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Art Market Watch
June 2, 2006 

Last week’s sale of American paintings at Christie’s New York totaled $35,894,000 (including the auction-house premium), with 120 of 140 lots finding buyers, or 86 percent by lot. Christie’s specialist Eric Widing professed himself "delighted" and noted "a level of saleroom exuberance we have not seen for several years."

Top lot was Maxfield Parrish’s much-publicized arcadian panorama, Daybreak (1922), which became so popular in the 1920s that an estimated one in four U.S. households had a copy of the image. The pseudo-Pre-Raphaelite fantasy, featuring a nude cupid leaning over a sleeping maiden, sold for $7,632,000, just above its $7 million presale high estimate, to an anonymous buyer, setting a new world auction record for the artist.

Curiously, Daybreak was already the Parrish record-holder. It had sold for almost $4.3 million at Sotheby's New York in 1996. A second Parrish painting, the storybook Lantern Bearers (1908) -- an interesting precursor of today’s avant-gardists who use multiple images of the same actor in their pictures -- sold for $4,272,000, well above the presale estimate of $1,500,000-$2,500,000. The buyer was an "American museum" -- any guesses on which one?

Another world auction record was set with Frederick Carl Frieseke’s Vuillard-like The Garden Pool, measuring a mere ca. 26 x 32 in., sold for $2,368,000, more than double the presale high estimate of $1 million. The picture, painted at the artist's colony in Giverny established by Claude Monet (Frieseke's studio was next door to the famed Impressionist's), was being sold by the estate of philanthropist and McDonald's hamburget heir Joan B. Kroc.

In contrast to the record-setting $9.2-million Norman Rockwell painting that had sold at Sotheby’s the day before, the top Rockwell work at Christie’s, Boy with Two Dogs (1929), a charming picture of a young ruffian, a collie and a mutt, all making friends, sold for "only" $800,000 (est. $400,000-$600,000). Perhaps the dog-lovers couldn’t make it to the end of the sale -- the Rockwell was the next-to-the-last lot.

Even so, all these squares did better than the only modernist in the top ten, Georgia O’Keeffe, whose Another Place near Abiquiu (1930), sold for $777,600 (est. $400,000-$600,000). The moody, small (10 x 15 in.) landscape -- which looks more modern than ever in this company -- was snagged by New York City dealer Michael Altman.  

The three-day series of auctions at Christie’s Hong Kong, May 28-30, 2006, has produced record-setting results. The May 28 sales, which are broken into three rather confusing categories -- "modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art," "20th-century Chinese art" and "Asian contemporary art" -- totaled HK$352,972,000, or almost $45.9 million, a new overall high (prices given below are converted to U.S. dollars). As has been seen before in the booming art market in new capitalist countries, ordinary price levels seemed irrelevant. "Bidding fiercely, international buyers ignored conventional boundaries and bought across the board," noted Christie’s expert Eric Chang.

The Asian contemporary art sale set new auction records for Cai Guo-Qiang ($903,760), Wang Guangyi ($501,640), Fang Lijun ($423,280) and Kim Dong-Yoo ($332,989). The top ten included a work by the late Nam June Paik, Enlightenment 78 RPMs, a kind of technological totem pole including a cabinet television set, an antique phonograph and a gold buddha statue (which appears on the TV via video), which sold for about $275,000 (est. ca. $250,000-$380,000).

The 20th-century Chinese art auction set new records for Chu Teh-Chun, whose Ab-Ex-style calligraphic abstraction from 1960 sold for $3,364,400 (est. ca. $500,000-$750,000); Liao Chi-Ch’un, whose soft, Dufy-esque oil, Garden (1965-75), was snapped up for $2,199,600 (est. ca. $775,000-$1,300,000); and Wu Dayu, whose small (23 x 31 in.) but vigorously brushed blue-toned still life, Dancing of Flowers, went for $801,840 (est. ca. $190,000-$280,000).

And the modern and contemporary Southeast Asian art sale set new records for Adrien-Jean Le Mayeur de Merprès, whose Impressionist-expressionist oil-on-canvas of a host of topless island maidens relaxing under a flowering bower went for $1,762,800 (est. ca. $1,000,000-$1,300,000), and S. Sudjojono, whose The Indestructible Desert, a ten-foot-wide panorama of a Wild West landscape strangely including growths of coral and other underwater flora, sold for $394,160 (est. ca. $100,000-$150,000).

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

High-flying art collector Steve Wynn, whose new Wynn Las Vegas casino includes a gallery full of modernist blue-chips bought at auction, is branching out. During Christie’s Hong Kong sale of Chinese ceramics and works of art on May 30, 2006, Wynn was the buyer of the star lot, a rare Hongwu Period (1368-98) copper-red vase, Yuhuchunping, which sold for HK$78,520,000 -- about $10,200,000 -- a new world auction record for a Ming porcelain.

Wynn is donating the work to a museum in Macau, according to Christie’s specialist Pola Antebi. Wynn has business interests in the former European colony and gambling mecca (now part of the People’s Republic of China) -- notably the Wynn Macau, a new 20-story resort, scheduled to open on Sept. 9, 2006.

Several other records were set in the auction, which reached a total of more than $43 million, with 268 of 409 lots offered finding buyers, or about 65.5 percent. "The market has never been stronger for Chinese ceramics and works of art," Antebi said.

Christie’s next "house sale" -- the closest thing the tony auctioneer has to an odd-lot clearance -- is scheduled for June 6-7, 2006, with more than 900 lots ranging from paintings to furniture, rugs, decorative arts and other collectibles, many offered without reserve. Though the sale has no contemporary art, it begins with several dozen lots that are "school of" or "attributed to" various Old Masters. One example is the work pictured here -- a painting of a handsome 18th-century lady in a white dress and a plumed hat, standing in a landscape, done in the manner of John Opie, though actually painted in the 20th century. The presale estimate is $1,000-$1,500, and the lot is offered without reserve. Viewing for Christie’s House Sale is June 2-5, 2006.

Following last month’s sales of contemporary art in New York, our friends over at Sotheby’s put together an "Art Market Review May 2006" -- good idea, we think -- noting that "the contemporary market today continues to encroach on the price levels previously reserved for the high end of the Impressionist market." Buyers at all three houses (Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, de Pury & Co.) paid a total of $432,080,560 for works of contemporary art at auction, Sotheby’s said, compared to the $457 million total at the Impressionist and modern art sales. "It looks a bit like a horse race," noted the report.

Four works sold for more than $10 million (by Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and another de Kooning), a Robert Ryman painting went for $9.6 million, and more than 89 works sold for more than $1 million. The average price of a sold lot was an astonishing $342,921. The total sold percentage -- 1,260 lots out of 1,454 -- was 86.6 percent. As for the breakdown, Christie’s came out ahead, selling a total of $205,784,440; Sotheby’s did $185,100,200 and Phillips did $41,195,920. All prices include the buyer’s premium, 20 percent of the first $200,000 and 12 percent of the remainder.

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