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|Art Market Watch
by Deborah Ripley
|For months print dealers have been on pins and needles waiting for the fall print sales at Christie's and Sotheby's in New York. Although the print auctions last May were quite robust, the mood this autumn was shot through with both pre-election and stock market jitters, which only added to the general unease about whether or not the market would hold.
After the final gavel came down, the verdict is in -- mixed, and cautious.
The Christie's sale (Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, 2000) got off to a promising start with an ample offering of 37 Picasso linocuts from the collection of Mrs. Norton Simon. Unfortunately the pieces had graced her Hancock Park home and had not fared well in the California sunlight -- all were somewhat faded, including one of the star lots, Nature morte sous la lampe (1962), estimated at $80,000-$120,000.
Sotheby's sale (Nov. 2, 3 and 4, 2000) also had a Nature morte sous la lampe with a more conservative estimate of $70,000-$90,000. This impression was offered at the house's May sale, where it failed to reach its $80,000 reserve. Over the years this print has been a fickle performer, fetching as much as $266,251 at Sotheby's London in 1990, and this year selling for $105,204 at Sotheby's London in June. However, this time around, both impressions failed to find buyers, passing first at a top bid of $65,000 at Christie's and then $55,000 at Sotheby's.
Another important Picasso linocut that fared better at Christie's was the Buste de femme d'apres Cranache le Jeune (1958), which was knocked down for $210,000 (prices given here are at the hammer, and do not include the auction-house commission). New York dealer Marc Rosen, who previously served as Sotheby's modern print specialist, commented to Surrealist dealer Timothy Baum that he thought the impression was faded and "missing some blue." London dealer Ian McKenzie demurred, noting that "this signature piece is always in demand." The other large Picasso linocut, Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe, d'apres Manet I (1962), sold for $75,000 hammer, somewhat below its $90,000-$120,000 estimate.
Another important work that found buyers at both houses was the Marc Chagall "Daphnis and ChloŽ" suite from 1961, a splendid set of 42 color lithographs. The set fetched $680,000 at Christie's and $700,000 at Sotheby's. Both houses failed to sell their Chagall "Four Tales from the Arabian Nights" set from 1948; it passed at $280,000 at Christie's and $270,000 at Sotheby's.
One of the most beautiful and rare works at Christie's was the Edvard Munch woodcut The Kiss from 1882. This haunting work sold for $110,000 to New York dealer David Tunick. Ian McKenzie was delighted, as he had another impression of the same print, and sold it the next day at the opening of the International Fine Print Dealer's Association (IFPDA) print fair for $120,000. (This impression was rumored to have been purchased by Chicago German expressionist dealer Alice Adams, the underbidder on the Christie's Kiss.) McKenzie's Kiss was less evenly inked and showed that the wood block had split due to pressure from the press, resulting in a slightly off-register impression.
At Christie's, the biggest disaster of the day was the withdrawal of 67 lots, over 10 percent of the sale, offered under the title "Property from a European collection, illustrated books and related material." The seller was French publisher Luis Broder, and included a wide selection of original copper plates by various modern masters, including Picasso, Mirů and Braque.
According to our Paris sources, when Quentin Laurens, grandson of the sculptor Henri Laurens, learned the plates were on the block, he contacted all the different artist's estates and they filed an injunction to prevent the plates from coming to sale. Los Angeles dealer Leslie Sacks was relieved. "There are too many unscrupulous dealers who will use the plates to print new editions," he said.
Even Christie's assurance that it would score each plate upon the event of a sale didn't reassure Sacks. "Cancellation marks can be burnished out," he remarked ominously. Incredibly, Christie's had included with one of the plates by Surrealist Andre Masson the original B.A.T. -- the "bon-a-tirer good to pull" impression, the final proof copy approved by the artist from which the edition is pulled. "A perfect package for forgers, who can even have the original print to make copies from," Sacks commented acidly.
Despite this setback, there were some nice surprises at Christie's. The lovely Matisse etching La Danse (1935) sold for $180,000 to a phone bidder, easily surpassing its $80,000-$120,000 estimate. The print's continued success at auction may stem from the fact that the original painting is one of the most popular works in the Barnes Collection outside Philadelphia.
