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ART MARKET WATCH
Nov. 12, 2008 

$125 MILLION AT
SOTHEBY’S CONTEMPORARY

Sotheby’s New York sale of contemporary art on the evening of Nov. 11, 2008, totaled $125,131,500 (including premium), with 43 of 63 lots selling, or 68 percent. The total presale estimate was $203 million-$280 million. A third of the lots failed to sell, and most of the works that did sell went for less than their presale low estimate. Still, the auction is not being seen as a total disaster. "I want to thank the American collecting community for being smart about price," said auctioneer Tobias Meyer after the sale, with utter seriousness.

Price levels are now perceived as having dropped back to the level of a few years ago -- not so much a fall as a return to a saner time. As Sotheby’s expert Alex Rotter noted after the sale, Sotheby’s contemporary sale in November 2006 also totaled $125 million.

At the auction itself, the players were all on hand, including the designer Valentino on the aisle in the front row, accompanied by his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti; New York dealer Larry Gagosian in the fourth row behind them, with Steve Martin and his wife Annie Stringfellow across the aisle; another four rows back was supercollector Eli Broad, whose halo has become a bit tarnished through his association with AIG, at least among the schoolteachers who have lost their pensions because of the company’s collapse.

Missing, however, was the buzz, the froth, the animation. The crowd on the seventh floor of Sotheby’s York Avenue headquarters was quiet, even studious, and most viewers stayed until the end of the sale, which, though rather long, moved quickly due to the paucity of bids. Meyer’s performance was smooth, calm and debonair.

The auction featured a range of desirable works, all the more impressive considering the deepening economic recession. First, the bad news: lots that didn’t sell included an early (1963) Roy Lichtenstein painting ($15 million-$20 million) and a Lichtenstein sculpture of brushstrokes ($6 million-$8 million), a Lucian Freud nude ($9 million-$12 million), a big Gerhard Richter abstraction (est. $4.5 million-$6.5 million), a Damien Hirst dot painting ($1 million-$1.5 million), a five-part Takashi Murakami painting of Mr. Dob ($1 million-$1.5 million), and a stack of four supermarket boxes by Andy Warhol ($2.5 million-$3.5 million). The Warhol, as it happened, was four separate works stamped by the estate and assembled as a single lot by longtime Warhol estate factotum Vincent Fremont.

The top ten begins with an Yves Klein blue sponge painting from 1960, which sold to a (single?) phone bidder for $19 million ($21,362,500, with premium), an impressive price though noticeably less than the presale estimate of $25 million. Philip Guston’s pink and fleshy abstraction Beggar’s Joys (1954-55) sold for $9 million ($10,162,500), again below the presale estimate, which was $15 million. The buyer, according to observers in the salesroom, was San Francisco art advisor Mary Zlot. The price is a new auction record for the artist.

Roy Lichtenstein’s 10 x 11 ft. living-room painting, Interior with Red Wall (1991), sold to a telephone bidder for $6.2 million ($7,026,500). The presale estimate was $8 million-$10 million, and the picture probably sold at its reserve, as Meyer called out "I shall sell it" when the bidding hit $6.2 million. Some of us remember a fuss kicked up ten years ago or so, when the Museum of Modern Art bought a work from this series for $700,000; critics thought the museum should have spent the funds on multiple, cheaper works by younger artists.

Arguably the most desirable lot in the sale, if not the highest priced, was John Currin’s Nice ‘N Easy (1999), a "Renaissance"-styled painting of two nudes that was shown first at Regen Projects in Los Angeles in 1999 and then at that year’s Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, which has been called the artist’s "breakout" show. The picture sold to a phone bidder for $4.8 million ($5,458,500), above the presale high estimate of $4.5 million and a new auction record for the artist. Currin’s previous record, $847,500, was set in 2004. It seems like a different time.

Good prices were also brought for Tom Wesselman’s Great American Nude #21 (1961), originally in the collection of publisher Harry Abrams, which went for $4,114,500; Jeff KoonsCheeky (2000), a large painting of lady’s scanties filled not with flesh but with food, which was purchased for $4,002,500; and Cecily Brown’s 1999 painting, Kiss Me Stupid, which sold for $842,500 to a single bid on the phone.

Whatever his troubles with AIG, Eli Broad was a prominent buyer at the auction, taking the opportunity, apparently, to snap up some nice works at "distressed" prices. He was the buyer of a neo-Baroque gilded mirror by Jeff Koons from 1988 for $2,154,500 (est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million); Ed Ruscha’s 1969 Desire for $2,434,500 (est. $4 million-$6 million); Robert Rauschenberg’s Bantam (1955) for $2,602,500 (est. $3 million-$4 million); and a Donald Judd orange aluminum stack piece from 1990 for $1,142,500 ($2 million-$3 million).

Larry Gagosian bought Roy Lichtenstein’s Art Deco-styled Study for New York State Mural (Town and Country) (1968) for $3,890,500 (est. $4 million-$6 million); Richard Serra’s early lead piece, Folded/Unfolded (1969), for $722,500 (est. $600,000-$800,000); and Serra’s 1983 Cor-Ten steel prop piece, 12-4-8, for $1,650,500 (est. $2 million-$3 million), a new auction record for the artist.

Swiss art dealer Iwan Wirth nabbed Louise Bourgeois’ 1953 Forêt (Night Garden) for $3,330,500 (est. $3 million-$4 million), as well as the artist’s marble Clamart for $3,442,500 (est. $3.5 million-$4.5 million). The latter work, by the way, had been on extended loan to the Des Moines Art Center since 1996.

And Valentino was the winning bidder for Andy Warhol’s 1981 Dollar Sign for $2,098,500 (est. $2.5 million-$3.5 million) and Warhol’s Portrait of an American Indian (Russell Means) for $1,314,500 (est. $1.5 million-$2 million). Joan Mitchell’s 1969 abstraction, Sunflower IV, sold for $1,986,500 (est. $2 million-$3 million) to Valentino’s partner, Giancarlo Giammetti.

The buyer’s premium is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of any amount up to $1 million, and 12 percent on anything above that.

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


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