Whether you're an art dealer or a collector, this is the time of year most of us look forward to. On Thursday, May 10, the Chicago art fair opens, followed by an intense week of contemporary and post-war art auctions in New York. Prior to the auctions and the release of the sales catalogues, there's always great anticipation. The usual anxieties crop up: How's the economy? Will the material be good? What about the estimates? Then the catalogues arrive and the real fun begins.
This year, all three major auction houses have gone overboard in terms of auction catalogue propaganda. Only a few years ago, they would illustrate individual works in color, followed by a basic description of the property. However, that's no longer the case.
The "Part One" catalogues (where the most expensive material is offered) often include "scholarly" essays to describe the top lots. Auction house personnel go to great lengths to praise the works, using words like "quintessential" and "pivotal" with nauseating regularity. Sometimes, an illustration of an image by another artist is placed near the offered property as if to say, "Look how what we're selling is related to the greater zeitgeist of the art world."
Apparently, Christie's has won the battle over how to categorize post-1945 property. A few years ago, Christie's divided the contemporary sales into two groupings: Post-War, which includes works by artists who came into prominence between 1945 and 1970; and Contemporary, which features works by artists who matured during the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s.
Meanwhile, Sotheby's has kept both types of art in a single category. However, Christie's strategy has proven correct, because its contemporary sales have been attracting a distinctive group of moneyed buyers, willing to pay ridiculous prices for works by the likes of Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
What of the art itself? In general, the May sales offer the weakest group of property in some time. This is not to say there aren't individual works that are terrific. The thin level of top-flight material is more a reflection of the times. Things are back to normal. The bottom line is that there's little speculation. The auction houses are dependent on the usual circumstances that force people to sell: death, divorce, collectors trading up, dealers stuck with inventory, and the occasional person who simply needs money.
Only a year ago, the art market mirrored the red-hot real estate market. Stories abounded about homes being offered for a million dollars, only to be met with offers in excess of the asking price. In the corresponding art market, dealers were putting huge premiums on exceptional works and, just as in real estate, collectors were willing to pay whatever it took to secure the prize. Currently, there is still strong demand for homes, but buyers are making lowball offers. Concurrently, art collectors still pursue great works, but only if they're priced with some logic.
Probably the best way to analyze the May sales is by individual artists. A good place to start is with Andy Warhol. Perhaps his most intriguing lot is Orange Marilyn, a 20 by 16 inch picture offered by Christie's in its part one sale. This work last appeared on the auction block only two-and-a-half years ago (Christie's November 1998), selling for $2.75 million. It is currently estimated at $2 million-$3 million. Supposedly, the painting was bought by former Bellagio casino owner Steve Wynn. It will be interesting to see what it brings this time around, given the record-setting $17 million price for the 40 by 40 inch Orange Marilyn.
In the same sale, Christie's is offering a giant Flowers painting that was also previously sold at auction. In this case, the Flowers brought $1.54 million (Sotheby's May 1989). Now, it's being offered for $3 million-$4 million. A personal favorite in the sale is the Self-Portrait (Camouflage). Here, Warhol portrayed himself in his silvery fright wig, but then went on to obscure half of his face with an overlay of military green and gray camouflage. The painting carries an $800,000-$1,000,000 estimate, which seems about right.
Over at Sotheby's, the cover lot features the rare Warhol painting, Group of Five Campbell's Soup Cans, which is expected to bring $2.5 million-$3.5 million. The painting comes from the legendary Karl Ströher Pop collection and hasn't been on the market since the 1960s -- it should clean up.
Unfortunately, Sotheby's has taken on a large group of Warhol's transvestite paintings, known collectively as "Ladies and Gentlemen." Forgetting the controversial subject matter, these paintings are garish, nasty and just plain unattractive. Sotheby's is offering a group of five of these works (along with three more in the day sale). Look for them not to sell, or to sell below estimate.
Sotheby's also has the small but mighty Liz as Cleopatra. Once again, this work has appeared before (November 1989) and sold for a surprising $605,000. Its current estimate of $600,000-$800,000 might be reaching a bit, but you never know at auction.
Phillips weighs in with a large Warhol Mao painting that once appeared at a Sotheby's sale of property from the Dia Foundation (November 1985). Last time, it sold for $52,250. This time, its $500,000-$700,000 estimate feels accurate.
Perhaps the greatest excitement is centered on Jeff Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubbles. You have to assume that the owner was encouraged by the recent surge of strong results for Koons -- that and a whopping $3 million-$4 million estimate he was given by Sotheby's. The auction house has gone all out on this sculpture by devoting a separate catalogue to it along with the requisite essay demonstrating the work's historical importance. Personally, for the same money (or less), I'd rather have Richard Diebenkorn's stunning Ocean Park No. 67 (at Sotheby's). To my eye, this is the finest painting from the series to ever appear at auction.
Due to his record-setting performance during the last round of sales, Phillips is offering a plethora of works by Robert Gober. Also, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Gerhard Richter, Ellsworth Kelly and Bruce Nauman have numerous important examples coming up at the various houses.
While works by these artists carry steep price tags, at least they're of a high caliber. Typical of the sales, there are always a group of works where quality doesn't jibe with high estimates. Look for the following works to have trouble reaching their reserves:
Sotheby's: Lot # 10-14, Andy Warhol
Lot # 40, Joseph Cornell
Christie's: Lot # 9, Sam Francis
Lot # 18, Andy Warhol
Lot # 44, Willem de Kooning
Lot # 50, Roy Lichtenstein
Phillips: Lot # 47, Yves Klein
All eyes are on Maurizio Catalan's cover lot for Christie's contemporary sale. In case you haven't seen it, the artist has created a life-size three-dimensional portrait of the Pope, felled by a meteor. This is one of those works that defy description -- it literally has to be seen to feel its full impact. Somehow, its $400,000-$600,000 estimate feels modest.
Finally, it will be interesting to see how the major Jackson Pollock does, given all of the attention from the recent movie, Pollock. The painting that's being offered at Sotheby's, Black and White/Number 6, 1951, is predicted to sell for $6 million-$8 million. Important Pollocks are so scarce, that it's difficult to handicap their prices at auction. The fact that this painting has been off the market for 40 years should work in its favor.
Due to the nature of auctions, the only certainty is that each sale will yield a few mystifying results. There will always be one or two lots that sell for some astronomical price that leaves the audience gasping. Conversely, there will often be a few lots that are deserving but somehow fail to find a buyer.
Collectors will do well to remember that all it takes are two buyers, who can't live without something, to produce fireworks. Likewise, when something fails to sell, the reason isn't always lack of quality. The work could have a ludicrous reserve, have been shopped around or have been heavily restored.
The point is that results for an individual artist have to be consistent over a period of time before you can draw any conclusions about that artist's market.
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.