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Jan. 13, 2011 

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The evening sales at the big auction houses are the art marketís grand opera, routinely notching more than $200 million or even $300 million in sales of blue-chip artworks in about 90 minutes, all in front of an audience of 500 top art dealers and collectors.

Much more modest are the "house sales," which typically offer a grab-bag of odds and ends that don’t amount to much. You often get the feeling that the lots are things that the specialists won’t allow into their proper sales.

These scantly attended monthly events are where you might catch a "reverse auction," in which the auctioneer attempts to open a lot at $1,000, say, and then, when no one bites, lowers the opening bid to $500.

Since it’s the auction business, where one person’s trash is another’s treasure, bargains can occasionally be had. It was at a Christie’s New York house sale that a friend once purchased a 1985 drawing by Elizabeth Murray, done in bold red pencil on a piece of torn notebook paper, for $50. It wasn’t signed, but it was clearly by Murray, and it came in a Paula Cooper Gallery frame.

Several years ago, Christie’s redubbed its sales of this type as "Christie’s Interiors," a change that made the sales sound more sophisticated, at least.

And so it was at the Christie’s Interiors sale on Jan. 11-12, 2011, when the remnants of the Dennis Hopper estate were put on the block. Nearly 300 artworks and other items, almost all of them choice (in one way or another), sold for a total of $3.4 million.

Several of Hopper’s big-ticket works had already hit the block at Christie’s contemporary art auction in November 2010, including a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat ($5.8 million) and an Andy Warhol Jackie ($1 million).

In November the Hopper lots were submerged in a steady stream of similarly spectacular artworks. Whatever drama took place involved stratospheric prices, and the high-octane contest between bidders.

Not so in the Hopper house sale. The actor’s four children seemed to be dumping everything, not only artworks of more modest value -- some whose authorship could not even be determined -- but also arty ephemera, gifts from friends, and his collection of film posters. Dad might have wanted that junk, but the kids sure didn’t.

The sale offered a real peek behind the veil, or at least into Hopper’s attic. Choice lots in this regard included a 1955 photo-portrait of the young Hopper taken by Roddy McDowall (lot 47, $8,750), and a collaged photo by Hopper’s one-time wife, Michelle Phillips, commemorating their famous eight-day-long marriage in 1970 (lot 535, $5,625). The McDowall photo, only the second work by the actor to sell at auction, is enchanting, and the Phillips work, her first, is both sexy and fun.

Several dozen of the lots were withdrawn at the last minute due to a "title dispute," presumably claims by Hopper’s fifth wife (and widow), Victoria Duffy Hopper. Such claims may explain the withdrawal from the sale of the mysterious and fascinating lot 12, an ordinary wooden stepladder stained by paint and considerable use, ascribed to Bruce and Jean Conner and listed as a gift to Richard Brautigan, author of the 1967 pop hit Trout Fishing in America. How it ended up in Hopper’s hands is unexplained. It had carried an estimate of $4,000-$6,000.

The auction was held in one of the Christie’s smaller rooms, and was fairly sparsely attended, with about as many bidders as there were Christie’s specialists manning the phones -- a fairly large number for a house sale, to be sure. Los Angeles art dealmaker James Corcoran was spotted loitering at the back of the room.

The audience was further swelled by a handful of auction reporters -- Judd Tully from Art & Auction, David d’Arcy from the BBC, and Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina among them.

When Andy Warhol’s 1972 Mao print -- a three-foot-square serigraph done in an edition of 300 and estimated at $20,000-$30,000 -- soared to the unlikely hammer price of $302,500, it was Kazakina who hurried after the departing bidder and discovered that he was banker Ahmed Khan, who was buying his first Warhol work.

Perhaps the high price -- the record for a complete edition of 10 Mao prints in various colors, set in 2008, is $1.7 million -- can be explained by a reattribution announced by the auctioneer as the lot hit the block. It is by "Andy Warhol in collaboration with Dennis Hopper," which is certainly unique. The print has two bullet holes, fired by the actor while intoxicated and prominently marked later by Hopper and Warhol together.

But a word about the auctioneer. The top art auctioneers are all men, of course, but they don’t work the house sales. Instead, for the first two hours, the Hopper sale was conducted by Molly Morse Limmer, an elegant and alluring woman with chestnut hair and a British accent, whose diamond earrings seemed to wink at the audience.

A female auctioneer turns out to be most salutary, at least in this case. With her nice smile, Limmer seemed to be enjoying herself. But she was also stern, refusing to waste time with cut bids (where the prospective buyer tries to raise the amount only half the typical bid increment).

Was she slightly amused at the battles between male bidders that she was overseeing? And did she show a special solicitude, dare one say feminine concern, for the various clients, triumphant and defeated alike? When she turned over the podium to a male colleague, it was a definite letdown.

(Though he had his own appealing idiosyncrasy, naming the all-but-invisible bidders by far-flung geographical locales, such as "$1,000 from Montana, do I hear $1,500 from Timbuktu?")

Among the undeniable treasures in the sale was the trove of works by artists from the Ferus Gallery group, pioneers of the Los Angeles art scene in the 1950s and Ď60s. Considering all the attention paid to these artists of late by commercial galleries -- both Gagosian and Nyehaus and Franklin Parrasch have recently mounted shows -- one would expect the lots to do well.

In the end, the results were above the estimates but still bargain priced. The very first lot, a Wallace Berman verifax collage showing a hand holding a tiny Sony TV with a female nude on the screen -- arguably an early icon of the erotics of the digital era -- had been included in all the retrospectives (Otis Art Institute in 1978, Whitney Museum in 1996), and sold for $42,500, well above the presale high estimate of $18,000.†

The first Bruce Conner lot, a 1962 magazine collage titled Picnic in the Grass, sold for $96,100, about six times its $15,000 presale high estimate. Another Conner work, this one a rather conceptual piece consisting of a set of his fingerprints, actually done at a police station in an edition of 20 in 1974 -- a barbed entry in the eternal question of "the artist’s touch" -- were estimated at $800-$1,200 and sold at $18,750.

Especially notable was the sizeable number of junk assemblages by the iconic California Beat Generation artist and poet George Herms (b. 1935). The top lot of this group of more than 20 works was Song for Hope (ca. 1986), which sold for $18,750, above a presale estimate of only $6,000-$8,000.

Others went for considerably less, including the Rauschenbergian Red Springs (1985), a construction comprised of mattress springs and a chunk of red scrap metal, which sold for $5,625.

Among the sharp-eyed bidders snagging these bargains was Marc Benda, who partners with Barry Friedman in Friedman Benda Gallery in Chelsea.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnetís signature Fine Art Auctions Report.

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