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Art Market Watch

The two weeks of major fall auctions in New York ended with a bang at Christie's on Thursday night, Nov. 15, 2001, with sale of the very latest in contemporary art. From a pile of wrapped candies by the late lyrical conceptualist Felix Gonzalez-Torres to paintings by Elizabeth Peyton and John Currin, from a dung-collaged canvas by Chris Ofili to huge photomurals by the new German photographers, the auction catered to up-to-the-minute trends in the collecting world.

The sale proceeds were in fact rather modest -- $6.9 million for 38 of 49 lots sold, or 78 percent by lot -- but world auction records were set (or tied) for seven artists.

Three works tied for the honor of being the top lot, each selling for the Biblically resonant sum of $666,000 (including the auction house premium). Gonzalez-Torres' 130-kilo pile of candies in metallic blue wrappings, Untitled (Blue Placebo) (1991), was knocked down at its low estimate of $600,000 to an anonymous bidder on the phone to Philippe Segalot, who last year reportedly went to work for Christie's owner Francois Pinault on "special projects."

The second $666,000 price -- and one of the artist's auction records -- came for Blue Umbrella #2 (1972) by Alex Katz, a 12-foot-wide portrait of the artist's wife, Ada, in a rainstorm, a picture that the catalogue essay amusingly compares to a scene from Federico Fellini's 1961 La Dolce Vita and Gustave Caillebotte's 1887 Paris Street, Rainy Day. It was bought by New York art consultant Lorinda Ash for an anonymous American collector.

The third top price was paid for a busy 1985 painting with several color Xerox images of an alligator by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Basquiat's auction record is $3.3 million.

New records were set for Andreas Gursky ($600,000 for a huge 1993 photograph of a Paris apartment building), Duane Hanson ($314,000 for a 1990 polychromed bronze statue of a security guard), Bernd & Hilla Becher ($160,000 for a set of 22 black and white prints of blast furnaces made in 1997), and Rineke Dijkstra ($105,000 for a 1994 set of three color photos of naked new mothers with their newborns). Thomas Demand's 1997 photo of the dark interior of a barn, lit by two windows -- or rather, a paper model of a barn -- sold for $99,500, tying the auction record for a work by the artist.

Immediately following the record-setting sale of the Becher work, a second, almost identical set of photos -- pictures of wooden mine structures from Pennsylvania -- sold for a relative bargain at $94,000. (The anonymous telephone buyer was one of the auction's big spenders, buying the Dijkstra and a starry sky photo by Thomas Ruff).

Fourteen lots in the middle of the sale were large-scale photos by the Bechers, Demand, Gursky, Ruff and Struth, being sold by German real estate developer Hans Grothe, who is building a huge hotel complex (supposedly with a new museum) in Düsseldorf. As previously reported, this collector from Duisberg has come under criticism in Germany for selling works he had deposited on loan to municipal museums. "As far as anyone knows," reports Berlin critic Barbara Weidle, "Grothe has never donated a single work to a museum, though his collection has been taken care of with public money."

Though the market fervor the Young British Artists seems to have cooled since a year or two ago, the Christie's sale still painted an interesting picture of vanguard collecting taste for dramatically abject and banal gestures. The first lot of the sale was a life-size cast of the artist Sarah Lucas' raised middle finger from the collection of Charles Saatchi; it sold for just over $30,000 (est. $30,000-$40,000) to Eugenio Lopez, the 34-year-old Mexico City billionaire who recently opened the Jumex Museum there. The second lot, a pair of casts of the same artist's armpits, was bought in (est. $$25,000-$35,000). The third lot, a used bar of soap with a spiral made of embedded pubic hair by Tom Friedman sold for $58,750 (est. $30,000-$40,000).

A model of a light bulb hanging from a cord, made of wax and other materials by Robert Gober and Sherrie Levine, sold for $281,000 (est. $120,000-$180,000). The Ofili painting, a minutely decorated picture called Spaceshit (1995), sold for $82,250 (est. $80,000-$120,000). A 1986 photo of cowboys from a Marlboro cigarette advertisement by Richard Prince sold for $94,000 (est. $80,000-$120,000), while a 1981 pair of light boxes holding ads for Merit 100s by Jeff Koons went for $127,000 (est. $150,000-$200,000), to Segalot's anonymous phone bidder.

Among the unsold lots were examples of the industrial esthetic of the American Minimalists, including Donald Judd's Untitled plastic and steel box from 1988 (est. $150,000-$200,000) and a 1978 arrangement of 21 square steel plates on the floor by Carl Andre (est. $70,000-$90,000).

Three fairly wretched paintings also brought good prices. A tiny oil on masonite of an umber-faced Kurt Smoking (1995) by Elizabeth Peyton sold for $64,625 (est. $30,000-$40,000). A frightening close-up of a woman's face with a plaster on her nose by Jenny Saville, Cindy (1993), went for $171,000 (est. $60,000-$80,000). And a cartoonish portrait of a hook-beaked old woman by John Currin, The Grandmother (1991), sold for $160,000 (est. $100,000-$150,000).

