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Art Market Watch

The auction of modern furniture -- otherwise known as 20th- and 21st-century design art -- at Phillips de Pury & Luxembourg in New York on Dec. 12, 2001, sold 158 of 236 lots, or 77.7 percent by lot, for a total of $1,834,450. This modest sum had observers wondering if the proceeds had even covered the cost of the deluxe auction catalogue. Still, whatever the bottom line, the famously profligate auction newcomer has managed to establish a glamorous new collecting specialty.

Onto the results. Top price was paid for the cover lot -- a set of eight side chairs designed by Carlo Mollino for the Casa del Sole apartment complex in the alpine resort of Cervinia, ca. 1947-55. The streamlined oak chairs sold for $130,000 ($145,500 with premium), at the bottom end of the presale estimate of $120,000-$160,000. Fastened with striking hexagonal brass bolts, the chair was never mass-produced, though Mollino used the design later in the 1950s on two other projects.

Another highlight was a 1953 dining table by Franco Campo and Carlo Graffi, which sold for $120,000 ($134,500 with premium), double its estimate of $50,000-$70,000. The organic-design table is made of glass supported by carved maple "millepedi" skeleton legs.

Other interesting lots included a 1950 oak table with bent and folded steel legs by Jean Prouvé that sold for $75,000 ($85,000 with premium), well over its presale estimate $15,000-$20,000. Another Prouvé table (ca. 1950) sold for $42,000 ($48,300 with premium; est. $15,000-$20,000).

Isamu Noguchi's chess table, In 61 (1949), went for $42,000 ($48,300 with premium; est. $35,000-40,000). An antiquated aluminum lawn chair by Warren McArthur, made ca. 1930 but with "second generation" webbing, sold for an incredible $22,000 ($25,300 with premium; est. $24,000-$32,000). André Dubreuil's "spine" chair (1986) surpasses its presale high estimate of $15,000 selling for $24,000 ($27,600 with premium).

Of the early Marcel Breuer material from 1928-30, only four of eight sold. The tattered and rusty, if majestic, "Wassily" Club Chair was bought in. The best price came for a chrome and fabric armchair (with wooden arms) that sold for $6,500 ($7,475 with premium). Another disappointment was the battered 1940 "Minnaert Desk" by Gerrit Rietveld, which was estimated at $20,000-$30,000 and failed to sell.

The classic Josef Hoffmann Sitzmashine from 1908 went for a bargain $7,800 ($8,970 with premium; est. $8,000-$12,000). At the other end of the historical spectrum, British designer Michael Young's prototype Smarty chair -- a red, M&M-shaped piece of foam -- sold for its low estimate, $6,000 ($6,800 with premium).

Butterfields auction of American and California paintings and sculpture on Dec. 12, 2001, knocked down about 82 percent of its 366 lots for a total of $3.3 million, according to Butterfields specialist Scot Levitt. Good prices were paid for hard-to-find works by the California Plein Air painters from between the wars, including Bruce Nelson, whose undated A Coastal View, California, soared past its presale high estimate of $15,000 to sell for $195,375, making it the top lot.

"It was a classic view of the California coast by Nelson," noted Levitt, "and those don't come to the market very often." The craze for artists from the Plein Air group, which includes Edgar Payne, William Wendt, Franz Bischoff and others, has been growing -- and no doubt will swell further after the opening next year of the Pasadena Museum of California Art.

Other top lots included William Merritt Chase's 1914 A Northern California Coastal Landscape, which sold above its high estimate for $140,375, and Wendt's Autumn Foliage, 1901, which was bought for $96,375, well above its high estimate of $80,000.

As usual, Butterfields conducted the sale simultaneously, via telephone hookup, at both its Los Angeles and San Francisco auction rooms. The American paintings sale began at 1 p.m., and the California material went on the block at 6 p.m.

One curiosity in the sale was a group of five paintings by Thomas Kinkade, the artist who has gained international fame (and built a multimillion-dollar business) by selling highlighted prints of his sentimental pictures on shopping channels and in a chain of shopping-center galleries. All five of the Butterfield works, which date to the early 1980s, show mountain landscapes with a teepee or two. The smaller, 9 by 14 inch paintings were estimated to sell for $5,000-$7,000; top price for one of these was $8,812. A larger, ca. 18 x 24 inch version was estimated at $15,000-$20,000, but it failed to sell.

SoHo art dealer Mitchell Algus, who has specialized in the more eccentric and forgotten artists of the 1960s and '70s at his Thompson Street storefront for the past five years, has closed, a victim of rising rents. But all is not lost: Algus reopens this February at 511 West 25 Street on the second floor with an exhibition of paintings by Harold Stevenson, including his 1962 The Eye of Lightning Billy, which was in Sidney Janis' first exhibition of Pop Art, "The New Realists." Stevenson is also showing a new painting relating to his 52 years in New York, and the World Trade Center tragedy.