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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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The New York auction houses -- Phillips de Pury & Co., Christie’s and Sotheby’s -- turned their gaze toward Latin America last week. All together, 29 lots by Fernando Botero were offered, but a 1939 portrait of a young girl by Diego Rivera at Sotheby’s carried the highest estimate of all, $4 million-$6 million, though it failed to sell.

Phillips de Pury started the action on May 21-22, 2012. The upstart auction house offered 116 lots, selling 66 percent for a total of $3.5 million. Botero took the top two spots: a milky white marble sculpture of a reclining nude, with an almost Henry Moore-like biomorphism, sold for $722,500, and a drawing on canvas of a big girl eating a comically small ice cream cone sold for $362,500. Both prices were within presale estimates.

The sale’s real star was a felted wool wall piece by the Venezuelan artist Arturo Herrera that sold for $206,500, several times the presale high estimate of $30,000 and a new auction record for the artist -- at least for a little while, until the Sotheby’s sale a few days later, when Untitled (Double/Purple), an attractive but less distinctive work from 2005, sold for $218,500.

Two abstract works by the Cuban-born New York painter Carmen Herrera (b. 1915) were among the few lots to generate competitive bidding. After decades of painting, Herrera sold her first canvas in 2004 at the age of 89 -- so the story goes, anyway -- and her hard-edge minimalist works have since become increasingly sought after; of the six of her paintings that have sold at auction, four went on the block last week. “Only my love of the straight line keeps me going,” she told the New York Times in a 2009 interview.

The two untitled works at Phillips were painted last year and the proceeds benefited the Brooklyn Academy of Music. They sold for $20,000 and $18,750, about double their presale high estimates of $9,000. A new Herrera auction record, $134,500, was set later in the week at Sotheby’s.

Next up was Christie’s New York, whose two-day sale on May 22-23 had the highest total of the three, $27.7 million for 222 of 299 lots sold, or 74 percent. The top lot was a dynamic oil painting by Roberto Matta, La Révolte des Contraires (1944), which once belonged to Pierre Matisse. The auction house did not name the seller -- the catalogue calls the work “property of a gentleman” -- but its exhibition history suggests it came from the estate of John Todd Figi, a businessman and collector of Latin American art who died last year. The exhibition, “Matta on Paper: The John Todd Figi Collection,” at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 2004-05, included the present work.

Three other Matta lots at the evening sale sold within or near presale estimates, while bidders passed on eight Matta drawings during the day sale, each estimated around $15,000.

Other top lots at Christie’s included two works by Botero ($1.4 million and $840,000), two works from the 1930s by Joaquín Torres-García ($1.4 million and $540,000), and the auction catalogue cover lot, the Brazilian modernist Candido Portinari’s Navio Negreiro, or Slave Ship (1950), that sold for $1.1 million -- a new record for the artist.

Latin American Op Art held up its end, too, when a new record was set for the Paris-based Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez (b. 1923), who has had major exhibitions in U.S. museums in the last year in Houston and Washington, D.C. His Physichromie 164 (1965) sold for $722,500, a new auction record for the artist. Christie’s sale boasted more than 30 records, including Los Carpinteros ($98,500), Ernesto Neto ($62,500) and about eight artists whose works had never before appeared at auction.

Sotheby’s New York evening sale of Latin American art on May 23 totaled $21.8 million, with 54 of 66 lots selling, or almost 89 percent. The tally, which included nine new records, was the highest the firm has seen for an evening sale of Latin American art. The day sale on May 24 added about $5 million, bringing the series’ total to $26.9 million.

Half of the top ten lots were Op or Kinetic Art. Carlos Cruz-Diez provided one of each, when Physichromie No 1.021 sold for $554,500 (est. $250,000-$350,000) and a motorized painting from the UBS art collection sold for $662,500 (est. $350,000-$450,000). Jesus Rafael Soto’s Sin Titulo (Vibracion Amarilla y Blanca) sold for $1 million, well above the presale high estimate of $600,000, a record for the artist.

Though the featured Rivera was bought in, Sotheby’s set a new record for Wifredo Lam with Ídolo (Oya/Divinite de L’Air et de la Mort), the evening sale’s top lot. The rather cryptic imagery revolves around Oya, a Yoruba goddess, according to the catalogue essay. The 1944 painting sold for $4.6 million (est. $2 million-$3 million).

Another top lot was an homage to Lucio Fontana by the late Brazilian artist Sergio Camargo (1930-90), who studied with the Argentina-born Arte Povera artist at the Altamira Academy in Buenos Aires. Hommage a Fontana fetched $1.5 million, almost double the $800,000 presale high estimate. Auction watchers will remember that the record for a living Brazilian artist was set in February 2011 at Christie’s post-war and contemporary evening sale in London, when another nod to Fontana, Adriana Varejãos slashed Parede com Incisoes a la Fontana sold for $1.7 million.

Buyers favored another marble Botero nude from 2006 that sold for $554,500 (est. $300,000-$350,000) over a bronze figure, this one clothed, that was expected to go for as much as $1.2 million but passed.

Records were also set for Armando Reverón ($872,500) and Gego (Gertrudis Goldschmidt) ($602,500).

Prices given here include the auction-house commission of 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1,000,000, and 12 percent of the rest.

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

JESSICA MIZRACHI is a decorative arts specialist who writes on the art market.