The sky didn't fall.
Despite all of the negativity in the non-art world press, the fall auctions went well -- so well, in fact, that records were set for at least 10 artists (including Donald Judd, Morris Louis, and Barnett Newman). If there was any feeling of pessimism, it was quickly tossed aside when Phillips opened the week with a sale that exceeded expectations. Included in that sale was the Andy Warhol diptych, Silver Liz, which brought $4.4 million, and a Jeff Koons marble self-portrait that sold for $2 million. A third highlight was Claes Oldenburg's, Light Switches -- Hard Version, which set a record for the artist, selling for $691,500.
However, most art-world veterans viewed Phillips' sale as a preliminary. The real question was how would the Thomas Weisel sale do the next night at Sotheby's. As with most things in life, the answer came down to one's point of reference. From Mr. Weisel's viewpoint, his guarantee of $44 million allowed him to walk away a winner. But once the smoke cleared, the actual sale totaled just $33.5 million. If you do the math, it appears that Sotheby's lost almost $10 million, as eight of the 21 lots failed to sell. However, Sotheby's probably sold those lots during the ensuing week, so we may never know the actual dollar gross. In retrospect, Mr. Weisel put together a handsome collection, but it wasn't that of a true connoisseur -- as Sotheby's wanted us to believe.
Among the distinguished works in the Weisel sale was Willem de Kooning's, Orestes, which exceeded expectations when it sold for $13.2 million. So did Wayne Thiebaud's record-setting, Freeways, which sold for $3 million. Setbacks in the sale included Thiebaud's Toy Counter, which was bid up by Sotheby's to $2.9 million (the reserve was $3 million). One reason that the painting failed to sell was because of "too cute" subject matter -- a toy counter filled primarily with teddy bears. Another failure in the sale was Arshile Gorky's, From a High Place, estimated to sell for $6-$8 million. In this case, it wasn't subject matter, but an estimate that was too stiff.
The rest of Sotheby's sale went swimmingly. The cover lot, Roy Lichtenstein's, Step-On Can With Leg, went way above its high estimate of $3 million, selling for $4.8 million. The sale also yielded a record for Cy Twombly when one of his vintage "Chalk Board" paintings brought $5.6 million. As for Andy Warhol, the sales boasted one of the original dozen small Marilyn paintings from 1962, Lavender Marilyn (1). When viewed in the sales catalogue, the painting breathed perfection. Here was one of the great icons of 20th century art that could be bought for a relatively reasonable $4 million-$6 million. Yet, when examined in person, the actual painting appeared to be slightly dull -- it hadn't aged well physically. When it was time to take its turn on the auction block, it brought a rather disappointing $4.6 million.
A final curiosity of the Sotheby's sale was the last minute withdrawal of the Ed Ruscha painting, Honk. Encouraged by last May's auctions, which saw not one but two major Ruschas from the 1960s break the $3-million barrier, Sotheby's had set the bar at $2 million-$3 million for Honk. Apparently, however, the house had gotten wind that there was little serious interest at that level and pulled the painting. It was a smart move. By withdrawing Honk, Sotheby's prevented the painting from being burned, while improving their numbers for that night's sale.
Next, it was Christie's turn. By going last, the auction house had the advantage of calling all of its consignors to try and convince them to lower the reserves on their paintings. After two strong but selective nights of sales, it was obvious that there was still plenty of money out there, but it was informed money. In other words, no one was prepared to overpay. Christie's used this information and timing to their advantage as it watched its sale total fall within expectations -- unlike its other two rivals'. However, it should be pointed out that Sotheby's had the higher gross.
Christie's big moment was the sale of Jasper Johns' wonderful canvas, 0 through 9. Here, the artist took all of the numbers from 0 through 9 and superimposed them on top of one another. It is a testament to Johns' draughtsmanship that with a little concentration, the viewer can actually pick out each individual number. Johns had produced a number of color versions of the same painting. Christie's example was painted in Johns' signature gray, with various hints of green, pink and other colors peeking through. In fact, this work was painted so ravishingly that, to this writer's eye, it was superior to all of the color versions. Not surprisingly, it sold for $9.9 million, nicely above its $6 million-$8 million estimate.
The auction's cover lot, Roy Lichtenstein's, Happy Tears, was another success, selling for $7.1 million -- a record for the artist. Other artists who did well that night were Donald Judd, Morris Louis, Tom Wesselmann and Andy Warhol. Still, not all Warhols did well. On the positive side, Big Electric Chair soared above its estimate to bring $4.9 million. However, this success was offset by the failure of Camouflage Last Supper to sell. It should be pointed out that the going rate for one of these 40 x 40 inch paintings is approximately $1 million. This example carried an estimate of $1.5 million-$2 million and found no takers. But later in the sale, a classic 20 x 16 in. hand-painted red, gold, black and white "Soup Can" from 1962 brought $1.1 million. It's worth noting that the painting was once a gift from Warhol to his brother Paul -- a hell of a capital gains tax, but I'm sure he was happy to pay it!
Overall, the fall auction season had a happy ending -- not a Hollywood happy ending -- but a real life one that mimicked the current new "value-oriented" state of the art market.