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Willem de Kooning,
Untitled, 1947

Hans Hofmann,
Red Splash, 1956

Morris Louis,
Beta Phi, 1960-61

Franz Kline,
Crosstown, 1955

Kiki Smith,
Pee Body, 1992

Robert Gober,
Untitled, 1992

auction report:

by Stewart Waltzer

May 6, 1997 -- Sotheby's has heard the call. Sort of. New contemporary art chief Tobias Meyer has done his homework and the results of the sale, to all perceptions, were reassuring. The sale was enlivened by quality properties from CBS Inc. and William C. Janss. The estimated prices were high but not so high as to be impractical or to impose upon credulity. The notable exception was the small de Kooning which everyone but Sotheby's knew would never fetch its low estimate of $2 million. Still the work was globally reserved and it sold at $1.6 million.

Sotheby's, under the guidance of Meyer, has set about rebuilding the contemporary market and has generally done a good job. It would seem from the spread of the prices that low estimates, paradoxically, mean higher prices. Works consigned by the Boston Children's Hospital went well over their high estimates. The more routine fare of contemporary auctions, alas, did not fare as well. Which brings us to the point: this was a modest sale of only 43 lots. The gross at the hammer was equally modest at $13,700,000, but respectable for a sale this size. The prices ranged rather evenly across the spectrum and it was perceived as a successful debut for Meyer.

There were some interesting prices realized. The small Hofmann miraculously fetched $250,000. Two years ago such an amount would have been unimaginable. The Morris Louis was the buy of the night, realizing $175,000 for a picture of much greater value. The Dubuffet Theatre de la Rue (1962), featured by the house on the cover of the catalogue, did not find a buyer. Its $1 million-$1.2 million estimate was too rich. Estimates must still come down a bit more to reflect the market's reality. The Kline, to no one's amazement, brought $2 million. The picture, Crosstown (1955), was fresh to the market, of a practical scale and damn good. It was sold by CBS.

Younger artists did well. There is obviously a cadre of well-heeled collectors buying their art. The Kiki Smith Pee Body (1992), a life-size wax sculpture of a squatting woman urinating a string of yellow glass beads, sold for nearly three times its high estimate at $210,000. This fact I found amazing on several levels. Robert Gober's Untitled (1992) sold for $85,000. The work is a naturalistic left leg of a child, fabricated in wax with cotton sock and sandal, shown projecting from the wall. Given the consignor was the aforementioned children's hospital, this might be found in somewhat questionable taste, should anyone think about it.

There was joy in abundance at the conclusion of the sale. A new market is beginning. The numbers, however, temper our enthusiasm. The market will turn a corner. It will turn slowly. It will have its ups and downs. We are not about to plunge headlong back into the boom years, nor are we mired in the economic debacles of the early `90s. This is business as usual with less fuss, and for that let us put our hands together and give thanks. "Oh Lord, I'm just a miserable art dealer...."

Total volume of the sale at the hammer was $13,704,000. Almost half, 47 percent, of the lots failed to exceed the low estimate. 16 percent of the lots exceeded the low but not the high estimate. 37 percent of the lots went over the high estimate. Seven lots passed. Prices given here do not include the auction house's commission, which is 15 percent on the first $50,000 and 10 percent on the remainder.


3. $75,000
12. $220,000
16. $300,000
20. $650,000(passed)
21. $140,000(passed)
23. $1,600,000
24. $450,000(passed)
25. $ 85,000
26. $165,000
27. $175,000
28. $240,000
29. $170,000
30. $700,000
31. $350,000
33. $45,000(passed)
34. $100,000(passed)
35. $200,000
38. $300,000
39. $ 70,000(passed)
42. $ 65,000(passed)



$ 260,000

$ 65,000


$ 75,000

$ 34,000

$ 85,000