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ART MARKET WATCH
May 13, 2009 

$47 MILLION AT SOTHEBY’S CONTEMPORARY
Sometimes the auction room can seem like a big séance, with the assembled art dealers all channeling spirits from the money world. It used to be that the spirits were active, but now they seem to have gone fishing. So it was at Sotheby’s New York evening sale of contemporary art on May 12, 2009. So many of our best mediums, so acquisitive in past sales, were just sitting on their hands.

The evening was not without its successes, of course, or without its drama. Sotheby’s sold 39 of 48 lots, or more than 81 percent, for a total of $47,033,500 (with premium), just under the low presale estimate of $51.8 million. New auction records were set for Martin Kippenberger ($4,114,500), Christopher Wool ($1,874,500) -- both for works being sold by Athens supercollector Dakis Joannou), Juan Muñoz ($698,500) and Dan Colen ($386,500). No wonder then that auctioneer Tobias Meyer, at the post-sale press conference, professed to be " incredibly pleased" and "very happy" with a " great result" of a " successful sale."

Meyer also spoke of a " market recalibration," and the numbers show how dramatic that recalibration has been. A year ago, Sotheby’s evening sale of contemporary art totaled a record $348 million, more than seven times the total last night. Six months ago, after the recession had already begun, Sotheby’s contemporary sale came in at $125 million. The last time the contemporary art total was at the current level was seven years ago, in May 2002, when Sotheby’s sold 51 lots for $42.5 million.

The sale’s top lot was Jeff KoonsBaroque Egg with Bow (Turquoise/Magenta) (2008), which sold for $5,458,500 to Manhattan art dealer Larry Gagosian, who represents the artist. The price was presumably at the reserve; the work’s low estimate was $6 million. The seller was said to be hedge fund operator Daniel Loeb, who reportedly purchased the work from Gagosian for about $3 million.

At the end of the sale, Gagosian also seemed to play the gallant as he single-handedly bid against an unseen phone bidder to win Girls Eating Birds, a large triptych from 2004 by another one of his artists, Cecily Brown. The painting sold for an impressive $1,202,500, well above its presale high estimate of $900,000.

Another top lot was Martin Kippenberger’s untitled 1998 self-portrait in his underwear, lifted up by balloons -- an ironic homage to Pablo Picasso, who himself was photographed by David Douglas Duncan in his underwear as a sign of his triumphant old age. Swiss dealer Iwan Wirth bought the Kippenberger with little ceremony for a record $3,554,500, a price that was nevertheless in the middle of its presale estimate range.

A bit of drama came with the sale of Alexander Calder’s exquisite early standing mobile, Ebony Sticks in Semi Circle (1934), which carried a presale estimate of $1,500,000-$2,000,000. Several bidders vied for the work as it quickly rose in $50,000 increments to $2,550,000, at which point the bidding paused and Meyer asked, " All done?"

Cue Los Angeles art collector Eli Broad, sitting in his usual spot on the aisle about ten rows back, who jumped in at $2,500,000. His competition on the telephone took the bidding to $2,850,000, at which point Broad shook his head " no." He re-entered the bidding nevertheless, driving the price to $3,000,000, before signaling " no" once again.

" You don’t strike me as someone who gives up," cajoled Meyer, in what proved to be a vain attempt to keep the bidding going. The Calder was hammered down to the anonymous phone bidder at $3,050,000, or $3,498,500 with premium.

Bidding was also interesting for Dan Colen’s 2005 painting, Blow Me, a Disney-style image of a candlestick with a wisp of smoke spelling out the title, which had not been seen in New York before the auction (the painting debuted at Peres Projects in Los Angeles). The enterprising young art dealer Vito Schnabel came in at $190,000, the Chelsea gallery owner Stellan Holm at $290,000, and art consultant Mark Fletcher -- Meyer’s partner in real life -- won the lot at $320,000, or $386,500 with premium.

The auction audience boasted a single celebrity, actor Owen Wilson, who sat between collector Peter Brant and dealer Tony Shafrazi. Looking rather shaggy in a yellow plaid lumberjack shirt, Wilson didn’t bid and left right after the sale of Andy Warhol’s 21 x 29 in. Fifteen One Dollar Bills (1962), which went for $902,500. Perhaps the " Butterscotch Stallion" was the seller. If so, he didn’t do too badly, since the consignor had purchased the work at Christie’s New York in 2002 for $449,500.

Notable unsold lots included Robert Gober’s much-published " song to a boy’s ass" -- his untitled 1990 wax sculpture of buttocks inscribed with four staffs of music (est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000), Robert Rauschenberg’s 1963 silkscreen-collage painting Transom (est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000), the sale’s two Frank Stella paintings, and an impressive Richard Serra prop piece (est. $1,000,000-$1,500,000).

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


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