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May 22, 2009 

A year ago, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s held New York sales of American art, which like many auction categories had been riding pretty high. Totals were about $55 million for both houses, coincidentally, with a rather dry Andrew Wyeth painting of a pensive old man going for a record $10.3 million, a Mary Cassatt mother-and-child pulling down $6.2 million and an Albert Bierstadt sunset bringing in almost $4.9 million.

Sadly, the 2009 results were somewhere between a quarter and a third of the 2008 numbers. Christie’s $16.8 million total was for 88 lots sold of 141 offered, or 62 percent, in an auction held on May 20, 2009. The top lot was Sketching by the Sea (1944) by the mystifyingly popular Milton Avery, which sold for $2,210,500, just $295,000 less than the artist’s all-time auction record.

One veteran American art dealer noted that prices didn’t really fall, but premium material was scarce. “When a choice work came up, people went after it,” he said. Another thing to watch, he suggested, is the Wyeth market. “A lot of material is out there, and may come to market (since the artist has recently died). We’ll have to see whether the market is deep enough to absorb it all.”

Among the top ten, the Caldwell Gallery near Syracuse in upstate New York won Thomas Cole’s autumnal View in Kaaterskill Clove (1826) for $1,022,500, and the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association bravely scraped together $662,500 to purchase Eastman Johnson’s prosaic The Old Mount Vernon (1957). The painting was sold by another no-doubt-thriving historical organization, the Sons of the Revolution in the State of New York, Inc., and is now slated for exhibition at George Washington’s historic home.

Despite the modest results, Christie’s did set new auction records with Charles H. Humphriss’ hackneyed four-foot-tall figure of an Indian chief holding up his rawhide shield and pulling out an arrow -- thus the descriptive title, The Sun Dial (n.d.) -- which sold for $76,900 (est. $20,000-$30,000), and with Edwin Willard Deming’s touristy Dance at San Ildefonso Pueblo, New Mexico (n.d.), which sold for $56,250 (est. $30,000-$50,000).

Both works, as it happens, were sold by the Montclair Art Museum, and one can certainly say good riddance. In all, the museum sold 23 works for a total of $2.28 million (according to Lee Rosenbaum’s CultureGrrl blog). An anti-deaccession fuss derailed the planned sale of William Merritt Chase’s portrait of William B. Dickson, one of the museum’s founders, which carried a presale estimate of $25,000-$35,000. A fairly ordinary portrait, it seems of limited general interest, and is probably best displayed in the museum boardroom.

Similarly, the Hirshhorn Museum sold two paintings by Thomas Eakins -- a chocolatey portrait of the turn-of-the-century religious crusader Robert C. Ogden and an awkward oil sketch for Eakins’ William Rush and his Model (1907-08), the painting now held by the Honolulu Academy of Arts -- for a total of $461,000 (with premium, of course). The Hirshhorn holds a trove of 220 works by the artist, and could well spare these two, though one shudders to think of what the museum’s curators might spend the funds on. Comparing Eakins’ sketch with the finished picture is salutary: if at first you don’t succeed, try again.

Sotheby’s New York sale of American paintings, drawings and sculpture on May 21, 2009, totaled $15.3 million, with 66 of 107 lots selling, or almost 62 percent. The top lot, Childe Hassam’s Paris, Winter Day (1887), a charming picture that measures 18 x 32 in., rather looks like it has had the top part cut off. It sold for $2,322,500, in the middle of its presale estimate.

Other top lots included a lively Grandma Moses painting from 1950, Country Fair, which sold for $1,082,500, above its high presale estimate, and a seven-foot-tall bronze statue of a sensuous Beaux Arts nude, The Vine, by Harriet Whitney Frishmuth -- the last of five large casts of the popular work, one version of which is the centerpiece of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s refurbished Engelhard Court -- which went for $962,500 (est. $400,000-$600,000), a new auction record for the artist. More than 60 casts of this sculpture (most of them smaller) have been sold at auction since 1985 or so.

Among the other interesting lots at Sotheby’s were Edmonia Lewis’ 32-inch-tall white marble sculpture of The Marriage of Hiawatha ($314,500), a 1947 watercolor by Andrew Wyeth of Christina’s empty bed ($278,500), an ivory letter opener with a Winslow Homer oil painting of two men in a canoe on its handle ($182,500), Fairfield Porter’s painting of a field of wildflowers, Mallows ($158,500), and Gilbert Stuart’s ca. 1794 portrait of a lively countenanced John Jacob Astor ($146,500).

