Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
Art Market Watch

Things got off to a good start at Christie's auction of post-war art at its Rockefeller Center headquarters last night, Nov. 13, 2001, with the sale of Ed Ruscha's rare and iconic Honk (1962) for $198,500 (with premium), rather above its presale high estimate of $150,000. But the sale quickly turned sluggish, and only five lots sold for prices above their high estimates.

Overall, Christie's sold 39 of 56 lots -- 70 percent -- for a total of $25.2 million. It was the third go-round in New York for the new "Post-War" category -- Christie's sells contemporary art tomorrow night, Nov. 15 -- and a quick comparison to previous outings seems to indicate that the art market is snuggling comfortably in the arms of a downturn. On May 16, 2001, Christie's post-war sale sold 49 of 59 lots -- 82 percent -- for a total of $41.2 million, and on Nov. 15, 2000, Christie's sold 46 0f 54 lots -- 85 percent -- for a total of $59.7 million.

The more modest results of last night's auction -- relatively speaking, of course -- are also reflected in the top lot, Andy Warhol's grand and glamorous multipanel portrait of pioneering SoHo dealer Holly Solomon, which went for $1.9 million at the hammer. The top lot last May was also a Warhol, his Large Flowers (1964), which doubled its high estimate to go for $8.5 million. And to think, it was only in May 1998 that Warhol's Orange Marilyn (1964) sold at Sotheby's for $17.3 million.

One of the two record-setting lots in the sale was Tom Wesselmann's Still Life #28 (1963), a 4 x 5 ft. painting with collaged images of Lincoln, a cat and two Ballantine beer bottles, plus a working black-and-white television set. It sold for $720,000 ($798,000 with premium), well within its presale estimate of $600,000-$800,000. A second, arguably more radical early Wesselmann, Still Life #10 (1962), was bought in.

Another American lot that did well was an ugly pseudo-German Expressionist Woman in Landscape (1980) by Roy Lichtenstein that sold for $1.3 million ($1,436,000 with premium), just under its low estimate of $1.4 million. Was this estimate (and by extension the others) too high? According to the auction database, 11 Lichtenstein paintings have sold for more than $2 million -- but all but a few are "classic" works from the 1960s. Among the artist's pseudo-Expressionist works, the substantially larger Forest Scene (1980) sold for just over $2 million in 1996 and Sailboats III (1974) went for $1.4 million in 1998.

Another standout in the sale was Ant 156 (ca. 1961-62), an abstract, blue bodyprint by Yves Klein, that sold for $1,050,000 at the hammer, well above its high estimate of $800,000.

The middle of the sale, lots 13 through 31, featured German Neo-Expressionist works, largely from the collection of Hans Grothe, a 70-year-old businessman from Duisburg. His decision to sell approximately 45 works from his collection (continuing today in Christie's day sale) has caused some outrage in his native country, since the works come not from his home but rather from public collections in Bonn and Duisburg (which renovated a granary for a museum). "Do museums now serve as incubators to hold works for the market until they promise high yields?" wrote Eduard Beaucamp in the Frankfurter Allgemeine. "Genuine patronage of the arts is no more than a remote memory."

In any case, the 11 of the 15 Grothe lots, including works by Georg Baselitz, Anselm Kiefer, Marcus Lüpertz, Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter, netted the collector a total of about $5.2 million, less Christie's commission (if any!). The auction's other record-setter came in this group -- Baselitz's Der Hirte (1966), a brutalist painting of a bandaged and bloodied "hero" in a wrecked landscape that has such resonance for post-war Germany. It sold for $1,106,000 (est. $1 million-$1.5 million).

It may seem that Neo-Expressionism is losing some market luster -- two beautiful Richter works and a major Polke screen painting went unsold, and most of the others were knocked down below or at the low end of their presale estimates. Still, paintings by these artists -- who are in their 60s -- continue to pull strong, six-figure prices, and better.

The Nov. 13 day sale of contemporary art at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg in New York tallied 90 sold of 172 lots offered -- 52 percent -- for a total of $1,600,000 ($1,832,650 with premium). The large number of buy-ins would seem to indicate the danger of putting works by young artists up for auction.

Things started well enough when the very first lot, Janine Antoni's emblematic Chocolate Gnaw, a big block of tooth-marked chocolate, sold for $22,000, well over its high estimate of $15,000).

A works by downtown favorite Cady Noland called Two Individual Works of Art (1990), consisting of a silk-screened photo on aluminum of the Symbionese Liberation Army silkscreened on a sheet of aluminum, leaning against a section of chain link fence, sold for $14,000 (est. $15,000-$20,000).

