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Oct. 6, 2010 

"Sotheby’s is an art market machine," Jeffrey Deitch told me many years ago. You can see it in action any time, just by visiting the firm’s elegant headquarters building on York Avenue and 72nd Street. It’s an insider’s secret -- while the hipsters hit Chelsea and tourists trip to the museums, the money crowd visits the auction houses to check out the coming week’s wares. No problem, the driver will wait with the car at the curb.

And during a visit last weekend, Sotheby’s market machine was in high gear, delivering up a special "selling exhibition" titled "Divine Comedy," Sept. 30-Oct. 19, 2010. Filling Sotheby’s airy top-floor galleries is an astonishing potpourri of 80 artworks from ancient to avant-garde, juxtaposing a rare Roman figure of a masked young satyr (repaired by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the 17th century) with a green Andy Warhol Little Electric Chair (1964), and placing a life-sized cast of Auguste Rodin’s Three Shades as gatekeeper for works by George Condo, Damien Hirst, Mike Kelley, Sarah Lucas, Tom Sachs and several others. The show is organized by Sotheby’s superstar chairwoman Lisa Dennison with the magisterial help of her various department heads.

Adding greatly to the effect is the installation, which gives us "Limbo" as a dark gray corridor, where is housed a horrific sculpture by Jake & Dinos Chapman, Martin Kippenberger’s crucified frog, and Franz Francken’s impressive Allegory of Man’s Choice between Virtue and Vice (ca. 1635), a painting previously discussed here by Paul Jeromack, and looking even better in person.

The walls of "Hell," by contrast, are painted a dark blood red. There, a six-foot-tall Richard Prince School Nurse (2005, on loan from the Flag Art Foundation), looking like a gore-splattered serial killer, is hung across the gallery from a ca. 1550 Last Judgment by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, whose teeming field of tortured figures includes a detail of a man’s bare arse printed with a music staff, just as in Robert Gober’s contemporary wax sculpture.

Maurizio Cattelan’s Him (2001), his figure of a kneeling mini-Hitler, on view in New York for the first time, is spotlighted in a black alcove -- he gets a room to himself -- and remains incredibly expressive, despite coming from the comic hand of the art world’s own Topo Gigio. For once in contemporary art, branding is overwhelmed by content.

"Heaven," for its part, is contained within baby blue walls, and a light-filled and cheerful space it is, with William Bouguereau’s L’Amour Vainqueur (1886), a five-foot-tall painting of a naked Cupid and Psyche, mirrored by Will Cotton’s brunette princess surmounting a cloud of cotton candy and whipped cream, a work that turns out to have been custom-made for the show, and represents Dante’s muse Beatrice.

Across the gallery, We Were All in Love with the Cyclops (1997), a ten-foot-wide painting by Marlene Dumas of a row of eight blonde whores, sweetly baby blue though they may be, does introduce a discordant note if you look close in at their harrowed faces. But then, when Jesus granted grace to that thief on the cross, the man may have cut a similarly unnerving figure once he made it upstairs.

Most of the artworks are for sale, but unlike your typical auction preview exhibition, the prices are not readily at hand, presumably to avoid "burning" the lots with unwelcome market exposure. Sotheby’s can definitely do the art-gallery thing, in case there was any doubt. Officially, prices range from $30,000 to more than $10,000,000 -- this last applying to the Francken, and probably several other works. The Cotton is $170,000, Cattelan’s Him is not for sale, and the Follower-of-Bosch can be had -- and it’s very desirable -- for around $4 million, according to the auctioneer.

With the show’s several beautiful Old Masters in mind, it’s easy to think that the plan is to focus those deep-pocketed but callow contemporary collectors on the surer satisfactions of the Old Master department, whose amazing 500-year-old masterworks seem typically undervalued relative to chic avant-garde wares.

But "Divine Comedy" fills only one, if the grandest, of Sotheby’s eight floors. On seven were photographs being sold to benefit George Eastman House, which, with about 300 lots, adds up to the largest charity auction ever held by the firm. The sale of 94 lots on the evening of Oct. 4 raised $486,000, and about 200 more remain available through tomorrow online at igavel.

On Sotheby’s third floor was the regular photo sale, which goes off today, Oct. 6, 2010. Among the fashion and celebrity shots and iconic images that routinely trade in these sales are three color portraits of somber, well-put-together young women by Erwin Olaf that get the Mad Men esthetic down pat. Their presale estimates are a muscular - $15,000-$25,000.

On Sotheby’s sixth floor was a selection of Impressionist, modern and Latin American works from upcoming sales, including a nice group of lesser works by Pavel Tchelitchew -- his Hide and Seek used to be the most popular picture at the Museum of Modern Art -- from the estate of Charles Henri Ford, publisher of View, a mid-century Surrealist magazine of note. Selections include one of Tchelitchew’s signature Cabeza Anatomica drawings from 1946 (est. $12,000-$18,000) and a black ink drawing from 1954, L’Oeuf en Cage ($6,000-$8,000).

And as a lover of kitsch, my eye was caught by the absurdly elegant Portrait Jacqueline by Jean-Gabriel Domergue (1889-1962), which, though the artist may be little heralded here -- he’s sort of a poor man’s Kees van Dongen? -- nevertheless carried a presale estimate of $20,000-$30,000.

On floor four and five, Sotheby’s had arrayed a selection of fine European furniture -- the place you’d go for a nice big urn, say, or a neoclassical bust, or even a mirrored coffee table whose base is a sculpture of a camel. These floors were officially closed.

Last but not least, on the way in, on the second floor at the top of the escalator, was a real treasure: The Culbertson Guidon, an American flag banner with 13 stripes and rather more stars, in quite tattered shape, as well it might be, since it survived the Battle of Little Big Horn, i.e., Custer’s Last Stand. This treasure is being sold on Dec. 10, 2010, by the Detroit Institute of Arts, and is estimated at $2,000,000-$5,000,000.

Things are bad in Detroit, and at many museums, but it seems that any fuss over museum deaccessions -- and who knows if anyone is fussing over this particular example -- could be solved with a simple provision requiring the new buyer to lend the work for the occasional museum exhibition.

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

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