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|Art Market Watch
by Richard Polsky
|Collectors in search of bargains in the contemporary art market will soon find that actually there are no bargains. However, there are a number of good deals, if you're willing to look hard and dig deep. The key is a willingness to compromise in terms of scale and medium -- but not quality. Remember, it's always better to buy a first-rate print than an average-quality drawing. With that in mind, here is a list of five possibilities:
Andy Warhol, "Dollar Signs"
Whether you love his work or despise it, you cannot have a serious contemporary art collection without owning an Andy Warhol painting. The problem is that it's becoming increasingly difficult to buy one for under $50,000. One overlooked option is the artist's paintings of the "universal symbol for money" -- the "Dollar Signs" series.
These works owe their origin to Warhol's "Dollar Bill" paintings from 1962. The "Dollar Bills" came about when Warhol claimed to have run out of ideas and decided to ask a friend what he should paint next. His friend said she knew just what he should do, but it would cost him $50 for the idea. As soon as the ink was dry on the check, she held up her end of the bargain by asking Warhol, "What is it that you love more than anything else? -- Money!"
Almost 20 years later, in 1981, Warhol returned to the idea with a variation on the theme of money. He began screening dollar signs on canvases in three sizes: 10 by 8 in., 20 by 16 in., and 90 by 70 in.
A small Dollar Sign now sells for approximately $25,000. The auction record was achieved in 1990, when one brought $46,750. Each Dollar Sign sports a unique combination of punchy colors. The more intense the color, the more valuable the painting.
"Dollar Sign" paintings are important because they personify the Warhol philosophy: "The best art is good business."
John Chamberlain, "Tonks" and "Baby Tycoons"|
The crushed auto sculptures of John Chamberlain remain one of the most original developments in sculpture of the last 50 years. By moving scrap auto metal around the way Willem de Kooning pushed paint, Chamberlain became the equivalent of an Abstract Expressionist sculptor. Since Chamberlain worked with metal that was already coated with weathered paint, he solved the problem of adding color to sculpture without compromising the integrity of the material.
Chamberlain's works can vary in scale from a mere two feet tall all the way up to imposing heights of 10 feet and more. However, in the early 1980s, he began a series of works that were welded from scraps of Tonka Toys -- in his case, colorful metal trucks. The results were extraordinary miniatures that are similar in size to a football or a basketball.
Small gems by major artists give a special satisfaction, but often the essence of the artist's work is lost in the downsizing. In Chamberlain's case, his "Tonks" hit hard and retain all of the power of their larger counterparts.
During the 1990s, Chamberlain followed-up the success of the "Tonks" with another series of small works called "Baby Tycoons." These sculptures are created from actual auto scrap-metal. While they don't have the edge of the "Tonks," they are more elegant works of art.
Both the "Tonks" and the "Baby Tycoons" are usually priced around $18,000, but neither are easy to find. Even if you pay a bit of a premium for one, considering their quality and Chamberlain's place in art history, they're still a bargain.
David Hockney, Pool Made of Paper and Blue Ink for Book|
When you think about David Hockney, chances are that the first thing that pops into your mind are his Southern Californian swimming pools. Oddly, Hockney actually completed very few paintings and drawings of pools. However, those works were exceptional and captured an enduring place in art history.
Fortunately, Hockney did a fair number of prints of pools. By far, the best value among this group is Pool Made of Paper and Blue Ink for Book.
Back in 1980, at Tyler Graphics, Hockney produced a series of pool images that were made of colorful pressed paper pulp. The resultant "Paper Pools" have become among the most sought after "monotypes" in the history of printmaking. To celebrate the completion of the series, Hockney and Kenneth Tyler published a book to document this work. To make the book more enticing, they included a single 11 by 9 inch, full-color lithograph, signed and numbered by Hockney. Although the book/print appeared in a giant edition of 1,000 and originally cost $1,000, it quickly sold out.
Pool Made of... captures the essence of Hockney's light-drenched pools. The blue water seems to shimmer before you and its wiggly lines form a hypnotic, abstract pattern.
Over time, the print has risen in price to around $4,500. At the height of the market, in 1990, an example sold for $7,150. The bottom line is that this print allows a collector to live with a first-rate work, by one of the top ten living contemporary artists, for under $5,000 -- a true bargain.
Jasper Johns, Summer (Blue)|
In many ways, Jasper Johns is the closest thing America has to a living national treasure. He's also the world's most expensive living contemporary artist. Yet, if a collector is willing to consider buying a print, he or she can find great value.
In 1990, Brooke Alexander collaborated with Johns to publish a small print derived from Johns's significant "Four Seasons" paintings, titled Summer (Blue). Each of the "Seasons" paintings, which date from 1986, depicts a different season that's symbolized by biographical iconography from Johns' life.
The subject of the seasons has been a traditional theme throughout art history equating spring with birth, summer with youth, fall with middle-age, and winter with old age. One of the most successful cycle of seasons paintings was created by Thomas Cole and can be seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
In Johns's case, he followed up his seasons paintings with a large number of related prints. The prints vary in quality, scale and price. However, his small lithograph Summer (Blue), whose image measures 9 by 6 inches, was purposely created in a large edition (numbering 225 impressions) to make it accessible to collectors who couldn't afford his more common, smaller editions.
The good news is that Johns puts the same energy into his prints that he puts into his drawings and paintings. Summer (Blue) includes snippets from his life, such as his collection of George Ohr ceramic pots. The print also includes such diverse images as the Mona Lisa, a seahorse, a reference to Picasso's Minatour Moving His House and a shadowy figure that's said to be Johns himself.
Copies of Summer (Blue) sell for approximately $2,000. The lithograph is printed with indigo-colored ink on a sheet of light blue paper. Summer (Blue) is not only a visual delight but a work of art that could well double in value over the next five years.
Joseph Cornell Collages
For the sake of full disclosure, I should note that I currently own a Joseph Cornell collage. That having been said, Cornell collages represent a bona fide opportunity to own a unique work by one of the most important (and undervalued) artists that America has ever produced.
Cornell has long been associated with his wonderful boxes that contain nostalgic environments, which emphasize the poetry of found objects. During his lifetime, the artist produced around 2,000 of these boxes. However, toward the end of his career, he turned his attention to creating collages -- producing perhaps 1,000 of these two-dimensional works.
Though tinged with surrealism, Cornell's collages are very different in feeling than his boxes. The works are quieter and simpler. A typical collage might measure 11 by 9 inches and depict something as mundane as a teapot with a couple of white doves flying about.
But because Cornell had such an uncanny feel for combining disparate images, the few that he juxtaposed have a great resonance. The collages are like short vivid daydreams as opposed to the boxes, which seem more like full-blown, subconscious fantasies.
While many collages are in museums and private collections, a small number come on the market each year. The going rate is usually between $18,000 and $25,000. Exceptional works, such as those that include pennies ("The Penny Arcades"), bring considerably more. Christie's New York recently sold an example from ca. 1965-67 for just over $49,000 -- though the work carried a presale estimate of only $15,000-$20,000.
In summary, despite the current strength of the art market, if you're willing to do some research and look beyond what is trendy, there are still plenty of collecting opportunities that represent good value.
RICHARD POLSKY is an art dealer and author of Art Market Guide (San Francisco, 1998). He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.