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Oct. 4, 2006 

One month into the fall art season, and the know-it-all gnomes of Art Market Watch are already overworked and behind schedule. The auction houses, however, were raring to go, and had slotted in sales of super-hot contemporary and super-hot Asian art into September, which one seems to remember from past seasons as a sort of "warm-up" month.

Not this year, as demonstrated all too well by even a modest sale like Christie's New York's "fine American paintings, drawings and sculpture" auction on Sept. 12, 2006. The $3-million sale of 162 lots (119 sold, or 73 percent), set new auction records for the American Social Realist artist Ben Shahn, whose ca. 1937 tempera on paper, Scabbies Are Welcome, sold for $262,400, well above its presale high estimate of $30,000, and the WPA-era Magic Realist O. Louis Guglielmi, whose The Gallants (1940) went for $192,000, almost eight times the presale high estimate of $25,000.

It was like that at the sale's top end -- lots exceeding their estimates by substantial amounts. A Milton Avery watercolor estimated at $30,000-$50,000 went for $102,000; a Jasper Francis Cropsy Study of a Tree from 1965 estimated at $25,000-$35,000 went for $84,000; a Theodore Robinson oil sketch Portrait of Laurie (1880) estimated at $7,000-$10,000 went for $54,000. It seems to be a good time to be selling American art.

Can the same be said for contemporary art? Phillips, de Pury & Co. moved to find out with its special sale of contemporary art, dubbed "Under the Influence II," held the same day, Sept. 12, 2006. Two-thirds of the 216 lots offered found buyers (that's 144 lots), for a total of $1,632,900 at the hammer and $1,961,490 with the auction-house premium. The total isn't so large -- but according to Phillips, new auction records were set for 30 artists (many of them newcomers to the auction block, including several Chinese artists).

Interesting lots included George Condo's 1987 Portrait of Jacqueline and Julian Schnabel in Matisse's Chapel, an appropriately Schnabelesque painting of two abstracted figures done with gold leaf and brown paint, which sold for $42,000, above its high presale estimate of $30,000.

Another top lot was an all-white shelf piece by Terence Koh, aka Asian Punk Boy, featuring a plastic owl (attached upside-down on the bottom of the shelf) and a pair of sake cups containing cubic zirconia. Made in an edition of three in 2003, this version sold for $34,800, well above the presale high estimate of $12,000. The price is a record for the artist at auction -- it's his first appearance in one.

Christie's New York did rather better the next day, Sept. 13, 2006, with its "First Open" sale of contemporary art. The total was $8,435,000, with 219 of 284 lots selling, or 77 percent. Among the top lots were works by Jean Dubuffet, Ed Ruscha, Richard Prince, Christo and Robert Motherwell.

The third-highest price was brought by the German abstractionist Albert Oehlen, whose green-and-pink, post-Richter post-Kippenberger oil from 1998, Right of Way, went for $240,000 (est. $150,000-$200,000) to a U.S. dealer. Another German painter, Martin Eder, saw his From a New World towards the Next (2004), a rather garishly colored picture of a young woman taking a drink (and showing a bit of her underwear, though otherwise fully clothed, unlike his signature nudes-and-kittens -- and here with no kitten), go for $198,000 (est. $70,000-$90,000), also to a U.S. dealer.

On the other hand, it was a European collector who bought Mel Ramos' Leta and the Eastern King Bird (1969), a creamy Pop painting that features a reclining nude surmounted by a flying bird, Adolph Gottlieb-style, for $156,000, above its presale high estimate of $120,000.

But the September contemporary art offerings paled in comparison to the round of Asian art sales held the following week by Sotheby's and Christie's.

Sotheby's New York kicked things off on Sept. 19, 2006, with a sale of Indian art, ranging from miniatures to modern paintings, which totaled $14.8 million, a record for an Indian art sale at the house, with 70 percent of the lots selling for over their high estimates, according to Zara Porter Hill, director of Sotheby's Indian and Southeast Asian department.

F.N. Souza's melancholy Man with Monstrance (1953), the catalogue cover lot and a picture that is redolent of mid-20th-century stylization, sold for $1,360,000 (est. $500,000-$700,000) to a private Singaporean collector in the room. Two other works sold for more than $1 million: a colorful but untitled Matissean painting by Tyeb Mehta from his "Falling Figures" series went for $1,248,000 (est. $750,000-$1,000,000), and Vasydeo S. Gaitonde's untitled abstract yellow allover painting was purchased for $1,108,000 (est. $700,000-$900,000) by a Japanese private collector.

Christie's New York Sept. 19 sale of fine Chinese ceramics and works of art totaled $12.1 million, the second highest for the house in this category in New York. Top lot was a Xuande period blue-and-white globular vase, which sold for $2.2 million. A Western Han dynasty jade beaker sold for $856,000.

Christie's sale of modern and contemporary Indian art on the morning of Sept. 20 totaled $17,811,360, the highest total in the field, a result that Christie's modern and contemporary Indian art specialist Yamini Mehta called "tremendous." Top prices were once again paid for works by Francis Newton Souza and Tyeb Mehta.

Souza's oil-on-board painting Man and Woman (1954), one of four Souza works being sold by the British epicurean and businessman Robin Howard, went for $1,360,000, well above the presale high estimate of $500,000 and equalling the auction record for the artist. It sold to an Indian hedge fund manager.

The number two lot was Mehta's Untitled (Figures with Bull Head) (1984), which also sold for $1,136,000 (est. $800,000-$1,000,000) to an Indian private collector. The top ten included new records for two artists: Jagdish Swaminathan (1928-1994), whose Untitled three-part abstraction from 1988 sold for $520,000 to an Asian private collector; and Arpita Singh (b. 1937), whose Bhisma (1997) went for $408,000 (est $150,000-$300,000) to an Indian private collector.

Sotheby's Sept. 20 sale of contemporary Asian art totaled $18,165,920, with 198 of 300 lots finding buyers, or about 66 percent. The total is the highest in this category at Sotheby's. Works by Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958) continue to be hotly sought after; five of the top 11 lots in the sale were his monochrome portraits, each typically marked with a floating "stain." The auction also saw new records for Chen Danqing ($1,472,000), Liu Xiaodong ($520,000), Zhao Chunxiang ($464,000) and Wang Qingsong ($318,400).

The action continued on Sept. 21, as Christie's held its sale of Japanese and Korean art, which totaled $2.8 million. Sotheby's held its sale of fine Chinese ceramics and works of art on the same day, bringing in a total of $10,562,860.

On Sept. 22, Sotheby's held the first sale in New York dedicated to Indian contemporary art, totaling $1,818,780 and setting new auction records for Jitish Kallat ($72,000) and Sudarshan Shetty ($66,000). Of the 58 lots offered, only four failed to sell.

When the dust had settled, Sotheby's claimed victory, with a total for all Asian sales in New York of $45,351,060. Christie's Asia week total was $34,991,700. In its post-sale report, Christie's put the formula for art-auction success with admirable succinctness -- "top quality, rarity and provenance."

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet's signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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