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Art Market Watch
Feb. 27, 2006 

On Mar. 28, 29 and 30, 2006, Christie's New York holds its series of seven Asian art sales, which all together are expected to realize in excess of $30 million. Asian art is a growth area for Christie's, with total sales worldwide climbing to $336 million in 2005, an increase of nearly 45 percent over the 2004 total. This year the firm celebrates the 20th anniversary of Korean art sales in New York (with a separate Korean art catalogue), and also launches its first stand-alone sale of modern and contemporary Indian art in New York, with 166 lots carrying a total presale estimate of $7 million-$9 million. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is taking the opportunity to unload some of its Japanese art on Mar. 28, and several private collections are also among the offerings: Chinese ceramics and works of art from the collection of Evelyn Annenberg Hall; Chinese snuff bottles from the J&J Collection; the Robert Moore collection of Korean art; and the Alfred E. Mirsky collection of Indian and Southeast Asian art.

Sotheby's New York is holding four sales during Asian Art Week, on Mar. 28, 29 and 30, 2006. The total presale estimate for the sales is $30.8 million-$42.9 million. Sotheby's is also holding a sale of Indian art that includes contemporary Indian painting, with over 200 lots expected to bring between $7.7 million and $10.7 million; a sale of over 200 works of contemporary Chinese, Japanese and Korean art, estimated to bring in between $6 million and $8.3 million; and an auction of over 120 Tibetan and Nepalese paintings from the Jucker Collection, estimated at a total of $2.6 million-$3.8 million.

The market for contemporary art is flourishing -- this isn't news -- but the trend is nowhere better illustrated in the vast "First Open" sale of contemporary art held at Christie's New York on Mar. 16, 2006. A total of 285 lots were offered in the day-long auction, with 252 finding buyers, about 88 percent, for a total of $9.6 million. Top lot was Damien Hirst's untitled heart-shaped painting with butterflies embedded in pink gloss enamel on canvas, which sold for $710,400, about double its presale estimate. The number two lot was also remarkable -- a side of a Volkswagenish van decorated with four dancing Keith Haring figures, which sold for $352,000, well above its presale high estimate of $65,000.

The sale set 20 new records, the firm said, including auction records for Thomas Scheibitz ($307,200) and Lisa Yuskavage ($228,000), whose works made the top ten. Other records were set for Yayoi Kusama ($204,000), Kerry James Marshall ($96,000), John McCracken ($78,000), Robert Therrien ($66,000), Caio Fonseca ($45,600), Martin Kobe ($42,000), Ahmet Ertug ($38,400), Laurie Simmons ($28,800), Fred Tomaselli ($26,400), Christian Marclay ($21,600), Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle ($20,400), Norman Bluhm ($19,200), Michael Bevilacqua ($16,800), Tom Hunter ($16,800), Tobias Lehner ($16,800), Martin Eder ($15,600), Joe Goode ($10,200) and Kelly McClane ($10,200).

Among the many other interesting lots is an untitled sculpture by John Chamberlain from 1973 that resembles nothing so much as a crumpled ball of aluminum foil -- it's made of aluminum, in fact, and is about 15 inches tall. It sold for $38,400, well above the presale high estimate of $20,000.

As always, for complete, illustrated results, see Artnet's signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

The auction of more than 60 artworks donated to benefit the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, held at Phillips de Pury & Co. on Mar. 13, 2006, totaled $1,885,800, a handsome sum boosted not only by auctioneer Simon de Pury's tireless imprecations to the bidders but also by the fact that no sales tax was due, since the funds go to a nonprofit. The Chinati Foundation, of course, operates a museum founded by the late Minimalist artist Don Judd and featuring permanent installations of many of his works.

Top lots included a colorful, six-foot-tall sculpture by John Chamberlain titled Wanda Wedgie (2004), which went for $374,000, and a large library desk of Douglas fir by Judd himself, which went for $216,000. Fabricated in 1988, the desk was the first of that design, and was made for Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen.

The day after the Chinati benefit, Phillips held a sale of about 315 lots of contemporary art titled "Under the Influence" that totaled $4,449,893, just below the presale high estimate. In all, 250 lots sold, or about 75 percent. Among the top lots were a set of five gouaches by Franz West ($120,000), a suite of five publicity photos (one graffitied by the artist) by Richard Prince ($98,400) and a pair of photographs of Matera, Italy, by Elger Esser ($86,400).

The best work in the sale, Gran Fury's revolutionary anti-AIDS poster from 1989, Kissing Doesn't Kill: Greed and Indifference Do, which was estimated at $6,000-$8,000, failed to sell.

One of the more dramatic milestones of the spring 2005 auction season was the purchase at Christie's New York on May 1 of Edward Hopper's Chair Car for a record-setting $14 million by Berry-Hill Galleries, a specialist in American art with a townhouse gallery on East 70th Street in Manhattan. The Hopper price was all the more remarkable because the painting was sold in a contemporary auction, when ordinarily it would have been part of an American paintings sale.

But now, the painting is back at Christie's, its sale a casualty of Berry-Hill's December bankruptcy filing. According to a statement issued by the art gallery, Berry-Hill can show the painting to clients, "earn a fee as introducing broker, and participate with Christie's in the allocation of proceeds and any profits with respect to its sale." Berry-Hill says the company is putting its bankruptcy problems behind it and that business is good. Indeed, according to a report by David Hewett in the Maine Antique Digest, during the first two months of operation under bankruptcy court supervision, the gallery had gross sales of more than $4.3 million, a gross profit of more than $2.5 million and a net income of $1.9 million. The cousins who own Berry-Hill, James Berry Hill and Frederick D. Hill, according to MAD, paid themselves about $1.5 million and $1 million, respectively, in 2005.

Preparations continue for a new exhibition, "Toward a New American Cubism," May 23-July 7, 2006.

Earlier this month, Sotheby's released its annual report for 2005, and it must have made for interesting reading, as the company's stock price rose more than $2 to $23.17 on the New York Stock Exchange, the highest price since 2001. The stock even drew a "buy" recommendation from television stock-pick star James Cramer on his Mar. 15 show, noting that he might "double down" before the May auctions, which are likely to prompt a spike in the sale price; Cramer recommended selling some into the price peak and keeping the rest as an investment.

Sotheby's stock has been on a pretty steady rise since last November, when it dipped to $15 a share. Sotheby's reported that it sold property worth a total of $3.74 billion in 2005, generation total revenues of $513 million and total operating income of $123 million, a dramatic increase from two years earlier, when the company reported gross profit of $273 million but a total operating loss of $8 million. Sotheby's stock hit a high of about $46 a share in April 1999. The stock is still climbing, and recently closed at about $26 a share.

Christie's, which is privately held (by François Pinault), reported earlier that its total 2005 sales were $3 billion, but did not give details of profits.

Christie's has decided to stop holding regular art auctions in Melbourne, where the London-based auctioneer first opened an office in 1969. According to news reports, the move means 20 full-time staff and a dozen or more part-timers are losing their jobs. According to a spokesperson, Christie's Australia has returned a profit for the last 11 years, but its operations represent about one percent of the firm's total revenues, and the company decided to focus resources on growing markets. The last auction is scheduled for Apr. 10, 2006.

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