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by Chris Bors
Call the doctor! The patient still looks a bit green about the gills! At Matthew Marks Gallery last week, a panel of experts rated the current health of the art market. “I give it a six,” said Chelsea art dealer James Cohan, in so many words, with art advisor Michele C. Quinn putting it at ca. 65 percent. Todd Levin of the Levin Art Group was the more pessimistic, giving it a “five.“

Later, Levin explained that he was looking at the market as a whole, not just the stuff that trades at the highly public art auctions. “I’m including the 90 percent of the iceberg that’s under water,” he said.

And that’s exactly what we want our good ship to avoid. So without further ado, it’s off to Sotheby’s Hong Kong, which opened the month with its annual series of Asian art sales. The firm justly dubbed the event “phenomenal” -- the sales total was HK$3 billion, or $400 million, the highest ever for an auction series in Hong Kong. (That’s ca. $1 = HK$7.50, if you’re keeping score.)

Do these results represent a growing market or merely Sotheby’s expert penetration of an existing one? Or perhaps both?

Of course, it was a long series, a “7-day autumn sale” running Oct. 2-8, 2010, and including no less than 15 auctions, ranging from wine (two sales, both 100 percent sold) to contemporary Asian art (two sales, totaling $32.8 million) and watches and jewels.  

(For comparison, the Asia Week sales in New York in mid-September were much smaller, with Christie’s New York totaling $55.5 million and Sotheby’s New York’s $27.6 million.)

Start with Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale of modern and contemporary Southeast Asian paintings -- which tends to feature charming, illustrative works by Indonesian and Javanese painters -- and which totaled $10 million with 80 percent of the lots sold. Top lot was A New Dawn, an eight-foot-wide, vaguely Socialist Realist work from 1956 by the “Father of Indonesian Modernism,” Sindudarsono Sudjojono (1913-1985), which went for $1.4 million, over four times its $320,000 presale high estimate. Overall, this category is up 56 percent from 2009, as last year’s sale total was $6.4 million.

Next up was 20th-century Chinese art, also on Oct. 4, which totaled $17.6 million, with 70 percent of the works selling. Tellingly, paintings by three Chinese modernists tied for the top lot, all selling for $1.8 million: the Ab-Ex painter Zao Wou-ki (Zhao Wuji) and the Matissean Sanyu (Chang Yu), who both worked in Paris and the West, and Liao Chi Chun, a Hans Hofmann-esque Taiwanese painter who visited New York in 1960. The Sanyu was once owned by Robert Frank.

Sotheby’s packed in still more sales on Oct. 4, one of contemporary Asian art, which totaled $26.4 million, and a second from “an important European collection,” which totaled $6.4 million. The combined total, $32.8 million, was more than double last year’s total of $14 million. The sell-through rate was 76 percent.

These sales included the more familiar hotshots of the contemporary Chinese art scene. The top lot was by Zhang Xiaogang -- he of the famous “Bloodline” series -- whose early non-“Bloodline” Chapter of a New Century - Birth of the People’s Republic of China II (1992) sold for $6.69 million, more than double its presale high estimate, to a Shanghai museum.  

Other top lots were by “Mask” series expressionist Zeng Fanzhi ($2.2 million), “Fireworks” painter Cai Guo-Qiang ($1.5 million), Fang Lijun ($1.45 million), and the global tourist, Liu Ye ($1.38 million).

The next day, on Oct. 5, Sotheby’s auction of Chinese paintings totaled an impressive $52 million. Leading the way was the rather disturbingly modern Court Ladies from 1945, a hanging scroll by Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), which sold for $4.25 million.

Photo sales in New York
Five years ago or so, the October photo sales in New York had a little oomph. Things are quieter these days, with more modest offerings, lower aggregate totals and tepid sell-through rates. Sotheby’s auction on Oct. 6, 2010, totaled just under $5 million, at the low end of its presale estimate, with 75 percent of the lots selling.

With its two-day sale on Oct. 6-7, 2010, Christie’s totaled $5.6 million, within the presale estimate, selling 75 percent of the lots. That’s down almost a third from 2009’s total of $7.5 million. And they say the recession has ended.

The top lot at Sotheby’s was Robert Frank’s U. S. 90, En Route to Del Rio, Texas, which, though taken in 1955 and only printed in the ‘70s, still rocketed past its presale high estimate of $120,000 to sell for $266,500 to a telephone bidder. A claustrophobically cropped image of the photographer’s wife and son huddled in the front seat of his car on the side of a barren country road, it is a telling image of Eisenhower-era anomie.

Even more interesting perhaps was Man Ray’s tiny (ca. 6 x 9 in.) surreal Still Life from 1935-36, a kind of installation shot à la Louise Lawler avant la lettre featuring a marble torso on a couch, a chess set on a table and the artist’s famous painting of a woman’s lips floating in the sky, Composition with A L’Heure de L’Observatoire - Les Amoureux (now hanging in the stateroom of the yacht of the late “Golden Greek” supercollector Stavros Niarchos).

This photo, which originally sold from Juliet Man Ray’s estate in 1995 in London for about $54,600, more than doubled its $70,000 presale high estimate this time around, going for $170,500, a terrific price. It’s all about the lips.

Also notable was a new world auction record for Robert Adams, set when Colorado Springs(1969) sold for $86,500 (est. $15,000-$25,000).

The top lot at Christie’s was a 1942 gelatin silver print of Ansel AdamsGrand Tetons and the Snake River, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming, which sold for $338,500, considerably above the presale high estimate of $250,000. Irving Penn’s Mouth (New York), 1986, brought $176,500, above its $150,000 presale high estimate -- not too shabby for a print from an edition of 28.

For lovers of true rarity in the photo collecting biz, Christie’s offered a group of 74 daguerreotypes by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey (1804-1892), who was among the first to snap pix of Greek and Roman ruins in the Mideast. Sell-through was 78 percent, totaling nearly $2.9 million. The top lot was not an architectural study -- Girault de Prangey’s auction record is $916,000, set in 2003 -- but a botanical: 261. Paris Etude de plantes (1841), which sold for $242,500 (est. $140,000-$160,000).

At Phillips de Pury & Co., the photo sale of more than 400 lots on Oct. 8, 2010, totaled almost $4 million, with 78 percent sold -- closing the gap on the big guys -- drawing high prices for familiar images by Irving Penn ($182,500), Robert Frank ($158,500), Richard Avedon ($170,500) and Robert Mapplethorpe ($74,500).

The sale set new auction records for three photographers newer to the auction market: Barry Frydlender ($52,500, for Smoking, Sinai, originally exhibited at Andrea Meislin Gallery), Shinichi Maruyama ($18,750) and He Yunchang ($13,750).

CHRIS BORS is a New York artist and critic.