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July 2, 2009 

Could the contemporary art market be ready to rebound? For positive evidence, witness the after-fair report of Scope Basel, June 8-14, 2009, which claims "constant sales" by its 110 exhibitors. "Collectors, advisors, consultants and museum acquisition committees came to buy not browse, checking their recession fears at the door," the report proclaims, perhaps a little hyperbolically.  

The London-based website ArtTactic, which bills itself as "an insider’s view to the art market," claims that art market confidence is "cautiously" coming back, based on its market survey, though the short-term outlook remains negative. In regard to Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales of contemporary art in London this week, ArtTactic says that "prices are approaching a new equilibrium."

Even veteran art-market reporters like Josh Baer of the Baer Faxt and Judd Tully of ArtInfo have at least cautiously endorsed the notion that a market bottom has been reached. As Tully gnomically put it, "It’s safe to say that price fluctuations have probably found a foundation to build on." And in a comment to Carol Vogel of the New York Times, London dealer Gerard Fagginato said, "It’s a different-sized market now, but it was healthy."    

In other words, $1 million is the new $10 million, or so it seems from the London contemporary art sales. Many art-market players, not to mention observers in the peanut gallery, have made clear their discomfort with the superheated prices of the George W. Bush boom. Still, the psychological moment is such that outlandish prices for art at auction -- $1 million for a Damien Hirst "Rose Window" butterfly painting from 2006, for instance -- strike seasoned observers like Vogel as ho-hum.

Christie’s London evening sale of contemporary art on June 30, 2009, totaled £19,063,350 ($31,778,604), with 35 of 40 lots selling, or 88 percent -- a more than acceptable result. The top ten certainly showed no signs of recession. Peter Doig’s elaborately decorative Night Playground (1997-98) went for £3,009,250 (ca. $5 million), well over the auction-house presale high estimate and, as the firm hastened to note, the second highest auction price ever for the artist.

Following fast on its heels was Richard Prince’s Country Nurse (2003), which sold for £1,721,250 (almost $2.9 million), right in the middle of its estimate. Market Cassandras (i.e., the press) took this as a sign of weakness, since a similarly sized nurse painting, Man Crazy Nurse (2002), had sold in New York an unlucky 13 months ago for $7,433,000, about two and a half times as much. For the rest of us, Prince’s "Nurse" paintings are emblematic of the market’s speculative excesses, and even at this level are a "bottom" most can only dream of.

Christie’s top ten even held a new auction record, as Alighiero Boetti’s Minimalist Rosso Gilera 60 1232 and Rosso Guzzi 60 1305 (1967) sold for £713,250 (ca. $1.45 million), about double its presale high estimate. Other top prices were paid for works by Jeff Koons, Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon, Cy Twombly, Lucio Fontana and Jean Dubuffet, a truly motley market basket for the contemporary art economy.

Five days before, on June 25, 2009, Sotheby’s London held its contemporary art evening sale, selling 37 of 40 lots for a total of £25,549,450 (almost $42 million). That’s 92.5 percent sold, a sell-through percentage that is "one of the highest ever," according to Sotheby’s contemporary art expert Cheyenne Westphal. Ten of the lots sold for over $1 million.

The top price came for Andy Warhol’s silver Tunafish Disaster, which sold for £3,737,250 (ca. $6.1 million), about ten times the £290,000 that the same work at brought at the same salesroom in 1995. Other top prices came for works by Alexander Calder (£2,617,250 / ca. $4.3 million), Doig again (£2,057,250 / ca. $3.37 million) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (£1,273,250 / ca. $2 million).

Maurizio Cattelan’s Mini-me (1999), 15-inch tall model of the flip-flop-wearing artist done in an edition of ten (each with its own clothes), sold for £493,250 ($805,634), about double the presale high estimate.

The sale also set a new auction record for Julie Mehretu, whose 3 x 4 ft. painting, Untitled (Dervish) (2005), sold for £241,250 ($394,038), in the middle of its estimate.

As for Phillips de Pury & Company’s London contemporary sales on June 29, 2009, the total came in at £7,396,700, the evening sale totaling £5,101,350, with 30 of 39 lots selling, or almost 77 percent. The top lot was Ed Ruscha’s That Was Then This Is Now (1989), a black-and-white painting of text over a cloudy night sky that sold for £713,250.

Phillips set records for an astonishing 18 artists, including the late Metro Pictures artist Jack Goldstein, whose untitled 1988 painting of a fiery nebula sold for a record £121,250 ($200,107), and everyone’s favorite beachcomber, Ashley Bickerton, whose bizarre hyperrealist panel painting of a golfer tormented by vultures, Herr Schoendorff (1999), sold for a mere £51,650 ($85,241).

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