Rather than discuss the highlights of this weeks post-war and contemporary art sales at Christies, Sothebys and Phillips in New York, why dont we get the lunacy out of the way first? Case in point: Whoever decides to bid on lot 55, the Marlene Dumas painting, in Sothebys evening sale on Nov. 9 should think long and hard. With an estimate of $600,000-$800,000, The Taboo (2000) represents a highly risky purchase. Not only is the canvas sloppily painted, which is unfortunately typical of the artist, but it raises an even greater question -- who is Marlene Dumas and why do her pictures routinely carry (and bring) six-figure prices?
Moving from the ridiculous to the sublime, the same sale also contains the greatest Jasper Johns drawing ever to appear at auction, 0 Through 9 (1961). Actually, this drawing came up to auction once before -- back in 1986, as part of the legendary Ethel Scull collection. It was sold at Sothebys for $880,000. Rumor had it that it was purchased by David Geffen. This time around, the estimate is $7 million-$9 million and it could easily bring $10 million -- the drawing is that good. Without going into all of the superlatives, 0 through 9 is Johns at peak performance -- superb draughtsmanship, original content, gorgeous surface -- its all there. With luck, a museum will acquire it and the drawing will enter the public domain.
Another Sothebys highlight is lot 12, the Andy Warhol Mickey Mouse (1981) from the "Myths" series. If you want Warhol at his commercial best, this is the painting youve been waiting for. Estimated at $1 million-$1.5 million, it should go higher. Speaking of commercial, how about Jeff Koons Bracelet (1995-98)? Carrying the same estimate as Mickey Mouse, this large realist picture of a silver I.D. bracelet, set against a backdrop of lavender and magenta, wasnt even painted by Koons. His assistants handled it for him. Even if you buy into the conceptual nature of the work, can you also live with the artists absurd comment about it? "This painting," he said, "always reminded me of Andy Warhols paintings of Elizabeth Taylor. Its about sexuality (and) spirituality." Indeed.
Sothebys also has one of Louise Bourgeoiss compelling bronze spiders, lot 22, carrying a presale estimate of $600,000-$800,000. Bourgeois is a talented but woefully inconsistent artist who can seem to do no wrong with the critics -- a case of art world intellectuals confusing crudeness with soul. However, with her series of spiders, she got it right. Especially those (like this one) that appear to be crawling up the side of a wall. Look for an impressive price.
Over at Phillips, the Chelsea-based auction house has wisely steered its contemporary sale toward what it does best -- selling pictures by the newer hot artists. However, this is not to say that Phillips has no classic material. The evening sale on Nov. 11 includes pictures by Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol and Willem de Kooning. The sale also contains one of Maurizio Cattelans finest works, La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour). This is the famous life-size sculpture of the Pope felled by a meteorite. Its estimate of $1.5 million-$2 million feels about right.
A personal favorite in the Phillips sale is lot 13, Tom Friedmans Hot Balls. This work consists of approximately 200 balls "stolen from various shops by the artist." While many of the balls are pretty small, one is the size of a basketball. Can you imagine the artist slinking along the aisles of dime stores and sporting goods shops, waiting for just the right moment to snatch a ball or two, all in the name of art? Estimated at $80,000-$120,000, it should easily make that price level and continue Friedmans history of strong auction results.
The main event at Christies Nov. 10 evening auction is the sale of Warhols Mustard Race Riot (1963). With an unpublished estimate of $12 million-$15 million, the picture is potentially the most expensive Warhol to appear at auction since Orange Marilyn brought $17.3 million in 1998. Over this past summer, the Warhol market was bolstered by news of the sale of Superman (1961) for a rumored $20 million-plus. With that in mind, Christies guaranteed the seller $12 million for Mustard Race Riot. While it might appear that Christies has taken a tremendous risk, the word on the street is that the companys owner, Francois Pinault, wouldnt mind getting stuck with the painting for his own collection (at that price). If thats the case, then its a win/win situation for Christies.
Another major picture in the sale is the Cy Twombly painting, which is featured as the catalogue cover lot. Untitled (Rome) (1971) is the perfect size (63 x 76 in.), perfect year (1971) and the perfect subject matter (chalkboard imagery). At $5 million-$7 million, it should find a satisfied buyer. The rest of the sale also contains some good Minimalist works by Carl Andre, Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Speaking of Flavin, his prices have finally almost caught up to his contemporaries -- in this sale, his Untitled (Monument for V. Tatlin) from 1964-65 (in an edition of five) is estimated at $400,000-$600,000. Rounding out the sale are some upper end works by Jeff Koons and Jean-Michel Basquiat, along with a major John Currin.
In general, the fall sales contain some of the strongest material in years -- and at some of the highest prices. From a dealers perspective, the hardest thing to accept in the current market is what Edward Tyler Nahem calls "bridging the gap." In other words, its becoming increasingly impossible for a dealer to take that leap of faith that allows him to buy at these levels. For instance, as a dealer who once exhibited Ed Ruschas "Ribbon Letter" drawings (in 1984, when they were $3,500-$4,500). I have to ask myself if I have the guts to buy one now for $150,000 with the hope of reselling it quickly for $175,000.
From a collectors point of view, baring a catastrophic act, it appears these high prices are here to stay. Their "cross to bear" is not about money, since they are presumably planning to live with the works for at least five to 20 years. Instead, collectors better be damn sure that they are buying high-quality examples. Whether you do the research yourself, hire a consultant or get advice from a knowledgeable dealer, mistakes (at least in the evening sale category) are no longer an option.