Despite a questionable economy, the spring auctions in New York showed unexpected strength. Both the prestigious evening sales and the mass-market day sales exceeded all expectations. As a fellow dealer quipped, "What recession?" While prices, for the most part, didn't build on last November's highs, they certainly seemed to mimic the strong results of six months ago.
This season, newcomer Phillips went first on Monday, May 14. While the sale had a handful of disappointments, such as the failure of the Frank Stella cover lot to sell, its successes clearly stood out. For example, the large Andy Warhol Mao painting more than doubled the previous record for a 52 by 43 inch work from this series, selling for $1,157,500.
Other works that did well at Phillips were a Claes Oldenburg soft sculpture of a light switch, which sold for $574,500; a large Basquiat figurative work, which went for $1.1 million; and a major Dubuffet automotive scene that sold for $2.9 million.
One of the odder stories to emerge from the sale centered on the work of the British artist Chris Ofili. His painting Foxy Roxy sold for $211,500 -- nicely above its $150,000-$200,000 estimate. However, the work, which has two clumps of elephant dung that serve as a base for the painting, apparently gave off a noticeable odor. While the artist uses this quirky material on a regular basis, somehow the shellac used to cover the dung wasn't thick enough this time. Imagine having spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars, and then having to live with an odoriferous painting. Here, regardless of esthetic judgment, was a work of art that literally stank.
On a different note, the Phillips sale saw the emergence of Shirin Neshat as a big-money photographer. Her large-scale black and white photograph, Speechless, estimated at $30,000-$40,000, sold for $70,700. This sale foretold a pattern of high prices for Neshat that was to continue through the rest of the week's auctions.
The market for Neshat, who is Persian, is curious. Her work features Persian women cloaked in black chadors, sometimes in prayer, sometimes holding guns. The artist then covers the surface of the photo with lines of Farsi writing, applied with black ink. At the risk of sounding racist, the rise of Neshat seems not to be based on the quality of the work -- in this writer's opinion the photos look contrived. Instead, her success feels more like a subliminal statement by the collective art world, as if to say, "Look how inclusive we are. We're willing to include work a female artist who is not European, American or Japanese."
The next night, May 15, was Sotheby's turn. The evening's main event was the sale of Jeff Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubbles. As anyone who follows the auctions knows, Sotheby's based its entire spring marketing campaign around this iconic sculpture. Apparently, the auction house had also made a large guarantee to the owner to secure the consignment. The gamble paid off as the work exceeded its $3 million-$4 million estimate to sell for $5.6 million.
The real surprise of the evening was the high prices brought by a group of five paintings from Andy Warhol's "Ladies and Gentlemen" series. In the last issue of the Art Market Guide 2001, I went out on a limb and predicted the auction demise of these works.
I based my prediction on the fact that when works from this series previously appeared, the results were usually unsatisfactory. Not long ago, Gagosian Gallery did a show of "Ladies and Gentlemen" and apparently sales were less than brisk. Given their history, how was the market going to absorb five large-scale examples (plus three more in the day sale)? It turned out that the answer was "with great ease." Four of the five evening sale paintings not only sold, but far exceeded their estimates, as did all three of the day sale pictures.
Another eye-opener was the Richard Diebenkorn "Ocean Park" painting, Ocean Park No. 67. This predominantly dull yellow-ochre work set a record for this series, selling for $3.5 million. Another record was set for an Ellsworth Kelly painting, Blue Green I (EK401), which brought $1.2 million. Other strong results included Jackson Pollock's black enamel Black and White/Number 6, 1951 ($7.9 million), Gerhard Richter's painting of three burning candles, Drei Kerzen ($5.3 million), Martin Puryear's record-setting Bower ($764,750), and Andy Warhol's cover lot, Group of Five Campbell's Soup Cans ($3.7 million).
Next up to bat was Christie's Post-War auction on May 16. The surprise of the night was the price brought by Andy Warhol's Large Flowers, a painting that measured more than 13 feet long (82 by 162 in.). Warhol had painted four "Flowers" this size and this was the last one left in private hands. The painting had appeared once before at auction, selling for $1.5 million in 1989. This time it sold for an impressive $8.4 million. Warhol's Orange Marilyn was another triumph. Once again, this painting had been on the auction block, previously selling for $2.75 million (1998). This time around it went for $3.7 million.
Another highlight was an all-white John Chamberlain crushed auto metal sculpture that sold for $248,000, exceeding its $100,000-$150,000 estimate. Still another winner was Morris Louis, whose painting Third Element soared above its predicted $250,000-$350,000 estimate to sell for $721,000. A third success was a late Joan Mitchell canvas, which brought $556,000 against an estimate of $200,000-$300,000. In fact, Mitchell's work did extremely well all week long.
On the downside, the Gerhard Richter painting, Portrait Wunderlich, a Photo Realistic portrait of the artist Paul Wunderlich, failed to sell. In a way, it was predictable, because the image depicted the artist holding a shotgun and a dead hare. Most collectors simply do not want to live with an image of a dead animal and a gun -- too politically incorrect.
Wayne Thiebaud's painting, Gun -- as if inserted in the sale to reiterate the above theory -- also failed to sell. However, both Thiebaud and Richter had strong results with other paintings. Another disappointment was Mark Rothko's No. 18 (Brown and Black on Plum). Estimated at $7 million-$10 million, it failed to elicit any serious bidding, supposedly because it was faded.
The final night of sales, May 17, was Christie's contemporary. The most closely watched work was Maurizio Cattelan's La Nona Ora (The Ninth Hour). The three-dimensional portrait of the Pope pinned down by a meteorite exceeded expectations and sold for $886,000. Another stirring moment occurred when Cindy Sherman's 8 by 10 inch black and white photo of herself disguised as a hitchhiker, Untitled Film Still #48, broke a record for a work from the "Film Stills" series, selling for $336,000.
However, the night's showstopper was Bruce Nauman's Henry Moore Bound to Fail (Back View). This life-size sculpture, a cast of the artist's back bound with rope, was promoted as one of Nauman's greatest sculptures. Apparently collectors agreed, as the work brought an unbelievable $9.9 million, against an estimate of $2 million-$3 million.
Jeff Koons continued to parlay the strength of the sale of Michael Jackson and Bubbles. This time, another porcelain work, Woman and Tub, brought $2.8 million. Another cast of this work had sold for $1.8 million only a year and a half ago. Other artists that did well include Donald Judd, Andreas Gursky, Eva Hesse and Dan Flavin. Also, Duane Hanson's Lady with Shopping Bags sold for $270,000 -- a big price for him.
As far as works at Christie's that didn't do well, there really weren't too many lots that passed. A couple of Naumans failed to sell as did a multi-panel painting by Gary Hume. But for the most part, Christie's demonstrated the continued success of splitting the sale into "post-war" and "contemporary."
If asked to evaluate the overall vibe of this week's sales, one would have to say that the results were on par with last November's results. However, given the apprehension over the economy, the May auctions clearly demonstrated the demand for post-war and contemporary art -- as compared to weakening demand for Impressionism and spotty demand for modern (other than Picasso).
Basically, the art market appears to have weathered the economic slowdown. It bodes well for next season and, assuming nothing weird happens in the stock market, the November 2001 sales should attract even better material -- making for an even stronger round of sales.
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 at 415-885-1809 or Polskyart@aol.com.