The big spring auctions in New York get under way this week, with the most stellar lots of Impressionist and modern art hitting the block in evening sales at Christie’s on Tuesday, May 6, and Sotheby’s on Wednesday, May 7, followed by evening sales of post-war and contemporary art at Sotheby’s on May 13, at Christie’s on May 14, and at Phillips, de Pury and Co. on May 15, 2008.
Though everyone is expecting a slowdown -- the Wall Street Journal titled its preview report on the sales “Nervous in New York” -- observers also note that the top end of the market could escape the weakness that is already being reported in the nether regions. The overall estimate for two weeks of sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s is $1.3 billion-$1.8 billion, according to WSJ writer Kelly Crow, about the same as the totals tallied in the big sales in November 2007 ($1.6 billion) and May 2007 ($1.3 billion).
While the sales feature fewer lots, prices for individual works seem to be getting higher. At Christie’s, the sale is led by a Claude Monet landscape, Le Pont du chemin de fer à Argenteuil (1873), which sold in 1988 for $14 million (to Manhattan dealer David Nahmad, Crow reports) and now carries an “estimate on request” of $35 million. Also on the menu are a six-foot-tall Auguste Rodin bronze of Eve (1881) (est. $9 million-$12 million), a nine-foot-tall Alberto Giacometti standing woman (1959-60) (est. $18 million) and four drawings by Egon Schiele (with one estimated to sell for as much as $1.2 million).
Sotheby’s Imp and mod sale is built around Fernand Léger’s Étude pour “La Femme en Bleu” (1912-13) (est. $35 million-$45 million) and Edvard Munch’s 1902 Girls on a Bridge (est. $24 million-$28 million). The auction also boasts Pablo Picasso’s painted bronze sculpture of a crane from 1951-52 (cast in an edition of four) (est. $10 million-$15 million), a trove of four sculptures and one painting by Alberto Giacometti (the last being estimated at $10 million-$15 million), and a cache of four Giorgio Morandi still lifes (carrying a presale high estimate of $1.2 million).
In the contemporary arena, both houses are leading with their strengths, that is, works by artists who have only just recently reached new highs during the last quantum leap in auction prices. At Christie’s, the contemporary sale boasts an Andy Warhol Double Marlon (1966) (est. $30 million), a Francis Bacon self-portrait triptych (est. $25 million-$35 million) and Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping (1995) (est. $25 million-$35 million).
Sotheby’s has an impressive Bacon triptych (est. $70 million), a classic Mark Rothko painting in red and orange (est. $35 million), plus works by all the big draws, from Jean-Michel Basquiat (est. $9 million-$12 million) to Tom Wesselman (est. $6 million-$8 million).
At Phillips, de Pury & Co., the plan is once again for a double-barreled sale, with a benefit auction for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles kicking off at 6 pm, followed immediately by the evening contemporary sale. The cover lot is a white marble self-portrait by Jeff Koons (est. $6 million-$8 million), and another top lot is a painting of a Fallen Angel by Basquiat (est. $8 million-$12 million). The rest of the sale is rich in works by artists whose prices have recently jumped into the six figures -- Hernan Bas, Mark Grotjahn, Wangechi Mutu, Rudolf Stingel and Banks Violette.
Will the art market take a pause in the coming two weeks? Tune in later and see. Meanwhile, during last month, the auction houses have been reporting good results across a range of sales -- plenty of new auction records, but larger numbers of unsold lots as well. For example:
* Sotheby’s London sale of Indian art on May 2, 2008, totaled £4,289,775 ($8,474,022), well above the presale estimate of £2.4 million-£3.4 million. Indian art “is a market on the move,” said Sotheby’s Zara Porter-Hill. In all, 97 of 123 lots sold, or almost 80 percent, with records set for 11 artists, including Subodh Gupta (for an oil painting -- £264,500 / $522,493), Rabindranath Tagore (£144,500 / $285,445), Jitish Kallat (£58,100/ $114,771) and Ambadas (£36,500 / $72,102).
* Christie’s Dubai sale of modern and contemporary art on Apr. 30, 2008, totaled $20,062,850, a new record for the category. Of the 198 lots offered, 166 sold, or 84 percent. The market for works by Iranian and Arab artists is definitely expanding -- the sale set 71 new record prices, and the top ten lots all went to private buyers.
The top lot of the sale was Parviz Tanavoli’s The Wall (Oh Persepolis), a six-foot-tall bronze tablet covered with hieroglyphs, which sold for $2,841,000, a new world record price for any modern Iranian artist at auction, and the highest price for a work of art sold at auction in the Middle East. Records were also set in the top ten for Charles Hossein Zenderoudi ($1,609,000), Mohammed Ehsai ($1,161,000), Abdul Kadir Al-Rais ($385,000) and Faramarz Pilaram ($385,000).
* Phillips, de Pury & Co. London held its inaugural design sale on Apr. 24, 2008, totaling £2,282,513 for 169 of 244 lots sold, or 69 percent. The top price of £168,500 was paid for Marc Newson’s Black Hole Table (2006) -- one of an edition of ten -- made of carbon fiber and featuring a triangular tabletop with holes sinking into the legs in an uncanny evocation of the interstellar phenomenon.
Other top lots included Ron Arad’s polished stainless steel Big Easy sofa (£90,500), an oak and leather folding chair from 1956 by Hans Wegner (£60,500), a chandelier of dangling raffia and strings of Swarovski crystals by the Campana Brothers (£48,500) and a 1953 chest of drawers made in walnut root by Gio Ponti (£48,500).
* Christie’s New York sale of Russian art on Apr. 18, 2008, totaled $17,595,738, with 253 of 294 lots finding buyers, or 86 percent. The top lot was a pastoral 1896 painting by Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin, The Forest Clearing, which went to an anonymous buyer for $3,177,000, well above the presale high estimate of $1,400,000.
* Sotheby’s New York sale of European art on Apr. 18, which also included a concentration of about 90 Orientalist lots (the first dedicated Orientalist sale in almost a decade), totaled $26,377,050, with 173 of 291 lots finding buyers, or under 60 percent. The top lot was William Bouguereau’s portrait of a little girl sitting on the ground with a bowl of porridge, Le Déjeuner du Matin (Morning Breakfast), which sold for $2,057,000, above the presale high estimate of $1.5 million.
New auction records were also set for Jehan-Georges Vibert ($1,497,000), Rudolf Ernst ($1,273,000), Walter Gould ($1,217,000), Arthur Von Ferraris ($1,049,000), Clemente Pujol de Gustavino ($157,000) and Federico Barolini ($61,000).
* Phillips, de Pury & Co.’s pair of photo auctions on Apr. 9, 2008, totaled $1,529,850, with less than 50 percent of the 206 lots finding buyers, and $1,739,550, with more than 62 percent of the 83 lots finding buyers. Top lots included Peter Beard’s Giraffes in Mirage on the Taru Desert, Kenya, which sold for $325,000, a record for the photographer.
New auction records were also set for photographs by Andreas Feininger ($46,600), Sebastiä Salgado ($17,500) Wols ($12,500), Rene Magritte ($11,250) and Ellen von Unwerth ($10,000).