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Art Market Watch

May 11, 2011 

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Sotheby’s New York evening sale of contemporary art on May 10, 2011, totaled $128 million, with 49 of 58 lots selling, or 84.5 percent. The result, which arguably suggests that we’re on our way to a “double-dip” recession, is a drop from Sotheby’s performance in fall 2010 ($222.5 million), spring 2010 ($190 million) and fall 2009 ($134.4 million). The low of $47 million was set in May 2009, while the record high of $362 million was made in May 2008.

The total is widely considered to be a sign of a shortage of top-rate material in the market.

“There’s nothing really exciting here,” supercollector Eli Broad told Bloomberg reporter Katya Kazakina. “There’s no excitement.”

But in this world where the elementary equation is “price = quality,” that’s what they always say. Call it a “revolt of the rich.”

After the sale, Sotheby’s ace auctioneer Tobias Meyer admitted to “aggressive estimates,” while contemporary expert Anthony Grant referred to the market returning with “baby steps.”

But on to the actual lots. As usual, Andy Warhol was the coin of the realm, taking four of the ten top prices. A grid of Sixteen Jackies from 1965 was the top lot, selling for $18 million at the hammer to a phone bidder, well under its “aggressive” presale estimate of $20 million-$30 million. Jose Mugrabi, chewing manically, glasses on his forehead, threw in a bid or two at the reserve, but otherwise the lot saw no action. Its price, after Sotheby’s commissions, was $20,242,500.

Speculation had Peter Brant as the seller of several of the Warhols. He sat on the aisle, in a line with some of the market’s other big players: Larry Gagosian, Irving Blum, Robert Mnuchin, Philippe Segalot. When Warhol’s Shadows (Red) zoomed above its $700,000-$900,000 presale estimate to sell for $4,842,500 -- consigned by Brant, underbid by Mugrabi, and one of the few bits of excitement in the sale -- it was impossible to ascertain the buyer, though Meyer seemed to sell it to someone along the aisle.

The most anticipation greeted Jeff Koons’ famous Pink Panther (1988), a porcelain sculpture of a half-dressed Jayne Mansfield-type cuddling a large plushie (“it’s about masturbation,” Koons has said, though it is more easily interpreted as an emblem of male surrender), which was exhibited at the firm’s York Avenue showroom rotating on a turntable in a mirrored room. Other copies of the edition of four are at the Museum of Modern Art and the Chicago MCA. Sotheby’s had Pink Panther estimated at $20 million-$30 million, which most thought was absurdly high.

Nothing happened with the lot, and it was sold, presumably to its guarantor, as if for form’s sake -- Meyer distinctly did not say “sold” when he brought down the hammer -- at $15 million to a phone bidder on the line with Patti Wong of Sotheby’s Asia. Absurd or not, it’s now the third-highest Koons lot.

Other high prices were brought by works by Jean-Michel Basquiat ($5.9 milllion), Mark Tansey ($3.4 million, for a fairly opaque painting from 2001), Rosemarie Trockel ($962,500, a new record for a wool “painting”) and Mike Kelley ($842,500, a new record for a group of photos).

Buyers spotted in the room included Gagosian, who won the uninspiring Roy Lichtenstein “Bathroom Interior” for just under $3 million (before taking his leave early, like many others), and everyone’s favorite Madison Avenue dealer, Jack Tilton, who snagged the next lot, a 1986 Lichtenstein Surrealist Head sculpture, for $1.3 million

Dealers could be seen supporting artists in their own stables, as when Marc Glimcher of Pace Gallery bought an Adolph Gottlieb for $1.5 million and David Zwirner a Luc Tuymans for $962,500.

By the way, the mural-sized (7 x 15 ft.) Gottlieb sold by the Detroit Institute of Arts (for acquisitions, natch) brought $950,000 at the hammer from a phone bidder, presumably at the reserve (est. $1 million-$1.5 million).

Segalot bought Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ bottomless pile of photostats of clouds for $1,650,000, and Jose Mugrabi, at the end of the sale, snagged a Basquiat oilstick on canvas, Eroica I from 1988, for $5.9 million following an extended battle with a phone bidder. After waiting a mini-eternity for Meyer to knock down the lot to him at last, Mugrabi signaled the auctioneer with a mock military salute.

Prices given here include the auction-house buyer’s premium, which is 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the amount between $50,000 and $1 million, and 12 percent on the rest.

For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Arts Auction Report.