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The basquiat boom
by Andrew Decker

Jean-Michel Basquiat
$3.3 million

Jeff Koons
Fisherman Golfer

Robert Gober
Untitled (Hairy Shoe)

Cindy Sherman
Untitled Film Still #39

Jeff Koons

Mona Hatoum
A Couple (of Swings)

Jasper Johns
White Numbers

René Magritte
Le Fils de l'Homme

Andy Warhol
Orange Marilyn

Vincent van Gogh
Portrait de l'artiste sans barbe
   The November auctions are off and running, not with a bang but a "huh?" Philip Niarchos was the anonymous buyer of Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 Self-Portrait for $3.3 million at Christie's Nov. 12 contemporary auction. The astonishing price is about five-and-a-half times what any Basquiat painting has previously brought at a public sale.

The underbidder was an auction neophyte who hadn't registered for a paddle (which comes only after a credit check) and who was entirely unknown to Christie's when the sale began. Not true of Niarchos, son of the late Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos, who had one of the five best collections of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art in the world.

Philip Niarchos and his brother Spyros now own their late father's collection. Among its trophies are Pablo Picasso's self-portrait Yo, Picasso, which Niarchos pere bought in 1989 for $47,850,000, and Vincent van Gogh's Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, probably worth around $90 million. It also includes Andy Warhol's Shot Red Marilyn, which he bought in 1994 at Christie's New York for $3.63 million.

Philip Niarchos, like his father, is clearly willing to pay a big price for a great painting, though the $3.3 million price tag mystified just about everyone, including people who adore and collect Basquiat. At that price level, Basquiat becomes one of the top post-War artists, surpassing Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Jean Dubuffet, James Rosenquist, Claes Oldenberg -- just about everyone aside from Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

Before the sale, the consensus was that the painting might bring an incredible price of up to -- maybe -- $1.2 million. But around 7:43 p.m. on Thursay night, when the bidding hit $1.6 million, it became a dogfight between Niarchos and the mystery bidder. The bids at first crept up steadily and then the two men began using jump bids (leaping past three or four increments at a time) to knock the other out. As the bidding lurched past $2 million there was applause and a few yelps, and when the hammer came down, the audience gasped and whooped and clapped, the art market was a palpably vital force. It was a rush.

Other buyers included SoHo gallerist Marianne Boesky, who bought Robert Gober's Untitled (Hairy Shoe) for $40,250 and Cindy Sherman's Untitled #216 for $96,000. Olivier Berggruen, an art investment advisor for Simon de Pury, paid $51,750 for Cindy Sherman's Untitled Film Still #39 and $442,500 for Gerhard Richter's Piero.

Zurich dealer Iwan Wirth, who also has a gallery in New York, paid $16,100 for Charles Ray's Untitled (wood plank along wall) and $134,500 for Bruce Nauman's Sealed Room -- No Access. An employee of London dealer Anthony d'Offay bought the two works by Jeff Koons in the sale -- Amore for $134,500 and Fisherman Golfer for $39,100. D'Offay represents Koons. One bemused dealer called Golfer "a dog," saying "maybe they'll use it as a hood ornament for a white stretch Lincoln."

Paris gallerist (and consignor of the Basquiat self portrait) Marc Blondeau bought Mona Hatoum's oddly elegant A Couple (of Swings) for $46,000. New York sculpture collector Joel Mallin paid $552,500 for Robert Gober's Untitled (Man in Drain), a record for the artist; it should go nicely with the Kiki Smith he has in his suburban poolhouse and the Carl Andre Sphinges he bought for $96,000. New York dealer Anthony Grant bought Walter de Maria's Circle/Rectangle 7 (Large Rod Series) for $173,000. Larry Gagosian bought Richard Serra's Back to Back for $123,500 and David Salle's The Mother Tongue for $34,500.

After the highly successful sale, Christie's chairman and chief auctioneer Christopher Burge said, "Would it were this easy next Thursday" when the house puts up art estimated at $100 million to $134.3 million. In fact, next week Christie's and Sotheby's are offering art estimated to fetch between $449.4 million and $615.4 million.

