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ART MARKET WATCH
Sept. 9, 2008 

SEPTEMBER AUCTIONS BRING IT ON
With the global economic outlook remaining pessimistic despite the drop in oil prices (according to the Bloomberg Professional Global Confidence Index), every art auction remains a bellwether for the contemporary art market as a whole, which has been booming for the last five years -- and seemingly on the brink of a "correction" for almost as long. September 2008 has no shortage of auctions. So hold onto your seats.

Christie’s New York leads off the fall season with its eighth "First Open" sale on Sept. 9, 2008, an offering of over 230 lots of post-war and contemporary art for the beginning collector. The overall presale estimate is $6 million-$8 million.

Highlights include a Cindy Sherman Untitled Film Still from 1978 (est. $300,000-$500,000) and a rather large (135 x 320 in.) ensemble of David Salle paintings with the collective title of Nouns (est. $200,000-$300,000), originally shown at the Spike Gallery in Chelsea in 2003.

Other interesting lots include Tony Feher’s Red Sculpture with Base (1997) (est. $4,000-$6,000), four clear glass jars with red tops, shown at D’Amelio Terras, and Sharon Core’s Around the Cake (2003) (est. $4,000-$6,000), a color photograph (ed. of five) based on a Wayne Thiebaud painting.

A pair of yellow cast urethane Flip Flops from 1998 (ed. of three) by Richard Prince is estimated at $25,000-$35,000, and Andy Warhol’s maquette for his BMW "art car," made in 1978 and featuring a pink floral design on a black car model, is estimated at $250,000-$350,000.

Sotheby’s New York is up the next day, Sept. 10, 2008, with an even bigger, more wide-ranging sale of approximately 400 lots of contemporary art. A 30 x 40 in. Molasses Swamp II (1999) by Will Cotton, a fanciful candy landscape of chocolate bars, Oreos and all-day suckers, is estimated at $18,000-$25,000, while a color photograph of a nude sunbather in trucker’s cap by Richard Kern, No Dogs, Long Island (2003) (ed. of 3) is estimated at $5,000-$7,000.

The sale also includes Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Gem (est. $100,000-$150,000), Dana Schutz’s gawky portrait of the long-haired Becky ($80,000-$120,000) and George Rodrigue’s Thoughts of How It Used to Be (1995) (est. $30,000-$50,000), one of his famed "Blue Dog" paintings.

But these two sales pale in comparison to the month’s biggest gamble for the contemporary art market -- the two-day auction of 223 new works by Damien Hirst, all of them never before exhibited, at Sotheby’s London on Sept. 15-16, 2008. The presale estimate for "Beautiful Inside My Head Forever," as it is titled, is in excess of £65 million (ca. $114,000,000, as of this writing), with prices ranging from £15,000-£20,000 for new drawings to £8,000,000-£12,000,000 for the much ballyhooed Golden Calf.

Our friends over at the art-market research company Art Tactic rather breathlessly told Bloomberg News that the sale "is crucial to the overall confidence of the contemporary art market." Indeed, if the total comes in at more than 10 percent or so below the low estimate, the sale is likely to be considered a disappointment. But according to an Art Tactic poll of 51 "art insiders," 78 percent think the total for "Beautiful" will be within Sotheby’s presale estimate range.

According to our own Artnet Market Performance Report on Damien Hirst, auction sales of the artist’s works, excluding prints, totaled $84,972,193 for 119 lots (with 22 going unsold) in 2007, and $52,845,138 for 64 lots (with 22 going unsold) in the first half of 2008. At $114,000,000, then, the Sotheby’s London sale is rather less than 2007 and 2008-to-date combined.

In any case, the three-volume catalogue of the sale is something of a collectible itself, packaged in a slipcase that reproduces on its cover a luxurious new variation of a familiar a Hirst work, a shallow steel case of glass shelves -- a diptych, actually, featuring two such cases, and gold-plated ones at that -- each containing hundreds of manufactured diamonds. Called Memories of / Moments with You (2008), the work is a bargain at £800,000-£1,200,000. As a symbol of luxury, the sculpture nothing if not impressive.

In fact, browsing through the catalogue, it becomes clear that Hirst’s sense of contemporary avant-garde taste is unerring -- there’s hardly a clinker in the bunch. The question turns, then, not on whether the material is of high enough quality or properly priced, but whether the current market has sufficient depth to absorb it all.

The odds of success are increased by the fact that Hirst’s production is so varied -- he must have at least a dozen different "lines" of work, if not more: vitrine sculptures, butterfly works, spin paintings, photorealist paintings, religious photographs, pill works, spot paintings, anatomy sculptures. What’s more, he’s taken the opportunity to remake some of his signature works, notably the shark in the vitrine, here represented by The Kingdom (2008) (est. £4,000,000-£6,000,000). Surely, someone in the world besides supercollector Steven Cohen wants one of those.

Plus, Hirst has also made imaginative variations on his better-known series, including an all-red-butterfly "rose window" titled Calm (£400,000-£600,000), a heart-shaped black-and-white spin painting with butterflies called Beautiful Love Survival Painting with Beautiful Butterflies (£400,000-£600,000), and the dramatic formaldehyde vitrine piece -- in the macho colors of black and gold -- titled The Black Sheep with the Golden Horn (£2,000,000-£3,000,000). Hats off to Hirst -- even in a sale of 233 lots, almost everything seems new and different.

Of course, it could all go wrong. For art-market watchers, the Hirst sale is a big one. But the month has several other major auctions as well. September also means Asia Week, for which both houses schedule a whole slate of sales, including auctions of contemporary Asian art. About which more later.


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