In a testament to the strength of the auction process, Christie's, Phillips, and Sotheby's were able to put together impressive sales under the most difficult of circumstances -- the threat of a protracted war. Only a few months ago, while America was on the clear path to conflict, the auction houses were faced with convincing consignors to take a big chance. At the time, no one had any idea whether the war would be short and decisive or drawn out and inconclusive. Now that the war has come and gone, the question still remains whether wealthy collectors will keep things in perspective and continue to buy blue chip art.
While we're still a few weeks away from knowing the answer, we do know that consignors were willing to put up their property. What's more, they were reasonable in their expectations, as evidenced by realistic catalogue estimates. As everyone knows, the key to a successful sale is fresh, high-quality material. However, not enough emphasis is placed on the auction houses holding the line with consignors, so that the auctioneers can, in turn, offer the work at tempting prices. For years, collectors have played the auction houses off each other to great effect. Eventually, the auction houses capitulated and began to offer guarantees. Unfortunately, it was this offer of guaranteed money that recently cost Sotheby's dearly (see last fall's sale of the Weisel Collection), and almost put Phillips out of business.
In fact, it's significant to note that for the first time in recent memory, the Phillips evening sale catalogue does not contain a single work with an asterisk -- which indicates that the auction house does, in effect, own the work. While Phillips rivals Sotheby's and Christie's have guaranteed some paintings, one senses they made conservative commitments.
That having been said, what of the works themselves offered for "competition?" This season's most noteworthy development is the re-surfacing of Abstract Expressionist material, which had been in short supply. Despite Michael Kimmelman's recent controversial cover story for The New York Times Sunday Magazine -- the one calling the Minimalists and Earthwork artists the greatest generation of American artists (rather than the more accepted Abstract Expressionists, or even Pop artists) -- art by the major figures of the 1950s remains the most expensive and elusive.
A quick perusal of the catalogues reveals several exceptional Franz Klines, a pair of great Mark Rothkos, a superb Pollock "Drip" painting, and even a major Bradley Walker Tomlin. There are also quality works by second generation A.E. artists, such as Sam Francis and Joan Mitchell.
Other than the wealth of prime 1950s works, these upcoming sales offer few surprises. Yet, there are always new trends. One has been the burgeoning markets for Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. Suddenly, the going rate for a Judd "Stack" is a million dollars and a Flavin "Monument to V. Tatlin" is approaching half-a-million dollars. Even more surprising, collectors have finally caught on to Vija Celmins. Her greatest works are her meticulously rendered drawings -- which are now finally being given the same market respect afforded to paintings by other artists.
However, all eyes will be on two specific high ticket items. Sotheby's is offering the Robert Rauschenberg "Combine" painting, Minutiae, estimated at $6 million-$8 million. The single-work catalogue discusses the significance of the painting in painstaking detail and even includes an essay by the esteemed writer Calvin Tomkins. Basically, this three-dimensional painting was a stage prop for a Merce Cunningham performance in 1954. Does this translate into a valuable historical work of art? We'll find out.
Meanwhile, Christie's is offering a rare fully-painted Arshile Gorky, Year After Year. As everyone knows, Gorky had a short career and produced relatively few paintings. The number of privately held mature pictures can probably be counted on one hand. While the catalogue did not disclose the estimate, an inquiry revealed that Christie's expects the painting to bring an astounding $13 million-$15 million. The last time Year After Year was for sale, it brought $3.8 million at auction, during the depths of the art market recession (Christie's Nov. 1993).
What else looks good? Mark Tansey's painting, Source of the Loue, is a first-rate example by a fast-coming artist. Two Europeans, Yves Klein and Gerhard Richter, have major paintings coming up. There's a wonderful Joseph Cornell "Aviary," occupied by a colorful parrot, along with the earliest Cornell box that I've ever seen (1933). The combined sales also contain a scarce Frank Stella "Black" painting, a highly desirable Andy Warhol "Marlon (Brando)," and a lustrous Cy Twombly "Bolsena" painting. But what really stands out is Wayne Thiebaud's work -- not in terms of the examples, but how it has become popular enough to grace the covers of both the Christie's and Sotheby's morning sales catalogues.
Naturally, given the times, everyone wonders how things will do. Chances are, better than most think. The specter of war is no longer a factor. Although the stock market hasn't been doing much, at least it hasn't been going down. Housing prices, in general, seem to be holding their own. The consumer confidence index is up. Alan Greenspan is "cautiously optimistic."
However, the main factor is that the auction houses were able to put together solid sales -- especially Christie's. In fact, the quality and variety of works offered by Christie's rivals anything that I have seen since 1989. As for Sotheby's, though not quite as impressive as Christie's, it did a good job assembling a conservative number of carefully selected lots. Finally, Phillips has its share of classics, which should translate into strong sales.
Handicapping the auctions is always risky business. But for some reason that I can't quite explain, these sales seem less uncertain than most.