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Art Market Watch

The supercharged contemporary art market slowed down a bit at Phillips last night, Nov. 12, 2001. The auction was 81 percent sold -- 36 of 44 lots -- for a total of $8.3 million. Auction records were set for six artists, showing the "energy in the marketplace for younger material," according to Phillips specialist Michael McGinnis. But the sale underperformed Phillips' auction of a year ago, in which 45 of 47 lots sold for $10.6 million.

Top lot was a huge, 8 x 14 ft. painting of a wide-eyed black man waving his arms, called Untitled (Angel), by Jean-Michel Basquiat. An early work without the printed words and phrases that characterize his later pictures, Untitled (Angel) dates from 1982 (the near-mythical period when the artist was "locked" in a basement studio of Anina Nosei Gallery in SoHo) and was exhibited in Italy and Japan. Phillips auctioneer Simon de Pury coaxed a final bid of $710,000 ($783,500 with premium) from a telephone buyer, well under the $900,000-$1,200,000 presale estimate. SoHo dealer Jeffrey Deitch was one underbidder.

Another top lot was two strings of white lights, called Untitled (Lovers-Paris) (1993) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Estimated at $500,000-$700,000, it sold for $662,500 (including premium). "Since the owner's participation is an integral part of the work," announced de Pury from the podium before commencing the sale, "the estate will provide a new certification of ownership to the buyer at no charge."

Maurizio Cattelan's Love Lasts Forever (1999), a macabre set of skeletons (a donkey, a dog, a cat and a rooster) arranged one on top of the other in an illustration of the Bremen Town Musicians folktale, sold to a phone bidder for $442,500, below the presale low estimate of $500,000. (In the folktale, four aging animals escape the slaughterhouse to team up and defeat a den of thieves, earning a happy new home.) The sculpture is sold to benefit the Elaine Dannheisser Foundation; incredibly, when first installed at the home of its then-owner, a collector and Museum of Modern Art patron who died last month, her dog found the sculpture impossible to resist and the work had to be remade.

A good price was brought by Jeff Koons' New Hoover Convertibles (1984), a pair of vacuum cleaners lit by fluorescent lights in a large plastic case, that sold to dealer Larry Gagosian for $376,500 (est. $300,000-$400,000). The sculpture came from artist Meyer Vaisman's International With Monument gallery in the East Village and was exhibited in a show organized by the celebrated 1980s curatorial team of Richard Milazzo and Trisha Collins, "The New Capital," at the Manhattan alternative space White Columns in 1985.

One work that soared past its presale estimate was Julian Schnabel's 1982 plate painting, Some Bullfighters Get Closer to the Horns II, which was knocked down for $290,000 ($321,500 with premium) to a telephone bidder after a steady duel in the salesroom. The presale estimate for the work, which was first shown at Margo Leavin Gallery in L.A., was $80,000-$120,000.

Other lots that bettered their estimates included the first of the sale, Christopher Wool's 1990 alkyd on paper spelling "TRBL," which went for $88,3000 (est. $20,000-$30,000), and Cindy Sherman's Old Master-inspired Untitled #205, which sold for $140,000 (est. $70,000-$90,000). Sherman's photo is from an edition of six, as is Andreas Gursky's Prada III (1998), which sold for $310,500 (est. $200,000-$250,000). Damien Hirst's huge spin painting, Beautiful, lets go to la-la land and make out with all the top bollocks yum yums... (1997), sold for $255,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000).

One relative bargain was Kiki Smith's Daisy Chain (1992), a set of five cast-bronze body parts -- a head, two hands and two legs -- connected by heavy steel chain (produced in an edition of three). The work, exhibited at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica, sold for $68,500 (est. $80,000-$100,000) to C&M Gallery in New York. Smith's auction record of $233,500 was set in 1997 at Sotheby's; a similar work to Daisy Chain, but unique and consisting of an arm attached by chain to a leg, sold for $74,000 at Sotheby's in 1997.

