Despite all of the pre-auction anxiety, the art market more than held its own last week, May 13-16, 2003. In fact, Christie's auctioneer Christopher Burge called his sale the "best in memory." If there was a comprehensive message that emerged, it is that quality works of art, by artists who have survived the test of time, are a safe place to park your money. Conversely, putting serious money into such historically questionable figures as Mike Kelley and Felix Gonzales-Torres (whose work in this case was a pile of fortune cookies carrying a presale estimate of $600,000-$800,000), might not be the way to go.
Prior to the auctions, many dealers marveled at the depth and breadth of the sale that Christie's was able to pull together. Even in the best of times, the appearance of two major Rothkos, a stunning Gorky and a "Black" Stella would have been impressive. Given that the sale was organized while our country was on the verge of war, the achievement was even more noteworthy. When the Mark Rothko painting, No. 9 (White and Black on Wine), soared to a record $16.3 million, you knew that the art market was going to be alright -- and then some.
Yet, buying was not indiscriminate. For example, Arshile Gorky's highly touted but greedily estimated Year After Year failed to sell. Despite its undisputed quality, the fact that it passed proved that this is an intelligent market -- collectors won't pay a ludicrous price, no matter how great the picture (the estimate was $15 million).
Another example of the market's sanity was the debacle of Robert Rauschenberg's Minutiae, which appeared at Sotheby's. In this case, Sotheby's pulled out all of the stops to portray this work as a historically important "Combine." However, the painting was conceived as a stage prop for a Merce Cunningham performance. Collectors realized that for that kind of money ($6 million-$8 million estimate), you had better be buying "the real thing."
What else? These sales marked the emergence of a new market star, Vija Celmins. Formerly a Southern Californian, Celmins has for years gone about her quiet and obsessive art making. Her signature imagery, a cross-section of the Pacific ocean, drawn and painted in highly realistic style, has a timeless quality -- just like its subject matter. Celmins's work is extremely time-consuming to produce, so material has always been in short supply. It was a surprise, then, to see three works come up to auction. The star was a rare canvas, Untitled (Ocean), which sold at Sotheby's for a record $545,600. Five years ago, the painting might have brought $150,000 on a good day.
Another artist "in play" was Tom Wesselmann. For years, dealers have been trying to make a market for him by declaring that he was undervalued compared to fellow Pop artists Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Even Art & Auction magazine's current June issue backs this viewpoint. The truth of the matter is that the attempt to create a Wesselmann market has been going on for years. Back in the late 1980s, the London dealer James Mayor and a consortium of his colleagues allegedly tried to buy up Wesselmanns and then boost their prices at auction. Whatever the case, Wesselmann's moment may have finally come. At Sotheby's, his Great American Nude No. 34, went over estimate to sell for a solid $680,000 (est. $300,000-$600,000).
A few other other observations -- the market for the Minimalists, especially Dan Flavin and Donald Judd, continues to expand. The recent opening of Dia:Beacon -- an incredible experience not to be missed -- with rooms devoted to both artists -- offers a compelling case for why Flavin and Judd are worth their rising prices.
A pair of significant Joseph Cornell boxes that appeared at Christie's brought $343,500 each. The first Cornell, M'lle Farietti, was promoted is one of the earliest boxes conceived by the enigmatic artist. That may well be the case, though to my knowledge, its 1933 date is hard to figure. The second Cornell, For Mylene Demongeot (ca. 1954-55), was a rare-to-auction parrot box and a comparative steal.
Christie's also offered a work by one of the market's hottest artists, Mark Tansey. His 1988 painting Source of the Loue came to the block with an estimate of $600,000-$800,000 -- which if it had sold within estimate (it passed at $550,000) meant you could have bought both of that evening's Cornell boxes for the same money. I'd like to believe that Cornell is a more important artist than Tansey. Finally, whoever bought Cy Twombly's Untitled (Bolsena), which was hammered down for $175,000 at Phillips, got a bargain.
No discussion of the sales is complete without some analysis of the Andy Warhol market. Yes, as Carol Vogel put it in the New York Times, there were some rocky moments. The truth of the matter is that the Warhol market has peaked -- albeit at a very high level. The success of Marlon, which sold for $5 million, offers proof that there is still a strong market for major Warhols. However, the failure of an Electric Chair to sell for $1.8 million-$2.2 million (at Sotheby's) also indicates the market's exhaustion with categories of Warhols that had jumped too far too fast in price. Only two years ago, the same picture would have been estimated at $500,000-$700,000.
As we approach the summer, the talk among dealers is that the art market is on an even, sustainable keel. As usual, the cry of "there aren't enough quality pictures to deal," rings true -- more loudly than ever.