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Apr. 11, 2008 

If the much- talked-about economic recession ever hits the art market, at least it will give us a little rest. The last week has seen a whirlwind of auctions in London, Hong Kong and New York City, with more to come today and next week. It’s enough to make your head spin. One interesting note -- several of the big-ticket sales are of collections specifically formed as investment vehicles. It has been a good time to sell for art speculators.

A week ago on Apr. 3, 2008, in London, Phillips, de Pury & Co. launched its first "Kyōbai" auction of Japanese contemporary art, design and toys, curating a sale that would "illustrate a cross-section of Japanese creativity and energy." In Japanese, Kyōbai means "go, run and get it!" -- the motto of Phillips, de Pury & Co., as the firm’s CEO Simon de Pury wrote in the auction catalogue, "and hopefully the motto for collectors and art lovers around the world."

The sale totaled £3,287,000 -- almost $6.5 million -- with 63 percent of the 195 works finding buyers. Top lots ranged from a smiling fiberglass panda from 2003 by Takashi Murakami (ca. $2,716,000) and a Yoshitomo Nara portrait of a sinister little girl (ca. $144,000) to a George Nakashima double walnut cabinet from 1965 (ca. $132,000) and a nickel-plated steel mesh How High the Moon Sofa from 1986 (in an edition of 30) by Shiro Kuramata (ca. $91,800). 

Before getting to the Japanese material, however, de Pury auctioned another 90 or so lots of contemporary art from the Marc Vanmoerkerke Collection in Oostende, Belgium, for a total of £2,618,050 (ca. $5.2 million). The sale set new auction records for 18 artists, including Wayne Gonzales (($51,154), Nate Lowman ($48,765, for an installation of paintings, magazine clippings and other stuff), Marcel Dzama ($43,988, for a suite of 20 drawings) and Gary Simmons ($43,988).

On Apr. 7, 2008, Sotheby’s New York sold "The Quillan Collection of 19th- and 20th-century Photographs" for a total of $8,901,350, exceeding the $7 million high estimate. Sixty-three of 68 lots found buyers, or more than 92 percent. The collection was assembled by private dealer Jill Quasha for the Quillan Company investment group.

The top lot was Edward Weston’s 1925 gelatin silver print of a nude female torso, seen lying on her stomach and resembling an abstract biomorphic form, or perhaps an undulating landscape. It sold to dealer Peter MacGill of Pace MacGill Gallery for $1,609,000, well above the presale high estimate of $900,000, and a new auction record for the artist.

New auction records were set for 19 artists in all, including Paul Strand ($645,800), August Sander ($493,000), Richard Avedon ($457,000), Hans Bellmer ($325,000), László Moholy-Nagy ($301,000), Bill Brandt ($265,000), Christian Schad ($181,000). Edward S. Curtis ($169,000) and Francis Frith ($51,400).

In all, Sotheby’s held three sales of photos in New York on Apr. 7-8, which totaled $17,302,050. A single Diane Arbus print of A Family on the Lawn One Sunday in Westchester, N.Y. (1968) sold for $553,000 (est. $200,000-$300,000), matching the existing Arbus auction record, which was for a box of ten prints. The buyer of A Family was San Francisco dealer Jeffrey Fraenkel.

Sotheby’s Hong Kong held its sale of Chinese contemporary art in Hong Kong on Apr. 9, 2008, totaling HK$403,000,000 -- about $51,700,000 -- for what the firm called the highest sales series of Chinese contemporary art at Sotheby’s. Of 184 lots offered, 159 sold or more than 86 percent.

The two top lots set new records for the artists at auction. Liu Xiaodong’s Battlefield Realsim: The Eighteen Arhats (2004), a suite of 18 paintings of young soldiers in camouflage uniforms -- half from mainland China, half from Taiwan, a pointedly pacifist statement -- sold for $7,949,014 to an unnamed Asian private collector.  The Beijing-based artist, who was born in 1963, was given a solo show at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 2006. Battlefield Realism was painted for an exhibition organized by Cai Guo-Qiang for a museum on an island in the Taiwan Strait.

Guo Bochuan’s The Forbidden City (1948), a modestly sized (29 x 36 in.) painting of clustered red rooftops and green trees, sold for $3,492,355, also to an Asian collector. The painting had sold at auction in 1994 for $388,000. Bochuan (1901-74) painted the picture before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and it is one of the few works painting in Beijing by the Taiwan-based artist that survived the Cultural Revolution.

The auction began with the sale of 108 lots from the Estella Collection of Chinese contemporary art, the largest such holding to appear at auction, for a total of $17,887,230, with all but 10 of the lots finding buyers, or almost 91 percent. New auction records were set for Zhang Xiaogang ($6,080,092) and Xu Bing ($976,499).

The collection was assembled by Manhattan dealer Michael Goedhuis for a group of investors including, according to the New York Times, Weight Watchers International director Sacha Lainovic and Ray Debbane, chief executive of the Invus Group private-equity firm. Before cashing in, the investors showed the works at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and published a book of the collection.

In all, Sotheby’s Hong Kong held four days of sales, ranging from Vietnamese paintings to jewelry and watches.

Christie’s New York held three separate photo sales on Apr. 10, 2008, totaling almost $8,250,000, and with each sale surpassing its high estimate. Most of the top lots were by fashion photographers -- Helmut Newton ($241,000), Irving Penn ($205,000), Richard Avedon ($181,000), and Horst P. Horst ($133,000).

A collection of about 50 photographs by Diane Arbus was 100 percent sold, for a total of $1,372,000. The top lot was an estate-stamped gelatin silver print from 1963 of a Child Selling Plastic Orchids at Night, N.Y.C., which went for $115,000, well above the presale high estimate of $50,000.

Also notable: A complete set of artist’s books by Ed Ruscha, estimated at $60,000-$90,000, sold for $115,000.

In an amusing sideline, the popular press made a fuss over nude photos of several celebrities that came on the block, notably a 1993 gelatin silver print of model Carla Bruni, now the first lady of France, taken by Michel Comte. The picture went for $91,000, well above the presale high estimate of $4,000, presumably proving that celebrity scandal does have its uses in the art market.

As Gawker helpfully pointed out, the auction also featured a sexy 1999 Irving Penn portrait of supermodel Gisele Bundchen, which sold for $193,000, well over its presale high estimate of $30,000 and the third highest price in the sale, and nudes of Kate Moss (also by Penn, which sold for $97,000), Lauren Hutton (by Penn, for $127,000) and Naomi Cambell (by David LaChapelle, for $29,800). All went for more than their presale estimates.

Also on the block was a print of Patrick Demarchelier’s topless portrait of singer Janet Jackson with a man’s hands reaching around from behind to cup her breasts, which was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. It sold for $10,625 (est. $6,000-$9,000).

We’ll have to wait till next week to report on the photo sales at Phillips in New York, plus additional New York photo auctions at Christie’s scheduled for today.

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