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Feb. 12, 2008 

Nothing like an incipient recession to help hype a big-name charity art auction. Sotheby’s forthcoming "(Red) Auction," a benefit sale of contemporary art scheduled for New York on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, 2008, has gotten a lot of attention from the financial press -- as if it were an opportunity for an art-market collapse. In fact, the sale has plenty going for it: The good cause encourages bidders to step up; Sotheby’s is foregoing its commission, knocking a sizable chunk off the final purchase price; and the event adds a very high-profile contemporary sale to an empty spot on the New York auction calendar.

Sponsored by Damien Hirst and the rock musician Bono, the auction includes 83 lots with a presale estimate of $21 million-$29 million. Many of the works have a signature quality, and many of them are red. Among the lots -- all donated -- are a red balloon rabbit by Jeff Koons (est. $800,000-$1,200,000), a red Whiz painting by Ed Ruscha ($120,000-$180,000), a red collage painting of the Velvets by Richard Prince (est. $700,000-$900,000), three red Robert Rauschenberg paintings from his "Spartan Series" (est. $300,000-$400,000 each), and a red Hirst spin painting ($600,000-$800,000), a red Hirst dot painting (est. $1,000,000-$1,500,000) and a Hirst red heart-shaped butterfly painting (est. $1,000,000-$1,500,000).

Whether the presale estimates are accurate or not remains to be seen. The works are on view at Gagosian Gallery on West 21st Street through Feb. 13, 2008. Proceeds from the sale are earmarked for the United Nations Foundation to support HIV/AIDS relief programs in Africa conducted by the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis & Malaria. For more details, see

Is it really news that last week’s sale of post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s London on Feb. 6 totaled £72,930,500 ($143,089,641), the second-highest ever for the category? Or that Francis Bacon’s Triptych 1974-77 (which includes two scenes of a hominid on a beach with an umbrella) was bought for £26.3 million ($51.7 million), making it the most expensive contemporary work ever sold in Europe?

No? How about the fact that the sale of the Bacon is posted on YouTube, here. Now that’s news.

The evening sale sold 37 of 54 lots, or a fairly modest 69 percent. In contrast to the week’s sales of Impressionist and modern art, where U.S. buyers were in scant supply, at this auction 43 percent of the winning bidders were from the Americas. New world auction records were also set for Gerhard Richter, Lucio Fontana and Bridgit Riley.

The Richter, Zwei Liebespaare (1966), a soft-focus, softcore photographic image of two soft-core heterosexual couples -- a gray German reimagination of Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe -- sold for £7,300,500 ($14,323,581) to an anonymous U.S. private buyer.

The Fontana is a monumental (77 x 57 in.) Concetto spaziale, Attesa from 1965, a single vertical slash in a red canvas that is said to have been dedicated to the artist’s wife. It sold for £6,740,500 ($13,224,861), more than double the presale high estimate of £5,000,000.

Bridget Riley was represented by Static 2 from 1966, a 90-inch-square grid of Op dots on a white ground that was included in Riley’s 2003 Tate retrospective, and which sold for £1,476,500 ($2,896,893). As with all the works by living artists in this auction, the catalogue entry notes that its sale requires payment of the artist’s resale royalty, which in this case would be the maximum amount, or €12,500.

The top ten included Richard Prince’s burnt orange and lavender Settlement Nurse (2003), which sold for £2,148,500 ($4,215,357), within the presale estimate of £2,000,000-£3,000,000. The winning bidder was Larry Gagosian. Ed Ruscha’s The Mountain (1998), a careful rendering of Mount Everest with the word "the" printed over it in block letters, sold for £1,532,500 ($3,006,765), well above the presale high estimate of £800,000. The buyer was a U.S. private collector.

Good prices were also paid for works by Mark Grotjahn (£288,500), Enzo Cucci (£228,500), Cecily Brown (£216,500) and Anselm Reyle (£114,500).

"Throughout the sale, we saw active participation from American clients who bid competitively alongside other international collectors," said Christie’s London expert Pilar Ordovas, "demonstrating the underlying, continued strength of the market."

February in New York means tune-up photography auctions, and Swann Auction Galleries on East 25th Street started things off on Feb. 7, 2008, with a sale totaling $915,725 (including buyer’s premium). Only 91 of 164 lots found buyers, or 55 percent. The top lot was William Bradford’s The Arctic Regions, an album of 141 photographs published in London in 1873 by the painter and arctic explorer, which sold for $144,000 (est. $100,000-$150,000).

The top price for a single photograph was the $43,200 paid for Man Ray’s black-and-white close-up portrait of a reclining Meret Oppenheim, showing her armpit and turned 45 degrees, done in 1935, the year before she created her signature fur-lined teacup. The final hammer price was triple the presale high estimate of $12,000.   

Christie’s has scheduled a New York photo sale for Feb. 20, while Sotheby’s and Phillips de Pury & Co. (and Christie’s) are holding their major photo sales in April.  

is moving its New York headquarters to 590 Madison between 57th and 56th Streets, the former home of the Dahesh Museum (and the IBM Gallery of Science and Art before that). The three-story facility, scheduled to open in spring 2008, gives the auction house five times the space as its current quarters in the Fuller Building. Bonhams, which includes the West Coast auctioneer Butterfields and the Australian firm Goodmans, had total global sales in 2007 of $600 million.

Christie’s has announced that its 2007 art sales totaled £3.1 billion ($6.3 billion), an increase over 2006 figures of 25 percent in pounds sterling and 36 percent in dollars. According to Christie’s, it now leads its rival Sotheby’s in market share in the contemporary, post-war, modern, Impressionist and American art categories.

At Christie’s, the post-war and contemporary category is now the largest, at $1,560,000,000 sold in 2007, compared to $1,442,000,000 for Impressionist and modern and $654,000,000 for Asian art. The Old Masters category decreased by three percent to $480,000,000.

Christie’s also marked the one-year anniversary of its internet bidding program, in which £78.2 million ($158 million) worth of material was sold to online buddies. The overall sales total includes the auction-house premium as well as private sales of £268 million ($542 million). For the year, Christie’s sold a total of 793 works of art at auction for over $1 million. The firm held more than 600 sales in 14 locations around the world.

Sotheby’s 2007 sales rose 51 percent to approximately $6.2 billion, a number reached by selling 42 percent fewer lots than Christie’s, according to Sotheby’s. The firm notes that it sold the top lot of the year, Mark Rothko’s White Center, for $72.8 million -- the seventh consecutive year that the house had the top lot. Sotheby’s expects to announce its complete 2007 results later this month.

has appointed Ronald J. Gard as its senior consulting specialist for American Folk Art. A specialist in American decoys and Americana, Gard organized the record-setting auction of the collection of waterfowl decoys of Dr. James McCleery for the house in 2000.

Christie’s London sale of the collection of the School of London painter R.B. Kitaj on Feb. 7, 2007, featured 58 works owned by the late American-born artist, renowned for his obstreperous disposition as well his artistic inventions. The trove included 14 works by Frank Auerbach, a 1951 drawing of Francis Bacon by Lucian Freud, a portrait of Kitaj by David Hockney, and several works by Kitaj himself. All 58 lots in the auction found buyers, for a total of £6,218,350 ($12,163,092), rather more than the £3 million presale estimate. Notable lots included Kitaj’s 1980 portrait of Marynka Smoking, which sold for £513,300 ($1,004,014), a record price for a work by the artist. Freud’s study of Bacon sold for £468,500 ($916,386), a new record for a Bacon work on paper.

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