the Hall & Knight premises on East 67th Street in Manhattan as a site for treaty sales and temporary exhibitions. Both Hall and Knight were at Colnaghis before opening their own gallery in 1994; Hall is to be based in New York, while Knight is based in London.

Joshua Holdeman, head of the photography department at Phillips, de Pury and Co., has been lured to Christies New York, where he is to do double duty as director of the firms New York photo sales and head of its New York 20th-century decorative arts department. Christies has also announced the appointment of Bevin Cline as a decorative arts specialist; she had been an assistant curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art.

And according to Lindsay Pollock in the New York Sun, Christies has also recruited Philippe Garner, the author and expert in decorative arts who had headed the London branch of Phillips photo department and co-directed its design department with Alexander Payne (who Pollock reports has also received overtures from Phillips) and Carina Villinger, Phillips design expert. Phillips chairman Simon de Pury told Pollock, Of course well carry on in all of those categories. Christies declined to comment.