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Aug. 10, 2007 

In the first six months of 2007, Sotheby’s auction house earned more than in any full year in its history, according to Sotheby’s CEO Bill Ruprecht, who recently announced the firm’s second-quarter 2007 results. Sales for the first half of 2007 totaled $2.9 billion, up an impressive 44 percent from the same period in 2006. Sotheby’s income was $131.7 million, up 92 percent, a record, on record revenues of $486.9 million, up 41 percent. The house sold the highest priced lot of the period as well, Mark Rothko’s White Center (1950), which went for $72.8 million.

Two months ago, Christie’s announced total sales of $3.25 billion for the first half of 2007, putting it in the lead -- though Sotheby’s notes that its totals "approximate those of competitor, despite 50 percent less lot volume at Sotheby’s, a strategic decision."

Sotheby’s also announced that it had sold 391 lots for over $1 million in the first half of the year, apparently trumping Christie’s figure of 358 lots. Christie’s quickly sent out a release noting that its $1-million lots numbered 430, if the auction-house premium is included. Competition lives in the auction business, or so it seems.

The good results led Sotheby’s to increase its stock dividend as well, raising its annual dividend rate from 40 cents a share to 60 cents, or 50 percent. Sotheby’s stock reached a high of almost $54 a share in July, and more recently has been trading in the 40s.

On a more morbid note, Sotheby’s also made a $20-million gain from its "key man" life insurance policy on the Dutch art dealer Robert Noortman, who died in January. Noortman had sold his gallery to Sotheby’s in a $56-million deal in 2006.

It may be the dog days of August, but the new art season is only three weeks away, and at the auction houses, the September calendar is a veritable thicket of sales. Christie’s New York is launching the season with a two-day House Sale on Sept. 5-6, 2007, featuring some 1,130 lots, a potpourri of collectibles, many at bargain prices -- clearing the decks, so to speak?

Among the first lots in the sale, for instance, is a charmingly overheated 19th-century Flemish painting of Saint John the Baptist fervently praying in the wilderness, while the devil smirks in the background, that is estimated at a mere $1,000-$1,500. Other alluring fine-art lots include an etching of a winsome nude by Lisa Yuskavage (est. $600-$900) and a pair of offset lithos by Sigmar Polke from 1973 in rather large editions (est. $800-$1,200).

At last month’s House Sale, a classic painting by the late East Village artist Martin Wong -- who specialized in closely painted works that draw their subjects from tabloid headlines, a recurring motif from American Sign Language, and their decorative effect from tenement brickwork -- sold for a bargain $2,640, under the presale low estimate.

Christie’s New York sale of the estate of the actress María Félix, "Mexico’s iconic beauty," on July 17-18, 2007, totaled $7,299,640, well above the presale estimate. María’s fans sent prices soaring for portraits of the movie star, known as La Doña, setting a new auction record for Leonora Carrington, whose Sueño de Sirenas (1963), a folding triptych depicting María as three mermaids, was the top lot, selling for $609,600. A charcoal portrait of María holding a baby in her arms Diego Rivera sold for $352,000, the third priciest lot in the sale.

Last year, Sotheby’s held a special selling exhibition of monumental sculpture on the grounds at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, and it went so well that the firm is doing it again. "Beyond Limits," Sept 8-Nov. 4, 2007, features large-scale works by Barry Flanagan, Aristide Maillol, Henry Moore and Auguste Rodin.

As with everything in the auction business these days, Sotheby’s is moving the exhibition firmly in a contemporary direction, and is commissioning new works for the show from Michal Rovner, Marc Quinn and the Britain-based Israeli artist Zadok Ben-David. What’s more, the exhibition includes design works from Zaha Hadid, Ron Arad, the Campana Brothers and Claude and Francois-Xavier Lalanne.

Reno, Nev.-based Coeur d’Alene Art Auction set a record for an auction or primarily Western Art at its 307-lot annual sale, July 28, 2007. The house racked up a whopping $35,402,640 in sales, with 98 percent of lots finding bidders. One of the two top lots was Blackfoot Burning Crow Buffalo Range, a 1905 watercolor by Charles M. Russell, which sold for $2,912,000 to a private dealer from Denver (est. $1-1.5 million). Another high point of the sale came when another Russell work -- the small oil Joshing Moon (1918), measuring just 8.5 by 13.5 inches -- smashed through its presale estimate of $200,000-300,000, going for $1,680,000 after what the house described as an "epic battle," leading to a healthy round of applause in the room.

The sale was unusual for Coeur d’Alene in that it also featured a selection of European and American Impressionist paintings, consigned by a private Southern California trust. The other top lot of the night was the 1886 Le Ponton de la Felicite, Asnieres by pointillist Paul Signac, which tied the Russell lot, bringing in $2,912,000 (est. $1,000,000-1,500,000) from a San Francisco collector.

For complete results, see

The summer 2007 exhibition of artworks by staffers at Christie’s New York, dubbed "Insider Art," is still on. Some 50 artists are exhibiting everything from paintings and sculpture to video art. The show closes on Aug. 22, 2007.

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