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Sotheby's contemporary art sale in New York last night, May 15, 2001, sold 53 of 70 lots offered -- about 76 percent by lot -- for a total of $45,312,400 (including premium). Although any excitement that might have sparked the crowd seemed muffled by Sotheby's vast auction hall, the sale's top lots were stellar indeed. These included:

* A modestly sized (ca. 56 x 45 in.) black and white Jackson Pollock painting from 1951 that sold for $7,980,750 (est. $6 million-$8 million) to an anonymous American collector.
* Jeff Koons' celebrated Michael Jackson and Bubbles (1988) ceramic -- one of an edition of four (the other three belonging to the Broad Art Foundation, the San Francisco MOMA and the Dakis Joannou Collection in Athens) -- which sold for $5,615,750 (est. $3 million-$4 million), setting a new auction record for the artist (the previous record was $1.8 million). The work was sold by Chicago collector Lewis Manilow. Incidentally, the original price of the work was $250,000. "It was always the most expensive work of Jeff's generation," said SoHo dealer Jeffrey Deitch. The sculpture was probably acquired by a museum or private foundation (and so is unlikely to reappear on the market).
* A large (ca. 49 x 60 in) Photo Realist painting of three lit candles from 1982 by Gerhard Richter that went for $5,395,750 (est. $4 million-$6 million) to a European collector, a new record for the artist (though by less than $500,000).
* Richard Diebenkorn's large and serene Ocean Park No. 67 (1967), which sold for $3,525,750 (est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million), just under the artist's auction record.

The sale set additional records for Ellsworth Kelly ($1,215,750), Martin Puryear ($764,750) and Ellen Gallagher ($115,750). Koons' 1978 crayon sketch of two cartoon rabbits sold for $60,550 (to Larry Gagosian, according to the Baer Faxt)-- the first auction of a work on paper by the artist.

Among the works that failed to sell were Charles Ray's photo self-portrait of a mannequin fitted with a mask of his face (est. $400,000-$600,000); a set of medical shelves with a pickled cow's brain by Damien Hirst (est. $600,000-$800,000); two mobiles by Alexander Calder (est. $400,000-$600,000 and $800,000-$1,000,000); a straw-covered painting by Anselm Kiefer (est. $400,000-$600,000); a Morris Louis veil painting (est. $300,000-$400,000); a portrait of a man in a cowboy hat by Lucien Freud (est. $1 million-$1.5 million); and paintings by Francesco Clemente (est. $160,000-$200,000) and Carroll Dunham (est. $40,000-$60,000).

Italian bad-boy avant-gardist Maurizio Cattelan isn't the only artist with a sculpture of Pope John Paul II going up for auction tomorrow, May 17, 2001. Artist Elliott Arkin, whose comic sculptural stylings are sometimes reproduced in Artnet Magazine, has created a parody version of Cattelan's piece -- but it goes on sale on eBay rather than at Christie's New York.

Cattelan's celebrated The Ninth Hour (1999), a life-size polyester resin model of the Pope struck down by an asteroid, was met with protests when it was exhibited in "Apocalypse" at the Royal Academy in London in 2000 and at the Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw in 2001. It is also slated to appear at the 2001 Venice Biennale, which opens on June 6. In the meantime, Cattelan's sculpture goes on the auction block tomorrow at Christie's, carrying a presale estimate of $400,000-$600,000. It is the catalogue cover lot, and one of four works by the artist in the sale (another is a Lucio Fontana-style slashed canvas work -- with the slash in the shape of Zorro's "z" -- estimated at $40,000-$60,000).

Arkin's work, on the other hand, is a handcrafted and painted model dubbed The Ninth Hour and Three Seconds, and shows the Pope being rescued by Underdog, a 1970s TV cartoon character who lifts the asteroid off His Holiness' prone form. Arkin's work goes online at eBay at 7 p.m., the same time Christie's begins its auction. Bidding on the Arkin sculpture starts at $1,000.

As for Cattelan, when he saw Arkin's original parody on Artnet Magazine's cover last March, he hastened to buy the work for his own collection. "He adores the piece," said a staffer at Marianne Boesky Gallery, which brokered the deal. Arkin made a deluxe version of the sculpture especially for Cattelan. The one that goes on sale on eBay is the original model, one that includes a plastic case (its top surface pierced by a hole made by the ersatz asteroid).

"This whole thing has been fantastic," says Arkin, who is developing a line of jewelry for the Warhol Foundation based on Andy's work. Arkin's other current projects include a self-portrait in pure 24-carat gold and a four-foot-tall sculpture called Ode to Rachel Feinstein.

The French parliament voted on May 11, 2001, to impose a one-percent tax levy on casinos to finance the acquisition of artworks by museums. This new tax, designed to enable French museums to buy national treasures slated for export, would yield an estimated 600 million FF ($83 million) annually. The French government opposed the measure, while casino groups were taken by surprise, as they had not been consulted on that matter. Tax levies on French casino revenues already total a substantial 52 percent, compared to 30 percent in the rest of Europe and eight percent in Las Vegas. The new tax still must be approved by the French senate.
-- Adrian Darmon

Sotheby's reports that online auction sales for its internet arm totaled $11.4 million for the first quarter of 2001. But it's a tough business -- the online auctioneer typically takes home only 10 percent of the sale price. Costs, on the other hand, were $7.8 million for the first quarter 2001, according to Sotheby's. The auctioneer has made dramatic cuts in expenses related to its online division, chopping them 59 percent from the $19.2 spent during the same period a year ago. Sotheby's estimated that the company would spend $27 million on its online operation in 2001, compared to $56 million in 2000.

In an effort to improve performance, is moving a little closer toward being an online gallery rather than a pure auction house with a new "buy now" feature. The "immediate purchase option" allows users to buy certain items for a predetermined price, without waiting for the auction to end. "Buy now" items are to be marked with a blue button; auctions end when a purchaser exercises the "buy now" option.

New York artist Fred Wilson gets his first mid-career survey in "Fred Wilson: Objects and Installations, 1979-2000" at the Fine Arts Gallery of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, Oct. 11, 2001-Jan. 12, 2002. The show is curated by culture critic Maurice Berger, and includes more than 100 objects. The show is slated to travel to the Sara Campbell Blaffer Gallery at the University of Houston, the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at U. Cal. Berkeley.

Janelle Porter is leaving Artists Space, where she has been curator for two and a half years... Menil Collection director Ned Rifkin has hired Guggenheim Museum curator Matthew Drutt as chief curator, a new post; Drutt has overseen the Gugg's Virtual Museum, which has yet to be launched... In the meantime, Menil curator of 20th-century art Walter Hopps goes part time, splitting his curatorial duties with the Guggenheim, where he is consulting curator, in charge of a James Rosenquist retrospective coming down the pike in 2003... A new team at Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven: Director Jock Reynolds has named White Columns director Paul Ha as deputy director; Jennifer Gross from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is the new curator of European and contemporary art; Trinity College art prof Jean Cadogan is consulting curator; and Metropolitan Museum print curator Suzanne Boorsch is curator of prints, drawings and photos.

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