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Alexander Calder
Black Bustle

David Smith

James Casebere

Michael Ashkin
No. 33

Richard Anuszkiewicz

Andy Warhol
Untitled (Tab Hunter)
ca. 1975

Georg Baselitz
Saxon Landscape

Bob Thompson
St. George et le Dragon

Barbara Kruger
Raping Monster
Art Market Watch
by Walter Robinson

Believe it or not, the fall auction season has gotten underway without much fanfare, with two days of sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art at Christie's Rockefeller Center headquarters in New York, Sept. 25-26, 2002.

The big-ticket auctions come in November, as usual. These sales were from the former Christie's East schedule, now folded into the Rock Center operations (the former buff-brick Christie's East building on East 67th Street sits forlorn and empty, a "for sale or lease" banner flying from its flagpole).

Dealers and collectors often look for bargains in these lesser sales, which tend to have lower-priced lots and other odds and ends. Pickings seemed especially interesting this time around, considering the poor state of the economy, which is bringing more art than ever to market (the forthcoming November auctions are said to be the largest in some time).

Material in Christie's Sept. 26 post-war and contemporary auction, put together by Robert Manley, contained about 190 lots and kicked off at 2 p.m. In the end, 131 works sold (about 69 percent) for a total of just over $2 million.

Top lots included Alexander Calder's Black Bustle (1960) stabile, knocked down for $85,000 (est. $60,000-$80,000), Alice Neel's 1950 portrait of a young boy cradling a Siamese cat for $75,000 (est. $60,000-$80,000) and a diagonal Dan Flavin pink, blue and green fluorescent light sculpture for $52,000 (est. $25,000-$35,000).

Though bidding was lively at times, much of it via the telephones, actual attendance at the auction was modest. "They forgot to publicize it," complained one dealer. "I only found out yesterday!" The sale got a little extra buzz from the notion that several works being sold without reserve were property of Ted Ammon, the Long Island financier who was mysteriously slain almost a year ago, a murder that still hasn't been solved (the story couldn't be confirmed).

Several dealers were on hand, snapping up works by gallery artists at what are presumably bargain prices (a practice that is all too rare, as most artists will agree). The sale kicked off with a series of five ink or spray-stencil works by David Smith, and John Good of Gagosian Gallery, which represents the estate, bid on all of them and went away with three (top price was $17,000 at the hammer).

Also on hand was Chelsea dealer Sean Kelly, who bought a Lorna Simpson photowork printed on six felt panels (for $5,500, est. $7,000-$9,000) and a large color photograph of the inside of a monk's cell by her husband, James Casebere (for $11,000, est. $10,000-$15,000), both of whom show at his gallery.

One of the many bargains to be had was Michael Ashkin's No. 33, a 21-foot-long scale model of an arrow-straight highway running through a stretch of brackish polymer water that was knocked down for $2,600 (est. $4,000-$6,000) to a young collector standing in the back of the room. The work was included in the 1997 Whitney Biennial organized by Lisa Phillips and Louise Neri.

Other works inspired no interest at all. Bidders passed on three lots of wan ink or pencil works by Elizabeth Peyton from the mid-1990s, exhibited at Gavin Brown or Barbara Gladstone galleries (est. $6,000-$9,000), and even showed no interest in a 1987 painting by the artist. Two archetypal Body Art pieces by Vito Acconci -- which looked suspiciously like documentary photographs from gallery archives (one from 1969 from John Gibson Gallery, the other dated 1971 from Sonnabend) -- both went unsold over estimates in the $4,000-$8,000 range.

Some works carried no reserve, which, with the lack of interest in the room, led to a few curious "reverse auctions" -- when the auctioneer couldn't entice an opening bid, he'd progressively lower his number until a buyer could be found. A 4 x 5 ft. canvas by Richard Anuszkiewicz, for instance, was offered for $2,400, $2,000, $1,600, and finally $1,000 before the work was sold. Anuszkiewicz remains an Op Art stalwart, as far as Art Market Watch is concerned!

Other works sold without reserve included an Andy Warhol Polaroid portrait of Tab Hunter, unsigned but carrying the trusty Warhol estate stamp, which went for $800 (est. $2,000-$4,000), and an early work by East Village graffiti-art pioneer Kenny Scharf, a 1982 picture of a "Fred Flintstone bird" painted on the enameled top of a washer-dryer, that sold for $1,400 (est. $3,000-$5,000).

Of course, some works proved to be carrying estimates that were way too low. Several phone bidders fought it out for a 1964 india ink drawing by Georg Baselitz of a Saxon Landscape animated with strange, potato-like beings; it was knocked down for $24,000 (est. $12,000-$18,000). And a classically "Greenbergian" drawing-room-sized painting by Jules Olitski, a field of pale green acrylic with flickering bands at its edges, went for $11,000, well over the presale estimate of $4,000-$6,000.

The same anonymous telephone bidder was savvy enough to snap up two excellent works by African American artists in the sale -- an animated St. George et le Dragon (1961) by Bob Thompson for $38,000 (est. $25,000-$35,000) and a sexy, African-motif collage from ca. 1968 by Romare Bearden for $11,000 (est. $7,000-$9,000). The contemporary artist Benny Andrews just announced plans for a foundation that would buy works like this for American museums -- could there be a connection?

The sale included two lots that are of special interest for being early, atypical examples of works by now-celebrated contemporary artists. Robert Graham, currently known for classic but naturalistic bronzes of nude young women and men, used to make miniature wax nudes set in erotic scenarios inside glass boxes. One of these works, dated 1970, sold at the sale for $5,500 (est. $4,000-$6,000).

And Barbara Kruger, the art-world's feminist conscience, started her career as a pattern and decoration artist. Her Raping Monster (1974), an attractively circus-colored rug of yarn, glitter, paint and printed fabrics, failed to sell at an estimate of $5,000-$7,000.

All prices given here are at the hammer, and exclude the auction house commission and applicable sales taxes.

WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.