A 1996 sculpture by Tom Friedman, made by laboriously gluing box corners together into a wacky organic form, sold for $36,000 (est. $35,000-$45,000). Last year, Friedman's life-size model of a housefly sold at auction for a record $88,000.

The young German artist Jonathan Meese, who is widely known in his native Berlin and had his first U.S. show earlier this season at Leo Koenig in Tribeca, was making his second appearance at auction. Unfortunately, his Burroughs-Box (est. $7,000-$10,000), a found object tableau from 1998-99, went unsold.

Another young artist whose works are much in demand in the galleries is Anna Gaskell. Her Untitled #22 (Override) (1997), a dark and mysterious photo of a girl in a yellow apron apparently being suffocated by a group of her peers, sold for $12,000, at the low end of the presale estimate. A second picture from the same series did better, selling for $15,000. In this image, the girl is lying on the ground motionless, seemingly done in.

The YBA sculptor Marc Quinn's homage to Terminator II, a collection of streamlined shiny glass and silver objects titled Heliotrope (1996), sold for $32,000 (est. $25,000-$35,000). Both works in the auction by Tom Sachs, whose realistic sculptures made of cardboard were shown at Mary Boone Gallery last year, were bought in; Tamper-proof Gun (1995), was estimated at $12,000-$15,000 and Sick Nails and Ground Communications (1996) was estimated at $10,000-$15,000.

A photo of sculptor Joel Shapiro by Chuck Close, gridded as a study for one of his paintings in 1991, went unsold. It was estimated to go for $30,000-$40,000. Last May, Christie's sold a similar study for a jaw-dropping $160,000. Another gridded Polaroid by Close goes up for sale at Christie's this week.

Young artists to watch should watch out. Hourglass (1991), a diptych of two swoopy stripe paintings by Karen Davie, was bought in (est. $10,000-$15,000). And French glamour artist Sylvie Fleury's chromed bronze sculpture from 2000 of a Chanel No. 5, from an edition of eight, was bought in as well (est. $25,000-$30,000).

This year's Turner Prize winning photog Wolfgang Tillmans fared somewhat better, selling one out of three lots offered. The winning John and Paula, Sitting Bottomless (1994), an amusing photo of a couple with no pants on, sold for $4,000 (est. $4,000-$5,000).

Top lot of the morning was Jean-Michel Basquiat's colorful 1987 painting on paper of a man displaying his intestines and ribcage -- the artist was obsessed with Gray's Anatomy, according to the catalogue -- and flanked by his trademark symbols and writing, which sold for $95,000 (est. $100,000-$150,000). Joy, a less vivacious Basquiat that consisted largely of color Xeroxes, failed to sell (est. $300,000-400,000).

Other top lots included a striking, white marble cat with blue glass eyes by Jeff Koons. From an edition of three, this example from 1991 sold for $85,000 (est. $80,000-$100,000). A set of 10 black-and-white photographs by Bernd and Hilla Becher surpassed its $40,000-$60,000 estimate, selling for a nice tidy $82,000.

A work on paper by Willem de Kooning sold for $65,000 (est. $50,000-$70,000), the fourth highest price attained that day. Two works by Ross Bleckner, Love by Ambition (1996), (est. $50,000-70,000) and The Forest (1980), (est. $65,000-$85,000), followed its lead, each selling for $60,000.

Auction catalogues seem to be getting more and more literary as competition for major collections heats up. A choice example is Sotheby's catalogue for the sale of contemporary art from the Douglas S. Cramer collection, which takes place tonight, Nov. 14, 2001. In addition to its extensive entries on individual lots, the Cramer sale catalogue contains no less that three introductions -- a personal memoir by Hollywood writer Dominick Dunne, an appreciation of the collection by Guggenheim Museum curator Robert Rosenblum, and a social and historical biographical essay by SoHo dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

In all, it's a feast of inside info the likes of which is rarely seen in the tony art world. Dunne reports the efforts of Cramer's first wife, Los Angeles Times gossip columnist Joyce Haber, to rule Hollywood society, and goes on to reminisce about great Hollywood collectors like Billy Wilder. Deitch unearths the fact that Cramer, a celebrated producer of television shows like The Love Boat and Mission Impossible, appeared on the cover of a 1959 issue of Writer's Digest as a promising playwright, and that the collector later gave a barn dance at his Santa Ynez ranch to celebrate the 1985 marriage of dealers Mary Boone and Michael Werner. It's a keeper.
-- Walter Robinson