The auction records were set for Paul McCarthy ($222,500), Ugo Rondinone ($79,500), Pierre & Gilles ($70,700), Fred Tomaselli ($55,200), Ghada Amer ($40,250) and Gursky, as mentioned above.

Among the works that didn't sell were a kind of basketball hoop made of a car windshield and steel pole by David Hammons (est. $80,000-$120,000), a dot painting by Damien Hirst (est. $200,000-$250,000), a small aluminum sculpture of animal parts by Bruce Nauman (est. $400,000-$600,000), an arrangement of stuffed yarn animals and afghans by Mike Kelley (est. $150,000-$250,000), a Jeff Koons porcelain sculpture of a pig and two penguins examining a Cindy Shermanish fallen blonde (est $1.5 million-$2.5 million) and Chris Burden's legendary Samson, the pair of huge beams connected to a jack and turnstile that threatens to destroy the room in which it is installed ($250,000-$350,000).

The Burden and the Hammons are from the collection of Hollywood TV writer Tom Patchett (father of Alf), which was exhibited in "Double Trouble" at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego in 1998. Patchett consigned the first 11 lots of the auction, including the McCarthy, Smith, Tomaselli and Wool works; Patchett's consignments sold for a total of 598,000 at the hammer.

The truncated week of fall Impressionist and modern art sales in New York, Nov. 5-8, 2001, sold a total of $282.3 million at the three leading auction houses. Phillips totaled $100 million ($13.9 million for the Hoener Collection on the morning of Nov. 5 and $86.2 million for the Smooke Collection that evening), Christie's did $134.4 million ($108.9 million for the Nov. 6 evening sale, $19.4 million for the day sale and $6.2 million for works on paper ) and Sotheby's totaled $47.9 million ($33.1 in its Nov. 7 evening sale and $14.8 million in its Nov. 8 day sale). In all, Phillips sold a total of 113 (46 and 67) lots, Christie's sold a total of 249 (49, 131 and 69) lots, Sotheby's sold 173 (25 and 148) lots -- for a grand total of 535 lots, at an average price of $527,664 each.

Meanwhile, Swann Auction Galleries in Manhattan held its auction rare travel posters on Nov. 10. Of 108 lots offered, 78 sold (72 percent) for a total of $167,575 ($192,711 with premium). The top price was $9,200 for a ca. 1924 Gleneagles poster from Edinburgh.

As Carol Vogel and Ralph Blumenthal point out in yesterday's New York Times report on the federal price-fixing prosecution of Sotheby's former chairman A. Alfred Taubman, an artwork featured prominently in the opening statement of defense attorney Robert B. Fiske Jr. -- Jasper Johns' 1959 red, blue and yellow abstraction, Highway. That painting's failure to sell at a 1994 Sotheby's auction, Fiske argued, provided the impetus for someone other than Taubman -- Sotheby's then new c.e.o, Diana Brooks, for instance -- to "do something to get profits up." The auction house had estimated the Johns painting for $8 million to $10 million, and guaranteed it -- in effect, bought it -- for $9.5 million. When it was passed at auction, Sotheby's was left holding the bag.

So, what happened to the painting next? It didn't come back on the auction block. Rather, as Artnet Magazine reported in 1999, it was apparently sold to New York dealer William Acquavella and subsequently passed through the hands of Steve Wynn and, as best as can be determined, ended up with collectors George and Leanne Roberts.

A book on the art market that has as its epigram a quote from Karl Marx -- "Works of art, which represent the highest level of spiritual production, will find favor in the eyes of the bourgeois only if they are presented as being liable to directly generate material wealth" -- can be expected to provide provocative financial analysis. Thus, French art journalist Judith Benhamou-Huet in her breezy new book, The Worth of Art: Pricing the Priceless (Assouline, $29.95, paper), touches on the "direct link" between museum exhibitions (such as the show of the Elaine Dannheisser collection at the Museum of Modern Art in 1997) and the auction market. The book, which features a detail from a Damien Hirst dot painting on its cover, goes on to look at the relationship between art prices and artists, dealers, collectors and auction houses in very up-to-the-minute and often paradoxical detail.
-- Walter Robinson