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|Art Market Guide 2000
by Richard Polsky
|Given the uncertainty over the American presidential elections, a topsy-turvy stock market and sky-high presale estimates, it could be a tricky week for Christie's, Phillips and Sotheby's. The three houses have scheduled their evening sales of contemporary art for Nov. 13 (Phillips), Nov. 14 (Sotheby's) and Nov. 15 and 16 (Christie's).
Obviously, none of the auction houses had any way of knowing that a surreal political event would grip the country during the fall auction season. On the other hand, they may very well be their own worst enemies, given their absurdly high pre-sale estimates that characterize this round of sales.
The inflated estimates are a result of the competition for top-notch property. If a collector goes to Christie's with a great Mark Rothko from the 1950s, painted in highly desirable yellows and oranges, and demands an outrageous price for his painting, who's going to turn him down? All the collector has to do is mumble the word "Sotheby's" under his breath, and I can assure you he'll get the deal he wants. Case in point -- the current astonishing estimate of $15 million-$20 million for a painting of this very description at Christie's.
Should the above-mentioned Rothko, which is titled White, Yellow, Red on Yellow, sell within estimate, it will set a record for the artist's work -- a record that has been boosted over the last two seasons from $6 million to $11 million and then from $11 million to $14 million. Appropriately, a work by Rothko graces the cover of the catalogue for Sotheby's evening sale, where it carries a more modest $8 million-$10 million estimate.
But it's not just the Rothkos that have dizzying estimates. For example, Sotheby's has a handsome pair of medium-size Andy Warhol Mao paintings for sale. Each canvas measures 36 by 28 inches and was painted during 1972-74. Both of the images are done in purple, green and yellow and work well together as a diptych. However, one glance at the $800,000-$1,200,000 estimate really makes you wonder where Sotheby's experts are coming from.
The Sotheby's sale also includes a small (17 inches in diameter) but very desirable circular gold Warhol, Round Marilyn, from the vaunted Burton and Emily Tremaine Pop collection. Estimate? How about $1.8 million-$2.5 million? The last time this painting came up for sale, in November 1988 at Christie's, it sold for only $385,000 -- near the height of the last boom market.
The one sleeper in Sotheby's sale could very well be lot number 41, the Andy Warhol black Self-Portrait from 1967. From one of Warhol's most important series of self-portraits, the painting features the artist posed with a finger over his mouth -- a pose often referred to as the "mum voyeur." There's something rare and intriguing about the painting's black on black colors -- almost reminiscent of a great Ad Reinhardt painting. At an estimate of only $250,000-$350,000, this is one of the few pictures that could double expectations.
Over at Christie's post-war sale (note the new category, designed for works dating from 1945 to 1970) are a number of intriguing lots. One of them is the cover image of Elizabeth Taylor by Warhol -- unusual for its striking blue background. There is also Jasper Johns' tiny Gray Numbers painting, which measures 5 3/4 by 4 1/4 inches and is estimated at $500,000-$700,000 (no, this is not a misprint). This work also appeared at the Tremaine sale mentioned above, where it brought $286,000. Christie's sale also includes a minuscule gray Johns painting of the numeral two, titled Figure 2. This work measures an even smaller 3 1/3 by 3 1/8 inches and sports a $300,000-$400,000 estimate. Any takers?
Perhaps this writer's favorite work is a terrific Francis Bacon portrait of the artist's lover, titled Portrait of George Dyer Talking. This canvas, from 1966, has everything going for it -- effective colors, deft paint handling and a classic contorted Bacon figure sitting on a stool with a naked light bulb dangling overhead. It should cover its serious $3.5 million-$4.5 million estimate.
I could go on dissecting the evening sale catalogues for other over-optimistic estimates but, who knows, maybe the market will continue moving up. One thing that I am sure of, though, is the day sale contemporary material (post-1980) is in for some rough sledding. It's highly likely that the days of spending big money on mediocre works by today's trendiest artists, especially those who create color photographs, will come to an end. Look for much of the post-1980 day sale material to pass.
If the late minor works do poorly, it would in many ways be healthy for the art market. When times are good, as they have been for the last two years, many seem to forget that the art market is supposed to be about quality. Even an artist as superior as Picasso produced a fair number of works of little consequence.
Only when collectors and dealers adapt a ruthless approach -- buying solely works that matter -- will the art market achieve sustainable prosperity and maintain a steady flow during good times and bad.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer specializing in post-1960 works of art. Questions or comments can be directed to him in San Francisco at Polskyart@aol.com.