With prices at both Sothebys and Christies New York print auctions last week going through the roof, dealers are having déjà vu all over again, recalling the art boom of the late 1980s. The question on everyones mind was, "Have we reached the top of the market?" Judging from the action in the sales rooms, the short answer is no (or for the pessimists, "not yet").
Both houses reported knocking down more works at record prices than they had in decades. Jonathan Rendell, the director of the print department at Christies, announced his best year ever, with over $20 million in sales. Mary Bartow, the director of prints at Sothebys, also confirmed that she had had a spectacular year.
Highlights from Christies two-day sale, Nov. 2-3, 2004, included the rare Picasso Femme qui Pleure I (1937), estimated at $500,000-$700,000. This impression, which came from a Mexico City collection, had a host of condition problems -- it was stained, with small tears, and laid down on board -- and required extensive restoration before being offered. For all that, it still sold to a phone bidder for $813,900. Underbidder (in the room) was British dealer Ian McKenzie. (Prices given here include the auction house premium.)
The price is not a world record for the print, which had sold for $1,036,500 in 1994, but that darker, richer impression (purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago) was the even rarer seventh state, not the lighter third state that appeared here. Even so, this fixer-upper Femme fetched the second-highest Picasso price since 1990. (The record is held by the 1935 Minotauromachie that went for $989,707 this past June at the Galerie Kornfeld sale in Switzerland. The buyer was the Metropolitan Museum.)
Dealers groused a bit at some of the antics Christies used to bring home the bacon. A highly anticipated, complete "Suite Vollard" set of 100 etchings from 1937, estimated at $900,000-$1,200,000, was pulled two days before the sale and sold privately "well above the high estimate," according to Rendell, leaving other bidders out in the cold.
And buyers who came to the Sunday preview expecting to examine Picassos Femme a la Fenetre (1952), estimated at $100,000-$150,000, were told that it had been taken to "an important collectors home for a private viewing." The print never returned (causing some grumbling among those collectors at the preview, apparently deemed less important), and was subsequently knocked down at $107,550, prompting some to ask if it could have achieved more had it not been yanked from the presale exhibition.
The Sothebys sale on Oct. 29-30 didnt have the depth of Christies Picasso offerings but it did have the artists first print, the iconic Repas Frugal (1904). This dry and dully inked impression (from the edition of 250 made from the plate after it was steel-faced) still managed to achieve $142,400. (Swann Galleries also had a mediocre impression that fetched $103,500 in its Nov. 4 sale.) Of more interest to collectors is the rare version of the print -- made before the plate was steel-faced -- that will be offered at Christies London on Nov. 30, estimated at 300,000-500,000. (The last one fetched $680,000 when it appeared at Christies London a few years ago.)
Sothebys did have a spectacular trove of early American prints, including a gorgeous impression of Mary Cassats Mothers Kiss (1890-91), estimated at $80,000-$100,000 and fetching a surprising $288,000, easily besting its 1990 world record price of $82,500. Chagall prices were also very strong, with a "Cirque" set of 38 lithographs from 1967, estimated at $120,000-$140,000, fetching $220,800.
The talk of the auction was Le Cheval, an unsigned Matisse "Jazz" print from the 1947 book edition, estimated at $10,000-$15,000, which sold for an unbelievable $60,000.
On the contemporary side, the buzz was all about Keith Harings 1986 Andy Mouse. A single print from the suite of four prints, which were signed by Warhol and Haring, was purchased for $45,000 (est. $12,000-$15,000).
Sothebys also offered Andy Warhols hot pink Marilyn (1967), the most desired from the set of ten "Marilyns," which went for $96,000. This is a dip from the last Sothebys sale in the spring, where another, better impression fetched $120,000, a world record for the print. Over at Christies, the hot pink Marilyn sold for $77,675, slightly more than a similar impression sold last spring for $71,700.
All these gyrations in price are indicative of strong demand, according to Sothebys Bartow, who sees the breadth of todays market as an important difference from the 1980s art bubble. "Collectors are now being discriminating in what they buy, unlike the 80s, where speculation was the overriding force," she said. Still, savvy buyers like Sharon Coplans Horowitz, the former Sotheby's contemporary print specialist who is now a private dealer, anticipate a correction. The big question is when.