The results may not be quite as stellar, but the sales will do fine. For the first time in nearly a decade, Christie's and Sotheby's have sales that are balanced, combining works that have to be sold (from estates, to pay taxes) along with things people are speculatively floating on the market because they think they'll make a lot of money.

Some simply won't fly. Mildred and Herbert Lee are putting up seven works at Sotheby's on Nov. 17, and even their nearly billionaire son, Thomas (he brokered the Snapple takeover) is worried that the senior Lees' estimates are too high and the works might not sell.

Both he and Sotheby's contemporary art department head have been pushing dealers and collectors to the Lee collection, but there's a howler in the presale estimate for Jasper Johns's 28 by 22 inch White Numbers, which is set at $7 million to $9 million. Another Johns White Numbers brought $7.9 million at the historic Ganz sale a year ago, but that painting was bigger, approximately 53 by 40 inches. Several dealers were puzzled both by the estimate and Thomas Lee's efforts to hawk the works. The junior Lee himself is a prominent collector, but apparently didn't want to purchase any of the works coming up for sale.

And one could take issue with some of the René Magritte paintings at Christie's on Nov 19, which include icons of the artist's oeuvre that he painted again, as commissions, for his astute and charming lawyer, the late Harry Torczyner. The 1964 version of Le Fils de l'Homme is a fantastic icon of 20th century art. The estimate of $2.5 million to $3.5 million is probably fair enough. But, like many recycling jobs, it feels a little flat and lifeless. How mysterious would the Mona Lisa be if Leonardo da Vinci had to recreate it stroke by stroke, with none of the anticipation of how the final work would turn out, with none of the revelation and joy at creating something new?

In the same sale, Christie's is offering Andy Warhol's 1962 Orange Marilyn -- a 20 by 16 inch version of the 40 by 40 inch painting that brought $17.33 million last spring. In the wake of that sale, a different small Orange Marilyn traded hands in June for $3 million, the seller being Conde Nast head S.I. Newhouse, Jr., and the buyer Mirage Resorts head Steve Wynn.

This latest Marilyn to come to market belongs to Francois Pinault, the French businessman whose company acquired Christie's over the summer. He bought the Warhol in June for $2.6 million, hoping that Christie's staff could sell it in a private deal. They couldn't, and here it is. Because the painting is owned by a principal in Christie's, the catalogue notes that Christie's has a financial interest in the painting.

Christie's is also offering van Gogh's Portrait de l'artist sans barbe (1889) on Nov. 19, one of the last of the artist's self portraits in private hands. It's a loosely held secret that the painting comes from the estate of Jacques Koerfer, whose collection Christie's has been selling off for several years. The painting carries an "on request" estimate of $20 million-$25 million; the early line puts its hammer price at $40 million.

But among the other paintings coming up for sale - numbering over 1,500 -- there will be few speed bumps. Sotheby's has got its hands on 39 works from the Reader's Digest collection, which includes less than a handful of masterpieces but overall a trove of solid, fairly priced paintings by the increasingly rare Impressionists. And notably, Reader's Digest has not made a financial arrangement with Sotheby's to give the auction house a piece of the action. What this means, basically, is that the financially troubled publishing company isn't looking to get a minimum take from the sale guaranteed (and in exchange share any upside profits with Sotheby's). Instead, it's a free-market consignment, with the firm wisely choosing to keep all the proceeds for itself.

The numbing week will present a staggering amount of art. So why aren't people worried about oversaturating the market? The market's middle may prove a little soft, but at the top level, there's plenty of money around.

Previous recessions were presaged by a crash in real estate markets or other harbingers of financial misery. It hasn't happened yet. And for over a year, the market has snapped up -- gleefully at times, grudgingly at others -- most anything that is halfway decent. This fall, I sat in a dealer's office when he got a frantic call from someone at an auction house looking for a painting by a 20th-century master that is worth several million dollars. And that was when the stock market was in its free-fall period. People are out hunting and gathering, and they're loaded for bear.

As they were for Basquiat.

ANDREW DECKER writes about art and the art market.