The Chelsea Art Galleries website announced this week that the New York sales of contemporary art at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury during the week of May 12-15, 2009, totaled $213 million (with premium), about eight percent less than the total presale estimate. In all, 968 lots found buyers, and 230 remained unsold or were withdrawn.  

This year’s total is about one-quarter the size of a year ago, at the peak of the market. According to the report, the total contemporary art sales in May 2008 was $957 million, with 1,244 lots offered. The report looks at top-grossing artists in the sales, putting Andy Warhol in the number one spot, with 50 lots selling for a total of $20.6 million (without premium, apparently).

Perhaps most telling, the report lists artists who have dropped out of the top 20 between 2008 and 2009: Francis Bacon, Mark Rothko, Yves Klein, Lucian Freud, Takashi Murakami and Donald Judd among them. For the complete report, click here

The week was closed out by Phillips de Pury & Co., whose evening sale on May 14, 2009, posted a modest total of about $7.6 million (with premium), with 31 of 43 lots selling, or 72 percent. Top lots included a comic Philip Guston painting of a telephone and a (painting of a) bacon sandwich, Anxiety ($1,082,500), a peek-a-boo painting by Cecily Brown called Suddenly Last Summer ($662,500) and a comically semiotical Mark Tansey painting from 1990 of a sprinter dashing into a dark mass of text titled Reader ($482,500). All worth having.

Along with its day sale on May 16, which totaled about $3.7 million, the boutique auction firm set nine artist’s records. Of particular interest was Aaron Young’s triptych of motorcycle “burn outs” on aluminum panel, which went for a mere $60,000. Other record lots included Jennifer Steinkamp’s Dervish 4, a video installation, which sold for $76,000, and Sharon Core’s Bakery Counter, a 2004 color photograph (from an edition of seven) that recreates a classic Wayne Thiebaud painting, which sold for $37,500.

And, for what it’s worth, Phillips sold a single Mike Kelley readymade of a found stuffed monkey doll, titled Estral Star (1989), for $98,500. Abject art makes for a healthy market?

Among the other notable odds and ends from the week of contemporary sales is certainly the late Tom Wesselmann’s eight-inch-square study for Seascape Prick (1969), a noble subject to be sure. The painting sold for $40,000, above its presale high estimate of $35,000.

And as has been noted by our colleague Richard Polsky
[see “Winners and Losers,” May 15, 2009], one winner in the week of sales was New York artist Dan Colen (b. 1979). In addition to his record-setting Untitled (Blow Me) painting, which sold for $386,500, the artist also saw his graffiti-covered papier-mâché dolmen, titled Virgin Schmirgin, sell for $104,500, and a “Birdshit Triptych” painting (actually made of oil on canvas) go for $84,100.

Veteran “Bad Painting” maestro Neil Jenney, whose classic Saw and Sawed work from 1986 was touted in April by our correspondent Charlie Finch [see “Drawn and Quartered,” Apr. 23, 2009], can breathe a sigh of relief. The painting, which depicts in Jenney’s signature brushy style the logical proposition of a chainsaw and a downed tree, sold for $506,000, more than double the presale high estimate of $250,000.

Finally, Art Market Watch was on hand at Christie’s on May 13, 2009, when auctioneer Christopher Burge first brought down the hammer and then immediately reopened the bidding on Sam Francis’ monolithic -- ca. 10 x 6 ft. -- Grey, an almost all-white oil-on-canvas from 1954, selling it initially for $3.1 million to an unidentified phone bidder and then for $3.2 million ($3,666,500 with premium) to Eli Broad’s art curator, Joanne Heyeler. “You saw it,” Burge said, or words to that effect. “The bid came in just as I was lowering the hammer.”

According to press reports, the first bidder was Greek shipping magnate Gregory Callimanopulos -- what is it with shipping magnates and contemporary art, anyway? -- who immediately filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming that Christie’s improperly reopened bidding for the painting. Good luck to him, since if memory serves (under the new recessionary regime, we didn’t get our usual free copy of the auction catalogue), Christie’s conditions of sale clearly state that the auction is conducted solely at the discretion of the auctioneer.

Richard Polsky notes in an email that such works by Francis are relatively rare, and appeal to a narrow section of the art market, since they align the artist with the Abstract Expressionists. Most Francis collectors, Polsky writes, prefer the more colorful, and decorative, later works.

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

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