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Mar. 4, 2009 

Sotheby’s announced its fourth-quarter and full-year results last week, and the numbers paint a dramatic picture of how much the auction market has slowed in the last year. Net auction sales declined by 46 percent in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared to the same period the year before, falling from $1.9 billion to $1 billion, a marked drop. The company reported a net loss of $8.5 million for the quarter, compared to a net income of $102.4 million in the fourth quarter of 2007.

The fall-off of the auction business directly affected the paychecks of Sotheby’s top employees, as the firm paid $26.7 million less in incentive bonuses during the period, thanks to its reduced profitability.

For the full year 2008, total sales were $5.2 billion, with operating revenues of $691.6 million, a drop from the previous year of 14 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

In the fourth quarter of 2008, Sotheby’s cut an unspecified number of staff, resulting in a savings of $4.3 million. The firm expects to further trim the number of employees across the board by 15 percent in the next year, saving approximately $17 million in salaries and other costs.

"As we begin 2009, our financial condition remains healthy," said Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht. The next  big test for the auction firm is its inaugural sales in Doha, Qatar. Among the lots in the series of four sales is Andy Warhol’s Round Jackie, estimated to go for $2.5 million-$3.5 million.

In a wide-ranging interview with Bloomberg News reporter Katya Kazakina, Chelsea art dealer David Zwirner, 44, expressed confidence in the high-end contemporary art market. Noting that serious collectors had supplanted speculators as a driving force, Zwirner outlined his gallery’s recent sales with unusual directness. Of the 19 new paintings in his current Lisa Yuskavage show, for instance, he said 15 had sold, at prices ranging from $60,000 to $460,000.

Zwirner also said he had sold a new painting by Luc Tuymans for $900,000, and five "yarn sculpture" works by the late Minimalist artist Fred Sandback for prices ranging from $185,000 to $350,000. And he said he had recently brokered the sale of a $2 million painting by Martin Kippenberger, for a commission of around 10 percent. "I am a good salesman because I peddle good stuff," the dealer added.

Phillips de Pury & Co. holds its "Under the Influence" sale of contemporary art in New York on Mar. 9, 2009, timed to coincide with the general fervor accompanying "Armory Show" week. Specializing in the cutting-edge, the 200-lot auction features items generally priced under $100,000, such as a cute (only 12 x 24 x 4 in.) shelf of pills by Damien Hirst, called Day by Day (2003) (est. $50,000-$70,000).

Two amazing bargains from our own sophisticated point of view, however, are works by Christopher "Daze" Ellis and Jon Pylypchuk. From the celebrated 1980s graffiti artist Daze is Pursuit V (1985), a substantially sized (66 x 46 in.) spray-paint rendering of a muscular She-Hulk preparing to leap into action. At a presale estimate of $5,000-$7,000, the work is a bargain, considering its historic importance (not to mention its use of the post-structuralist trope of a subject turning her back on the viewer). 

The large Pylypchuk work, a horizontal "seascape" measuring 32 x 48 in. and featuring one of the artist’s signature mournful bug-creatures, is titled Untitled (it could be the last time you forgive will me now / this waiting is all I’ve seen) (2000). One of the most original and accomplished "object" artists to emerge from California in the 1990s, his work has yet to catch fire with auction buyers, for some reason; this choice example carries a bargain-level presale estimate of $5,000-$7,000.

For illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auction Database.

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