Both houses had sparse American offerings. One of the highlights at Sotheby's was the Winslow Homer etching, Fly Fishing, Saranac Lake (1899), which sold for $85,000 at the hammer, reputedly to New York dealer Craig Starr. At Christie's the standout was James McNeill Whistler's Nocturne (1878), which fetched $55,000 despite a modest estimate of $10,000-$15,000.
Notable modern prints at Sotheby's included the Henri Matisse Marie- Jose en robe jaune (1950), which fetched $47,500. However another well-known Matisse work, the "Jazz" portfolio from 1947, failed to sell with an estimate of $500,000-$700,000. The poor showing could be explained by fact that the set was certainly not in pristine condition -- the catalogue entry failed to note that the works had previously been framed, and had discoloration and old hinges.
The selection of contemporary prints was rather meager at Christie's, which had decided to include its more important print lots, such as a Jasper Johns monoprint estimated at $500,000-$700,000, in its evening sale of contemporary art, and to save other works for its Los Angeles sale in December.
However, there were a few special pieces. Sharon Coplans Horowitz, the former contemporary print specialist at Sotheby's who is now a private dealer, snapped up Claes Oldenburg's Profile Airflow Test Mold, Front End (1972) for a modest $5,500. A more spectacular sale was Cy Twombly's Roman Notes (1969), which fetched $55,000.
Indicative of a softer market was the poor performance of the Jasper Johns prints. "The Seasons: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter" set (1987) died at $90,000 bid, nowhere near its robust $150,000-$200,000 estimate. New York dealer and publisher Brooke Alexander purchased a small Johns Red Yellow Blue (1963) for $5,500. Rumor has it that Alexander is buying resale works for his Onview.com website.
The biggest disappointment came with works by Frank Stella. Large complicated mixed-media prints, published mostly by Ken Tyler and Waddington Graphics, that had sold for as much as $40,000-$80,000 in the late 1980s, found no buyers with bids barely rising above four figures. Lot after lot passed with no bids either on the phone or in the room. The same Stella works did just as poorly at Sotheby's and it is certain that these pieces will be kept off the market until Stella's next museum retrospective.
At Sotheby's the contemporary prints were more plentiful, and as the sale was held on Saturday, private buyers competed with dealers in the room. Sharon Coplans Horowitz fought phone bidders to finally purchase the rare Jim Dine suite "Ten Winter Tools (Hand-Colored)" (1973-89) for $70,000. She also walked off with the Andy Warhol "Mao" portfolio from 1972, a set in exceptional condition, for $100,000.
In general the Andy Warhol prints held their own at both houses. At Sotheby's the black Marilyn (1967) achieved a record price of $37,500. New York dealer Joe Levene purchased the pink, green and blue Marilyn for $15,000 and felt he got a bargain.
London dealer Alan Cristea picked up David Hockney's pool images for $9,000 each. Desirable late Lichtenstein prints did well. Nude with Blue Hair, State I (1994) fetched $24,000, outstripping its $16,000-$20,000 estimate, and prints from "Interiors" (1992) all sold within their robust estimates.
Richard Diebenkorn's gorgeous color etching Green (1986), an example of his "Ocean Park" imagery, sold to a private collector in the room for $80,000, right in the middle of its $70,000-$90,000 estimate.
At the end of the day, Christie's sold $6,732,301 worth of property, with a 66 percent sell-through rate. As of this writing, Sotheby's has not finished totaling up its sales. Sotheby's contemporary auction sold 269 out of 453 lots, or about 60 percent.
In both houses, the lower than usual sell-through rates indicate that the recently raised buyer's premiums (17.5 percent at Christie's and 20 percent at Sotheby's) may also be discouraging buyers. Although it is impossible to gauge, the continuing legal travails at both houses may certainly be having a negative impact.
Overall, business was to be had, judging from the auction results as well as reports from print dealers who had booths at the IFPDA fair. However, it appears that iconic imagery by major contemporary and modern artists and significant, rare works in excellent condition continue to be the preferred purchases in this uncertain, rather conservative economic climate.
DEBORAH RIPLEY is senior print specialist at Arnet.com's auctions, and a director of the Artnet.com printstore. She can be contacted by email at .