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Tom Wesselmann
Blonde Vivienne,

Morris Louis
Number 43,

Helen Frankenthaler
Crete, 1973

Jean Dubuffet

Andy Warhol
Black Flowers, 1964

Wrapped Magazines,

Richard Artschwager
Doors II, 1973

Barbara Kruger
(Worth Every Penny),

Cindy Sherman
Untitled #66, 1980

Andy Warhol
Untitled (Daisy),

Gustav Klimt
Seated Woman,

Egon Schiele
Squatting Woman,

Frida Kahlo
Congress of People
for Peace, 1952

to market, to market...

six-figure sales at tune-up auctions, adaa art show by Judd Tully

Topped by Blonde Vivienne, Tom Wesselmann's tondo-shaped oil painting on cut-out aluminum from 1988, the contemporary art market woke up from its winter snooze at Christie's New York on February 22. The Wesselmann hit a lusty $111,400 (est. $70,000- $90,000) and coupled with 119 other sold lots, turned in a workman-like $2.46 million performance (vs. pre-sale est. $2.6 million- $3.6 million).

Even with the two pricey buy-ins of Morris Louis' Number 43 that fizzled at $65,000 and Helen Frankenthaler's pink Crete that died at $48,000 (both carried $80,000-$100,000 estimates), the sale still made an impressive 83% by dollar value (77% by lot). "Things were selling at the top end of the estimates or above," commented Christie's expert Alison Buscher, "and we haven't seen that for a couple of years."

Traditionally, the February sales are tune-ups for the major spring auctions, which begin at Christie's on the evening of May 7. During the market gloom of the early `90's these appetizer sales were cancelled as descretionary selling virtually ceased and buyers vanished.

This round, anyway, the market perked up with works such as Concomitances, Jean Dubuffet's late acrylic and paper collage which brought $110,300 (est. $40,000- $60,000) and Andy Warhol's 1964 Black Flowers, realizing $54,050 (est. $40,000-$50,000).

Of special interest was Willem de Kooning's Untitled, 1977, an oil on newspaper abstraction deaccessioned by the Denver Art Museum (for future acquisitions). It fetched $47,150 (est. $25,000-$35,000).

A snappy twine-tied Christo object, Wrapped Magazines, dated 1966 and sold from the collection of Christo chronicler David Bourdon, brought $21,850 (est. $15,000-$20,000).

The market was decidedly more picky and downbeat the next day at Sotheby's second multi-discipline contemporary sale of paintings, photographs, prints and multiples. Only 118 of the 204 lots found buyers (58% sold by lot and 61% by dollar value) for a $585,557 tally (vs. est. $477,300-$672,500).

"I think it's a good idea to enter into the 21st century," said Sotheby's specialist Tracy Williams, referring to the more cutting-edge content of their sale and attempt to reach new collectors, "but I don't know if people are ready for it yet." Sotheby's debut of its three-department collaborative format made a more impressive $1.08 million in October 1993. Now it makes more sense why they waited so long.

Doors II, a conservatively estimated Richard Artschwager from 1973 and framed in six parts, made the top lot at $51,750 (est. $30,000-$50,000)

Barbara Kruger's screaming monkey and text in photographic silkscreen from 1987, Untitled (Worth Every Penny), sold for $28,750 (est. $15,000-$20,000). The low estimates made the results look rosier than reality.

The best example of low-ball estimates was Cindy Sherman's Untitled #66 C-print from 1980 that brought $19,550 (est. $5,000- $7,000). The recent buzz from MoMA's important seven-figure acquisition of Sherman's "film-stills" series no doubt sparked additional interest. Sherman is sold in both the Contemporary Part II and Photographic auction arenas.

Even so, European and American private buyers dominated, much like the buying pattern at Christie's. An exception was the strong price realized for Andy Warhol's circa 1969 Untitled (Daisy) color photograph that went to an otherwise unidentified Asian private collector for $9,200 (est. $5,000-$7,000).

An unusual offering of "Portfolio, For Joseph Beuys," comprised of 29 prints by artists ranging from Arakawa to Warhol and published by Bernd Klüser and Editions Schellmann, hit $20,700 (est. $20,000- $25,000).

THE ART SHOW An even richer assortment of contemporary and modern works were on view and primed for sale from February 22-26 at "The Art Show," the annual market fest presented by The Art Dealers Association of America at the Seventh Regiment Armory. Now in its eighth year, "The Art Show" was first hatched during the booming `80's and timed to coincide with the February auctions. The hope then was to transfer auction fever to the high-wattage booths at the Armory.

Unlike the auction houses where prices and percentages from sales are tallied and published for public record, the Art Show results are a different matter and much harder to measure. Chicago dealer Richard Gray, whose handsome booth was singled out in a New York Times piece on the fair, scored in both modern and contemporary offerings, selling "almost a million," according to Paul Gray, director of the gallery. He declined to be more specific. Their top contemporary work was a large and late Willem de Kooning. More importantly, though, Gray said, "last year we didn't make any sales."

In a casual sales survey of participating dealers, Galerie St. Etienne said it had sold Seated Woman, a Gustav Klimt charcoal drawing from 1897-98, for $50,000 and a striking Egon Schiele etching from 1914, Squatting Woman, for $6,000. It was published posthumously in 1990 from an edition of 100. "We've made a profit already," said Jane Kallir, co-director of the gallery, "but buyers can take a long time to make up their minds so it will be three or four months until we really know how well we've done."

Veteran dealer and raconteur, Allan Stone bristled at the sales query: "The trouble with the art world," said Stone, "it's all deteriorated into a big bottom line." Even so, he couldn't help adding, "Business is at the top-end and they're not buying much stuff out in meatloaf land."

The atmosphere was buoyant at Susan Sheehan Gallery after twin opening night sales of Andy Warhol's Blue Airmail Stamps from 1962 in the $200,000 range and a 24 x 24 inch Flowers painting at "just over $100,000," according to Sheehan. "I could have sold both of them five times over," marvelled Sheehan.

Photography was of unusual interest this time around as evidenced by strong sales at San Francisco's Fraenkel Gallery. Edward Weston's vintage 1925 Nude (Anita Brenner) and Imogen Cunningham's famous still life, Magnolia Blossom, from the same year, both sold for six figures, according to Jeffrey Fraenkel.

At Mary-Anne Martin Fine Art, a modest oil and tempera landscape by Frida Kahlo with a decidedly Marxist title, dated from 1952, Peace Congress for the People, sold for $85,000.

The overall mood was summed up by Joe Helman after reporting serial sales of gallery artists Joe Andoe and Jose Sicilia. "If this is reality, I'm thrilled." JUDD TULLY lives and works in New York.