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ART MARKET WATCH
Mar. 5, 2007 

PRICES SOAR AT MID-SEASON SALES
Not too long ago, New York's contemporary art market got its big shot of adrenalin twice a year, at the major May and November auctions. Now the "mid-season" sales make news as well, even when competing with the Armory Show and seven other fairs -- arguably the biggest concentration of contemporary art the city has ever seen. Prices given here include the buyer's premium of 20 percent on the first $200,000 of the sale price and 12 percent on the remainder. 

Sotheby's opened the week with a day-long sale of contemporary art, which totaled $10,730,620, with 306 of 378 lots selling, or 81 percent. Top lots were by Andy Warhol ($964,000), Alexander Calder ($336,000) and Josef Albers ($180,000).

Record-setting top lots included John Wesley's Armenian Question (1967), a comical picture of three bearded, bespectacled boys and a young girl, which went for $288,000 (est. $30,000-$50,000), and Romare Bearden's Manhattan Suite (1975), an exquisite 24 x 18 in. collage that parallels a fanciful tenement façade with the picture plane, which sold for $242,00 (est. $30,000-$40,000).

The sale set an auction record for Elizabeth Murray, whose Long Arm, a seven-part shaped canvas from 1982, sold for $132,000 (est. $60,000-$80,000). Records were also set for Wojciech Fangor ($96,000), Pat Steir ($90,000), James Nares ($48,000), Graham Nickson ($45,600) and Cosima von Bonin ($33,000), among others.

The action then moved to Christie's for the evening of Feb. 26, when a selection of 74 lots from the collection of Swiss dealer Pierre Huber went on the block. The sale occasioned a certain amount of grumbling in the dealer fraternity -- "why him and not me," seemed to be the subtext of the complaint -- but the auction was a success all the same, with 67 of the works selling, or 91 percent, for a total of $16,786,400, exceeding the pre-sale high estimate of $15 million. 

Of the top ten lots, six were new auction records: On Kawara ($1,944,000), Paul McCarthy ($1,496,000, for his sculpture of a oversized plush cartoon rabbit and bear in erotic embrace), Albert Oehlen ($552,00), Subodh Gupta ($480,000, for his 27-foot-tall tower of oversized stainless steel pails) and Rudolf Stingel ($432,000).

Jim Shaw's comical The Donner Party (2003) -- a parody of Judy Chicago's landmark The Dinner Party (1974-79), in which the feminist pantheon is replaced with a notorious episode of cannibalism in the American west -- sold for $656,000, also a record for the artist. In all, the sale set 18 new artist's auction records, including ones for Cady Noland ($264,000), Sherrie Levine ($216,000) and Steven Parrino ($132,000).

Kader Attia's room-sized cage full of bird-seed children and live pigeons, Flying Rats (2005), sold for $90,000, while Martin Creed's Work No. 200 - Half the Air in a Given Space (1998), a room filled with white balloons, went for $90,000.

Next it was the turn of upstart auction house Phillips, de Pury & Co., which held its day-long sale on Feb. 27. Dubbed "Under the Influence" -- art collecting is a kind of intoxication, after all -- the sale totaled $5,398,448, with 230 of 326 lots selling, or 70.5 percent. The total was within the presale estimate range.

Among the top lots was Mark Handforth's Bent Pipe (2004), a 85 x 106 in. painted aluminum bent pipe emerging from the wall, which went for $198,000, well above the presale high estimate of $20,000, and a new record for the artist. Another Handforth work in the sale, Rope Snake (2005), sold for $132,000.

Auction records at the sale included the $126,000 paid for Louise Lawler's 60 x 47 in. c-print Pink (1994-95), printed in an edition of five, showing parts of Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol works on exhibition at Sotheby's.

The sale marked the first appearance at auction of works by many sought-after younger artists on the primary market, including Urs Fischer ($12,000), Sam Durant ($26,400), Kendell Geers ($20,400), Spencer Finch ($16,800), Dan Attoe ($8,400), Patty Chang (b.i. -- but a photo sold the next day at Christie's for $5,400) and Joseph Bartscherer (b.i.), among others.

