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Nov. 25, 2009 

Sometimes we delve into the mysteries of the art market using graphs and charts, longing for the kind of succor that only science can provide. Other times we turn to the tea leaves, poring over idle details in search of the smallest sign. Today, we do a little of both, as we take a quick look back at the fall auction season 2009.

Let’s start at home with Artnet Auctions, which had a notable milestone this month, as the top lot in the November modern + contemporary sale sold in the six figures. Damien Hirst’s four-foot-in-diameter spin painting, Beautiful Aurora Painting (2007), was hammered down for $225,500, or $248,050 with Artnet’s 10 percent premium. That’s real money in any market, and is especially good for the online auction business. And the price is something of a bargain, too, as similar works have sold for over $500,000.

Other lots in the sale also performed admirably, including Anish Kapoor’s Orange Circle from 1996 ($126,500 with premium), Andy Warhol’s lovely 1984 print of Michael Jackson during his heyday ($106,150) and one of Hirst’s spin-painted skulls from 2008 ($44,000). Other works just plain look good. Hollister Lowe’s photo of a young Kate Moss is irresistible, especially at the winning bid of $750 ($825 with premium).

The entire lineup of recently sold lots, ranked by price, can be viewed here (if the digital gods are smiling on us). Aren’t databases fun?

At the brick-and-mortar auction houses, sales take place at an astonishing pace. The recession seems to have prompted a certain amount of experimentation in format, too. Christie’s New York, for instance, held its first “500 Years: Decorative Arts Europe” sale on Nov. 24, 2009, combining furniture, porcelain,  works of art and Oriental carpets, and plans similar sales in London and Paris. The total here was $7,238,713 (with premium), with 75 percent of the 349 lots finding buyers.

The sale included a group of 15 Isfahan carpets from the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which received them in a 1925 bequest from Montana senator William Andrews Clark, who had assembled the collection for his Fifth Avenue mansion.  Eight of the top ten prices were paid for carpets, led by a 17th century Persian that went for $254,500, rather more than its presale high estimate of $80,000.

The total for the Corcoran property, which was 100 percent sold, was $1,853,400. No word from the museum at press time regarding the sale, but this particular deaccession seems to have prompted few protests, if any.

At Phillips de Pury & Co. in London, the firm continued its new series of regular theme sales with “Music” on Nov. 21, 2009. Billed as “the first auction ever to be performed with live music,” the sale paired the already-lyrical auctioneering of Simon de Pury with the DJ stylings by Matthew Herbert (occasionally known as “Doctor Rockit” and “Mr. Vertigo”), who played music by the featured musician along with each lot.

The total for the sale was a relatively modest £1,216,438 (with premium), with 64 percent of the 221 lots finding buyers. The top lots included two Damien Hirst spin paintings that were produced in collaboration with the band The Hours (going for £217,250 and £145,250).

Other top lots included Peter Lindberg’s 1999 triptych portrait of Keith Richards smoking (£109,250); Paul McCartney’s Surfers against Sewage, a surfboard decorated with red painted flowers (£49,250); and Marilyn Manson’s gruesome 2002 watercolor, Elisabeth Short as Snow White (A Smile II) (£32,450).

In its New York sale of photographs on Nov. 14, 2009, Phillips totaled $2,756,313, with 73 percent of the 294 lots selling. The design auction held the same day totaled $3,589,750, with 76 percent of 153 lots sold. The next day, on Nov. 15, the Phillips “Editions” auction totaled $2,452,106, selling 84 percent of 471 lots. Along with the contemporary art sales on Nov. 12-13, 2009, Phillips totaled $20,715,119 for five consecutive auctions, “a great success for the company during this uncertain time in the art market.”

The top lot at Phillips’ contemporary sale, by the way, was Warhol’s 1964 Brillo Box, which sold for $842,500, right in the middle of the presale estimate, but a new record for a Warhol Brillo Box sculpture.

Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s held their fall sales of Latin American art in New York in mid-November, as is their usual practice. Christie’s came out on top in terms of gross sales by a small margin, totaling $17,338,250 over two days, with 70 percent of the lots offered finding buyers. The auction set several new auction records, including for a bronze by Fernando Botero ($1,142,500), a work by Ecuadorian painter Oswaldo Guayasamín ($98,500) and a painting by the Cuban artist Victor Manuel ($182,500).

Sotheby’s evening and day Latin American art sales totaled $16,883,750 for 192 lots, and set nine new artist’s records. The top lot was Matta’s Endless Nudes, which sold to a U.S. private collector for $2,490,500, the second-highest auction price for the artist.

Now, for a little work with the charts and graphs, or rather, with the Artnet Price Database. A search for new auction records for individual artists in the past three months returns about 250 results of more than $50,000. The top lots have already made headlines: Kees van Dongen ($13.8 million), Alice Neel ($1,650,000), Juan Muñoz ($1.2 million).

By this research, 19th-century fantasias still find favor at auction, as Lord Frederick Leighton’s rather tame Venus Disrobing for the Bath sold for a record $1,874,500, and Edward Robert Hughes’ impressive Dream Idyll (A Valkyrie) went for a record $866,500, both at Sotheby’s New York in October 2009. The Hughes sold for considerably more than its $150,000 presale estimate.

But what about contemporary artists? Neo Rauch broke the $1 million barrier, as his Stellwerk (Signal Box) from 1999 sold at Christie’s London on Oct. 16 for the equivalent of $1.4 million, well above his prior high of $844,000.

The New York artist Kelley Walker is hot, if there was any doubt. His 2006 painting Black Star Press sold at Sotheby’s day sale of contemporary art this month for $374,500, a new record, well above the $200,000 presale high estimate as well as his previous record, set last June in London, of ca. $227,000.

New auction records were also set in the last three months for Vik Muniz ($266,500), Tony Cragg ($254,500), David Altmejd ($254,500), William Anastasi ($170,500), Josiah McElheny ($140,500), Y.Z. Kami ($115,846), Richard Stankiewicz ($110,500), Richard Misrach ($83,000), Rolf Scarlett ($78,000), Ryan McGinness ($68,500), Sally Mann ($68,500), Ernesto Neto ($62,500), Dash Snow ($50,000) and a host of Chinese artists we’ll have to discuss at another time.

Good news for this gang, the new art-market elite, but hardly any kind of evidence that the boom is back: In the first half of 2006, new auction records above $100,000 were set for almost 1,000 artists [see Art Market Watch, Sept. 24, 2008].

One footnote: The mystery of Dime Bag Darrell continues. A notable acrylic painting by New York artist Tom Sanford of the legendary Assassination of Dime Bag Darrell Abbott (2005) [see Artnet News, Nov. 12, 2009] is gaining a market history that is as bizarre, in its own way, as the life of its subject. After being sold by Leo Koenig Gallery in New York City for a respectable price, the picture was unloaded in a Phillips “Saturday @ Phillips” sale in London on Mar. 14, 2009, for an unbelievable £125 (ca. $172), rather less than the presale low estimate (and we do mean low) of £1,000 (ca. $1,427).

The savvy buyer at that sale presumably turned around and resold the work at Phillips London on Nov. 21, 2009, for £2,000 (ca. $3,335), a price as ignominious as the painting’s subject, but at least garnering a profit of more than $3,000. Dime Bag’s future can only be bright.

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