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    Auction Notebook
by Andrew Decker
 
     
 
The eBay van Gogh
 
Nine days of sales and what's there to show for it? A total of $440.92 million in 19th- and 20th-century art changed hands, with 78.1 percent of the 1,534 lots offered finding buyers.

And that's not counting the sale on eBay of Vincent van Gogh's final oil painting on paper. Bidding closed on May 15, and the picture's $9 million reserve had been met.

The seller was Robert J. Miller of Boise, Idaho, who said he picked the work up at an antiques shop. "This painting was very, very, very, very reasonable to me. In fact, it was almost a gift," he said. "Nobody in the world would have deciphered it was by van Gogh if I hadn't done my studies." (For additional information, the item number on eBay is 101508450.)

Miller added that he didn't expect to receive bids on the work when he posted it. "I did it mostly just to show it. Once it's authenticated by van Gogh experts it will be worth in the range of $100 million-$150 million, so even at $10 million it's a steal." As Miller noted, the Van Gogh Museum has not authenticated the painting.

Charles Stuckey, curator of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, looked at a photograph of the painting and felt it might not in fact be by Vincent van Gogh.

Meanwhile, Sotheby's was expecting the arrival of a painting attributed on eBay to Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The eBay purchaser apparently hoped to have it included in an upcoming Sotheby's auction, though specialists there were continuing to pursue other consignments.

     
 
Christopher Wool
Untitled (fool)
1990
$600,500
at Christie's May 19, 1999
 
Christopher Wool
Untitled (P130)
1990
$96,000
at Christie's May 20, 1999
 
Christopher Wool
Untitled (P56)
1988
$79,500
at Christie's May 20, 1999
 
Christie's & the avant-garde
In the real, rather than virtual, world, the Christie's contemporary art auctions that ended the May selling spree in New York brought the market to a frenzy. The day after Christopher Wool's Untitled (FOOL) brought $600,050, his Untitled (P130) fetched $96,000 and his Untitled (P56) sold for $79,500. Both had been estimated at $25,000-$35,000. Jean-Michel Basquiat's Hammer and Sickle went for $882,500 against an estimate of $350,000-$450,000.

The results also stirred the old animosity between dealers and the auction houses. One dealer noted that he'd had two of the paintings from Christie's May 19 sale at his gallery on consignment in the past year and neither had moved. At Christie's, each sold for three times his asking price. Then there was the Andy Warhol Untitled (Rorschach Series) painting, which brought $684,500. A couple of years ago, Larry Gagosian showed Warhol paintings from the series priced from $115,000 to $180,000. To be sure, the market has gone up, but it certainly seemed that a couple of hundred thousand of that particular jump was bred by the buzz at Christie's.

Despite the success of Christie's avant-garde-heavy contemporary auction, feelings about the approach were mixed. New York dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes said, "Christie's has really done a great service for art of the '90s, with a new kind of catalogue and a whole different marketing style that give those artists a very high profile. If those works had been in a day sale, the results would have been very different." Yet she added, "What it will do to the psyche of those artists remains to be seen. Suddenly they wake up and go from being artists whose art is supported by a close-knit group of adherents whose work sells for $40,000 to being in the newspaper. Some succumb to the movie star life, and some don't."

The Christie's young-artists auction aside, the big trend is that the Basquiat and Warhol markets are out of control, so we can expect more works by these two in the fall sales. After the strong prices, dealers are probably marking up inventory all over town, and both they and the auction houses will have to stretch even farther to get decent material for the fall sales as potential sellers consider cashing in on what's becoming a full-fledged boom.

     
 
Paul Cézanne
Pichet et Fruits sur une Table
1893-94
 
Paul Cézanne
Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier
ca. 1893-94
$60.5 million at Sotheby's May 10, 1999
 
Marcel Duchamp
L.H.O.O.Q.
1960
$607,500 at Christie's May 13, 1999
 
Chasing Cézanne
The buyer of Sotheby's $60.5-million Cézanne -- Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier (1893-94) -- remains a mystery, but according to several sources, the underbidder was Steve Wynn of Mirage Resorts, Inc.

Wynn can now join in the hunt for another Cézanne -- Pichet et Fruits sur une Table (ca. 1893-94). The painting is oil on paper laid down on canvas and measures approximately 17 by 29 inches. It's severe, and not as large or commercial as the Cézannes that have sold in the past couple of years in the $30 million-$60 million range

It does have the advantage of being available, however. The painting sold at Sotheby's in 1989 for $11.55 million to a company in Japan. It was later appraised there for close to $20 million and used as collateral in a loan. When the company couldn't meet its payments, it lost the painting to a Japanese financial firm, the Orix Corporation, which had it on the market for around $13 million in 1995 or so. Both Christie's and Sotheby's are currently going after the painting, though Orix apparently hopes to get $25 million for the still life -- which is probably worth closer to $15 million. We'll see if it ever gets to the auction rooms.

The Artnet auction contest
The Artnet Auction Contest has a winner. At the beginning of the month, we invited readers to guess the aggregate price for six paintings in the fall sales in New York. The six, ranging from the Cézanne mentioned above to Warhol's Marlon, sold for a total of $70.03 million. The combined presale estimate for the six paintings was $56.25 million-$70.65 million.

The final results were:
Georges Seurat, Paysage, l'ile de la Grande Jatte, $35,202,500.
Vincent van Gogh, La Roubine du Roi, $19,802,500.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Les Rosiers à Wargemont, $6,162,500.
Marcel Duchamp, L.H.O.O.Q., $607,500.
Jasper Johns, Two Flags, $7,152,500.
Jean-Michel Basquiat, Grillo, $1,102,500.

The first, second and third place guesses were $69.3 million, $71.0 million and $73.525 million. Congratulations to the winners -- who unfortunately are remaining anonymous. Your prizes are in the mail.


ANDREW DECKER writes on art and the art market.