Christie's then went back to the well again on Feb. 28, with a "First Open" sale that continued the "ebullient mood" set two days earlier with the Huber Collection. The total sold was $11,484,180, with 249 of 285 lots finding buyers, or 87 percent. The top lot was Robert Bechtle's Watsonville Chairs (1976), a 4 x 5 ft. snapshot-like scene of three folding chairs (and a man with a beer) on a wooden deck, which sold for $396,000, above the presale high estimate of $300,000.

Other top lots were by Tom Wesselmann, Sam Francis, Carl Andre and George Condo, but most impressive was the price of $228,000 brought for Mike Bidlo's No 10 (1983), one of the artist's classic "Not Pollock" pictures from the 1980s, measuring 18 x 107.5 in. The work had been estimated at $40,000-$60,000. Two days earlier, at Sotheby's, Bidlo's The Dream -- a 1987 copy of Pablo Picasso's famous picture of the same name -- sold for $72,000, well above the presale high estimate of $30,000.  

Christie's "First Open" also set a new record for a Sol LeWitt wall drawing, when his Wall Drawing #100: Arches from Midpoints of Four Sides, Each Side a Different Color (1971) sold for $204,000, well above the presale high estimate of $60,000-$80,000.

The sale set new auction records for 19 artists in all, with many of the lots soaring well above their estimates, including Layla Ali ($15,600), Jo Baer ($162,000), Jake Berthot ($19.200), Mel Bochner ($33,600), James Brooks ($96,000), Bruce Conner ($78,000), Gene Davis ($156,000), Ron Davis ($60,000), Paul Feeley ($57,600), Gajin Fujita ($21,600), Isca Greenfield-Sanders ($54,000), Mary Heilmann ($72,000), Dr. Lakra ($22,800), Alan Saret ($45,600), Dana Schutz ($132,000) and Jose Maria Sicilia ($156,000). (The previous auction record for Ron Davis, a 1970s abstractionist, was set in 1989.)

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

BAM/PAF CASHES IN ON RUSSIAN BOOM
The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is cashing in on the strong market for Russian art, consigning a historic painting by Vasilii Vereshchagin to Christie's Russian art sale in New York, Apr. 18, 2007. The picture, Solomon's Wall (1884-85), a scene of a crowd of pilgrims gathered at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, carries a presale estimate of $3 million-$5 million, and is currently on exhibition at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, Mar. 5-16, 2007 -- in what is billed as a signal new collaboration between the auction house and the Russian museum.

The best-known battle painter and Orientalist of 19th-century Russian art, in the 1880s Vereshchagin sent on U.S. tour a large cycle of paintings depicting the life of Jesus, and subsequently offered them at auction in New York in 1891. Solomon's Wall was acquired at the sale and donated to the Berkeley museum in 1920 by Phoebe Apperson Hearst. "We never used it in our exhibition program," Berkeley Art Museum director Kevin Consey told Bloomberg News.

SOTHEBY'S VS. CHRISTIE'S, 2006
Back in January, Christie's International, which is privately held, announced its total auction sales for 2006 -- £2.51 billion ($4.67 billion), a 36 percent increase over 2005. Now, Sotheby's, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, has reported its 2006 results -- sales totaling $3.75 billion -- also up 36 percent over 2005.

That number puts Christie's out in front, though Sotheby's can boast of the highest-priced lot sold at auction in 2006, Pablo Picasso's Dora Maar au chat (1941), which went for $95,216,000 in New York on May 3, 2006. Sotheby's may also be more profitable -- Christie's doesn't disclose its revenues or profits, so no comparison is possible -- reporting 2006 revenues of $664.8 million, up 29 percent, and operating income of $197.2 million, up 60 percent -- both new benchmarks. On Mar. 5, Sotheby's stock was hovering around $37 a share, down a bit from a previous $41 high but up substantially from the $10-$15 range that it inhabited back in the dark days of the price-fixing scandal.

Other data from Sotheby's: 2006 sales of $923.4 million in Impressionist and modern art; $647 million in contemporary art; and $152.4 million in Russian paintings and works of art. Sotheby's sold $70.2 million in contemporary Asian art in 2006, an increase of almost 400 percent.


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