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|Art Market Watch
by Stewart Waltzer
|That mad milkman Tobias Meyer took the big kahuna last night as Sotheby's broke record after record for post-war artists in its contemporary art auction, Nov. 14, 2000. With Meyer slowly milking lot after lot past their reserves and often into the stratospheric ranges beyond the high estimate, last night was a far cry from the Impressionist and modern abyss that opened at our feet the week before.
Statistics don't tell the entire story. The auction house set the presale estimates at so high a level that it seemed that failure was inevitable. Yet Mr. Meyer, like Babe Ruth, stepped to the podium, knocked the dust from his patent leather pumps, pointed to the private boxes deep in left field and hit away.
A phrase oft repeated in the course of the sale was, "I can sell it." Sotheby's had apparently taken the previous week's debacle to heart, called its clients and lowered the reserves that were already very high. In what was enormously successful sale, there were 11 passes out of 63 lots, with 52 percent failing to exceed the low estimate, 12 percent exceeding the low but not the high and 18 percent exceeding the high.
In some instances, the low estimates had been set in a range that would guarantee a place among the 10 highest prices paid for any given artist.
The sale opened with numerous artists that don't necessarily figure in the lexicon of people who collect post-war art. Cecily Brown sold 20 Million Sweethearts for $75,000 with an estimate of $30,000-$40,000, a record. Robert Gober set a record when his Deep Basin Sink hammered down for $750,000 over an estimate of $500,000-$700,000. Thomas Struth set a record when Pantheon, Rome hammered down at $210,000, $10,000 above the high estimate. Felix Gonzalez-Torres broke his record when 355 pounds of wrapped blue and white candies tossed in the corner hammered at $410,000, again $10,000 above the high estimate.
Once the opening act warmed up the audience, the Lannan Foundation broke on to the stage in a truly dazzling display of expendable income. Patrick Lannan was a guy that bought a lot of art, and bought it in bulk. There were quite a few collectors like him in the 1960s and early '70s -- and alas, the like has not come again. Now the foundation he established at his death is turning some of its collection into cold, hard cash (to give away, as it happens, to other writers and artists).
Lannan's blue Ad Reinhardt painting turned out to be the second most costly Reinhardt in auction history, selling at $500,000. The first sold for just over a million in 1990. Lannan's Kenneth Noland target painting, which sold for $750,000 at the hammer, was the second most costly Noland in auction history. This is at a time when the prices of the Color Field market have been long flagging. The Morris Louis, Atomic Crest, an early veil, brought $300,000. Joan Mitchell set an all time record with Monongehela, which sold for $800,000, beating her previous record by $300,000. This was Lourdes. The dead lived again. The crippled walked.
The Frank Stella Nunca Pasa Nada sold for $1.3 million, making it the third most expensive Stella ever. The Brice Marden was estimated at $2 million-$3 million. It sold below the estimate for $1.7 million. Even so, it was the most expensive Marden ever sold at auction. I knew times were good, but I didn't think they were that good. The Marden was good, too, but was it that good?
The Lannans were done, but check out that Rothko. A desirable work, fraught with the gospel purity that distinguishes the earlier works, but still not in the absolute pantheon of the 10 greatest Rothkos. With the premium, it was the second most expensive Rothko ever sold at $11 million. What will happen when Christie's sells a truly extraordinary Rothko this evening? Will it be too late? Will the coach have turned back into a pumpkin?
Warhol's tiny Marilyn, a scant 18 inches in diameter -- the size of a beach ball, maybe -- was estimated at $1.8 million-$2.5 million. It actually sold for $2.5 million. Yves Klein, you know Klein blue, sells a small sponge picture for $820,000 at the hammer with an estimate of $600,000-$800,000. That's seventh of the top ten prices, including the remarkable '89 and '90 years.
The Jasper Johns Disappearance passes at $3.4 million. "Not good enough for that kind of price" says the dealer next to me. Is this the clink of irony? Things sell, things pass. One is told that estimates don't matter anymore. Every thing sells one way or another.
By the end of the sale, the room was bathed in the soft green glow of envious art dealers knowing that Sotheby's had gone where no dealer went before. The level had changed. Abruptly. The only problem is that many collectors and many dealers still don't believe it is real or that it will last.
For an illustrated listing of the sale results, go to Artnet.com's unique auction reporting service, Current International Auction Results.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.