The news in the art market this spring is frustration. Too much money, too little art. Dealer after dealer notes the number of incredibly wealthy people out there who all want the same thing -- top flight paintings. And the collectors are willing to pay.
So why isn't more art changing hands, as it did in the late '80s and '90, when the market was at a boil?
Back in 1983, the record for any painting sold at auction was around $13 million. Then, in 1987, Vincent van Gogh's Sunflowers brought $39.9 million. That fall, van Gogh's Irises fetched $53.9 million and loosed a terrific flood. People who owned great paintings thought the prices were looney and would never be seen again. Accordingly, they rushed to cash in.
For a time it seemed that they might be right. After May 1990, when van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $82.5 million, the auction market had to wait seven long years before another painting fetched over $35 million. But now, the heady times are back, with Picasso's Le Reve fetching $48.4 million in 1997 and van Gogh's Self Portrait without Beard bringing $71.5 million last November. Not to mention a raft of private sales in the range of $35 million to $50 million -- even more than in the late '80s and 1990.
The art market has caught back up with the benchmarks of a decade ago. The prices don't feel wacky, no matter how irrational they appear. And so sellers, who don't really need the money, see no reason to sell. They can wait five or ten years and still get an incredible price.
The phenomenon isn't affecting only the top of the market. It's true in the $300,000-$1,000,000 range as well, leaving dealers shaking their heads. Some of the art, after all, just isn't worth all that much.
The gridlock has put a strain on art pricing. Pent-up demand is pushing prices for great works upwards, but great works aren't for sale. Yet there's no similar pressure on middling works of art, which no one is desperate to own.
That's the whipsaw effect facing Christie's and Sotheby's this spring, which between them are offering up 1,907 lots of 19th- and 20th-century art estimated at an aggregate $406.7 million.
But how good are the auction houses' esteemed experts? And can you beat them?
Herewith, Artnet Magazine's first Auction Contest, designed to show entrants just how tricky it is to set prices on multi-million dollar paintings. Guess, intuit, or divine the total that the six paintings listed below will actually fetch at the auctions. (Please remember that the final price is the hammer price plus 10 percent plus another $2,500 per painting.)
Here's the curve. If any of the paintings don't sell at the auction -- that is, if bidding does not meet the seller's confidential reserve (typically 90 percent of the low estimate in these auctions) -- the price for that painting will be considered $0.00.
The winning entry is the one that's closest to the tally of the sales totals of the six paintings. To enter, put the total on the subject line of an email, and send it to email@example.com. First prize is a year's worth of access to Artnet.com's database of auction prices (a $240 value). Second prize is five hours access to the database. Third prize is an Artnet baseball cap.
A note on the tout sheet. No information is provided here about various stock market averages the day of the sales, or the Prime Rate, the situation in Kosovo, or recent private transactions involving paintings similar to those that are going up at auction. All these things can affect prices.
Winners will be announced directly after the final auction in the set, Sotheby's contemporary sale on May 18.
Georges Seurat Paysage, l'Ile de la Grande Jatte
Oil on canvas, ca. 26 by 32 inches
Estimate: $25 million-$35 million
Impressionist and modern art from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney
Sotheby's, May 10, 1999, lot 15
A large oil study without people for Sunday Afternoon on the Island of la Grande Jatte or, as Stephen Sondheim might say, Sunday in the Park without Georges. Seurat's pointillistic works are hideously rare. A more finished but far less recognizable Seurat (The Gravesline Canal, Grand-For Philippe) sold to the National Gallery in England for $27 million in 1997. The finished version of La Grande Jatte is in the Art Institute of Chicago, and the only other known study is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Anyone who wants a piece of one of the most sublime paintings of the 19th century will have to dig deep. Maybe deeper than Sotheby's has guessed.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir Les Rosiers à Wargemont
Oil on canvas
Ca. 26 by 32 inches
Estimate: $3 million-$4 million
Impressionist and modern art, part I
Sotheby's, May 11, 1999
About as pretty (if not as important) a Renoir as any could want, without the muddiness that dogged him in later years. The question here is what kind of a mark-up can the seller expect, since the painting sold in a Paris auction on June 11, 1997, for $1.7 million (lot 76, Picard, Audap, Solanet
& Associes). Theoretically, today's buyer doesn't really care what it sold for back then, so a price of $3 million is perfectly reasonable. But in practice, no one likes to feel they're being taken to the cleaners.
Vincent van Gogh La Roubine du Roi
Oil on canvas, 29 by 24 inches
Painted in Arles, June-July 1888
Estimate on request (around $20 million)
Impressionist & 19th-century art
Christie's, May 12, 1999, lot 15
Van Gogh's portraits and paintings of flowers have brought astounding prices -- $39.9 million to $82.5 million. Not so his cityscapes (the landscape Sous-Bois brought almost $30 million in 1995, which makes this work a bit of a trial balloon. It's got strong brushstrokes, strong colors and a fresh feeling to it. Bidders probably won't care that Christie's has fronted money to the seller, making the auction house a partner in the painting. This painting sold in 1984 for $1.76 million, which means nothing today. The art market is a changed beast.
Jasper Johns Two Flags
Ca. 52 by 70 inches
Left flag: oil on canvas. Right flag: encaustic on canvas
Estimate: $7 million-$10 million
Christie's, May 13, 1999, lot 505
In the mid-'50s, Johns reacted against the dominant school of Abstract Expressionism and its unruly, impassioned drips and slashes by making paintings of commonplace objects -- flags, targets, numbers. It was a radical step, devoid of the kind of social commentary one might assume.
They were irresistible to a handful of cognoscenti then and are today. If Two Flags was dated 1955, the estimate would be $15 million-$20 million since originality commands a premium. But in this case, Johns was revisiting the subject almost 20 years later, the estimate is halved. Still, there aren't that many of Johns' flags -- perhaps the proto-Pop icon in the world -- around loose. The question is whether even $7 million is too much.
Marcel Duchamp L.H.O.O.Q.
Ca. 31 by 22 inches
oil on panel
Christie's, May 13, 1999, lot 514
L.H.O.O.Q. obviously isn't the Mona Lisa. It does spit in the eye of anyone else who goes into a lather over Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, as if to say, '"What's the big deal?" It may or may not be a take-off on Leonardo in drag, which is how one art historian has described the most famous painting in the world. Duchamp made this version of the painting about 40 years after his first one, which lowers its value. But unlike Duchamp's original, 1919 version, which was a photograph he adorned with facial hair, this painting was a flea-market copy that he added whiskers to. He made it for Surrealist artist Max Ernst and his wife, Dorothea, to whom it is inscribed. Look at it as a R&D situation. The painting cost the Ernsts probably around $50, and the paint Duchamp used for the whiskers was worth $0.75. The question to consider is this: what's the dollar value of one of 20th-century art's more sly and subversive ideas?
Jean-Michel Basquiat Grillo
Oil, acrylic, oilstick, Xerox collage and nails on wood, in four parts
Ca. 96 by 212 inches
Sotheby's, May 18, 1999, lot 41
Quintessential myth-magnet Basquiat deserves a break. He was neither the sub-literal wild child that some would imagine nor the invariably calculating junkie that others would claim. Sometimes, he simply made good paintings, and this is an example. Estimates are usually based on past sales, and this one -- with good reason -- is tilted more toward Basquiat's second-highest auction price ($727,500) than the whopping $3.3 million his 1982 Self-Portrait fetched six months ago.