Christie's charges buyers a premium amounting to 17.5 percent of the first $80,000 of the sale price and 10 percent of the remainder.

Recession? Did someone say recession? Sotheby's kicked its well-oiled auction machine into gear last night, Nov. 14, 2001, for its major fall sale of contemporary art in New York. All told, 53 of 60 lots sold -- 88 percent -- for a total of $44.5 million (with premium). The first 30 lots of the auction, from the celebrated collection of television veteran Douglas S. Cramer, were 100 percent sold, totaling $20.7 million.

New auction records were set for Ellsworth Kelly ($1,435,750 for the patriotic Red White Blue of 1968), Richard Serra ($1,215,750 for a 12-foot-long corten steel arc from 1984), Anselm Kiefer ($1,160,650 for a 14-foot-wide lead and sand portrayal of Albert Speer's Berlin Chancellery made in 1991), Ed Ruscha ($687,750 for a 1989 silhouette version of his emblematic Standard gas station) and Brazilian spice-sculptor Ernesto Neto ($52,500).

Still more records were set for a Roy Lichtenstein mirror painting ($2,150,750 for Mirror #1 from 1969) and a Lichtenstein drawing ($940,750 for a 1962 image of George Washington from the collection of Fred Hughes), a Jasper Johns drawing ($2,535,750 for a charcoal work from 1986), a Brice Marden work on paper ($324,750) and an Andy Warhol sculpture ($181,750 for a carton of Kellogg's cornflakes).

"We topped our high end and we're thrilled," said Sotheby's specialist Laura Paulson after the sale. She reported sensing a "great comfort area between $500,000 and $3 million -- a sign of where collectors are focusing their buying power." The auction contained seven works by Lichtenstein, an unusually high number by a single artist. "It's not something we make a practice of," said Paulson -- though in this case, all seven works sold.

Top lot from the Cramer collection was Montez Singing (1989) by Jasper Johns, which was knocked down for $3.4 million ($3,745,750 with premium), just under its presale low estimate of $3.5 million. The painting, exhibited at Leo Castelli Gallery in 1990, features the schizophrenic motifs that characterize the artist's later works -- in this case, two eye forms, a pair of lips, a moustache-like curlicue and an illusionistic geometric drawing apparently hanging from a nail in the center of the canvas.

Top lot in the mixed-owner sales was Lichtenstein's Ball of Twine (1963), from the series of black and white paintings of a simple household objects that the artist was making at the same time he was doing his more famous comic-strip paintings. The picture was knocked down for $3.7 million, well over its high presale estimate of $2 million. (As it happens, a large selection of paintings from this series is currently on view at Gagosian's Madison Avenue gallery in "Early Black and White Paintings," to Dec. 22, 2001.

Larry Gagosian himself featured prominently among the bidders at the sale, buying several works from the Cramer collection -- the Serra, both Johnses and the Lichtenstein ball of twine. Other bidders in Sotheby's expansive salesroom included art consultant Kim Heirston, who bought a bronze Lichtenstein brushstroke sculpture, the first lot in the sale, for $220,000 at the hammer, well over its $120,000 presale high estimate. According to the Baer Faxt, the professional art-market newsletter that specializes in spotting bidders at high-profile art auctions, other lucky buyers included New York dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes, London dealer Gerard Faggionato, New York art consultant Ellen Kern and John Van Doren, namesake of the New York gallery Artemis Greenberg Van Doren.

As for Cramer, who reportedly sold his California ranch in 1997 and now lives in Connecticut and New York, he is said to be selling to "trim" his collection. He was at the auction, viewing it from one of Sotheby's luxury sky boxes, and is still collecting, buying young artists. An appendix to the auction catalogue lists almost 60 works donated by the Douglas S. Cramer Foundation to museums around the country.

The day sale of post-war art at Christie's New York on Nov. 14, 2001, revealed "a confident market for classic American works by important post-war artists, including George Segal, Adolph Gottlieb, Alexander Calder and Andy Warhol," according to Christie's specialist Mary Peck. The auction sold 71 of 103 lots -- 69 percent -- for a total of $6.3 million.

Top lot was $666,000 for George Segal's Chance Meeting, a 1989 bronze of three figures standing beneath a "one way" street sign, which set a world auction record for the artist. Another interesting prices was the $226,000 paid for Warhol's Pin the Tail on the Donkey from ca. 1954-55, a charmingly decorative picture of an exceptionally fey pink donkey done on a three-panel screen -- by far the highest price for one of Warhol's pre-Pop illustrations.

Among the five-figure lots, a Frank Stella gouache sketch in yellow and violet for one of his early stripe paintings went for $35,250, while a Mel Ramos painting of a woman in a checkered dress from 1966 sold for $35,250. A simple, 19-inch-square Lichtenstein collage of Rain from 1985 sold for $30,550.
-- Walter Robinson