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May 22, 2008 

Not content to rest on the laurels of its rip-roaring contemporary-art auctions last week, Christie’s New York held a sale of American paintings on May 21, 2008, that had "a remarkable result" -- a total of $72.6 million, a record for an American art sale at Christie’s. The sale established what the firm called "major new benchmarks across the category."

In all, 111 of 140 lots sold for $72,598,750, or 79 percent. New auction records were set for Thomas Moran ($17,737,000), Albert Bierstadt ($7,321,000), Marsden Hartley ($6,313,000), George Inness ($1,945,000), Walter Ufer ($1,497,000) and Joseph Henry Sharp ($1,497,000). 

Prices given here include the buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $20,000, 20 percent of any price between $20,000 and $500,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

The sale’s top lot was the record-setting Moran, a 25 x 48 in. landscape of the Green River of Wyoming (1878), sold to Avery Galleries of Bryn Mawr, Pa. The final price of $17,737,000 was considerably above the presale estimate of $3.5 million-$5 million, and more than double the previous record for any 19th-century American painting (John Singer Sargent’s Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife, which sold for $8.8 million in 2004).

The record-setting Hartley, a militaristic abstraction titled Lighthouse that was painted in Berlin in 1915, had been seized by Soviet authorities at the end of World War II and only recently restored to the family of its original owners. The 40 x 32 in. painting sold for $6,313,000 to an anonymous telephone bidder. The price is a new high for American Modernism, besting the $6.17 million paid for Georgia O’Keeffe’s Calla Lillies with Red Anemone in 2001.

Good prices were also brought for paintings by Jacob Lawrence ($881,000) and Fairfield Porter ($421,000) -- both now the number three prices for works by the artists.

Phillips, de Pury & Co. in New York declared its inaugural sale of modern and contemporary prints on May 21, 2008, to be a "resounding success." Of 157 lots offered, 134 found buyers, or 86 percent, for a total of $2,688,288, close to the presale high estimate of $2.9 million. The auction, overseen by Kelly Troester and Cary Leibowitz, was billed as a "curated" sale. "Everyone Loves Editions" is the slogan of the new department at Phillips.

The top lot was Roy Lichtenstein’s sexy Nude with Blue Hair, a relief print published in an edition of 40 in 1994 by Tyler Graphics, which sold for $301,000, well above the presale high estimate of $250,000. The price is a new high for that particular print.

Richard Prince’s Good Nurse portfolio, a suite of 19 offset lithograph collages of vintage paperback book covers, and including an actual nurse’s cap, was appearing for the first time at auction. Published in 2007 by Two Palms, the portfolio sold for $205,000.

The passing of the great Pop artist Robert Rauschenberg was clearly felt at the sale, as his emblematic 1970 screenprint of iconic images from the 1960s -- JFK, RFK, MLK, Janis Joplin, Vietnam -- sold for $27,400, well above its presale high estimate, itself set at a healthy $18,000. The price is a new high for this print.

Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs (Optical Disks) sold for $23,750, also above its high estimate, and the catalogue’s cover lot, a photograph of actor Will Ferrell by Mark Seliger, signed by the actor with his good wishes (Richard Prince-style, except that the inscription is authentic), which sold for $2.250, with proceeds earmarked for the Svenska Skolan Swedish School in Los Angeles.

Louis I. Kahn
’s 1959 Esherick House in Chestnut Hill, Pa., offered at Wright auction house in Chicago on May 18, 2008, with an estimate of $2 million-$3 million, failed to sell. "I’m a bit mystified," says auctioneer Richard Wright, who previously sold Pierre Koenig’s Case Study House #21 in December 2006 for $3.2 million and Marcel Breuer’s Wolfson House in October 2007 for $1.16 million (though a source close to the owner says that the winning bidder has reneged). The firm still hopes to find a buyer for the Pennsylvania property.

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