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Art Market Watch

May 10, 2011 

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Upper East Side art dealer Allan Stone (1932-2006) was a true eccentric, a man with close ties to some of the greatest artists of his time -- Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Wayne Thiebaud -- who also loved his tribal art, flea-market finds and just plain kitsch.

An auction of his personal art collection, then, should be something out of the ordinary, something special.

But Stone was never a player on the snooty art scene, which just might explain the lack of enthusiasm from the assembled art dealers at Sotheby’s New York sale of “The Collection of Allan Stone” on the evening of May 9, 2011.

Very little of the action took place in the room, and the art-world’s grand Pooh-Bah, Larry Gagosian, wasn’t even in attendance (he was with Lady Gaga at the Robin Hood Foundation benefit at Jacob Javits Center).

Still, Sotheby’s proclaimed the auction a triumph, totaling $54.8 million (including house premiums), with 39 of the 42 lots selling, or almost 93 percent. The total “dramatically exceeded the high estimate” of $46.8 million, noted Sotheby’s contemporary expert Alex Rotter, and was “a great testament to Allan Stone’s eye.”  

The sale was divided into two sections, with the first 24 lots devoted to general properties, and the final 18 works coming from the hand of Wayne Thiebaud (b. 1920). Moving from back to front, 17 of the Thiebauds sold, for a total of $23.5 million, above the presale high estimate of $18 million for the group. “A great night for Thiebaud,” Rotter said. “We saw international bidding for his work for the first time.”

International, certainly -- just no bids in the salesroom. Even the celebrated dean of San Francisco dealers, John Berggruen, seemed to be there as an observer only. The top Thiebaud lot, the delectable Pies from 1962 -- in the artist’s first show at Stone -- sold for just over $4 million, just under the record for a Thiebaud work, which is $4.5 million.

Many of the other Thiebaud paintings went for over their presale estimates, almost routinely: Four Pinball Machines (Study) for $3.4 million (est. $700,000-$900,000); Various Cakes for $3 million (est. $1,200,000-$1,800,000); even the unprepossessing Man Reading sold for $2.7 million (est. $1,000,000-$1,500,000).

The question is, does calorie count correlate with price in Thiebaud’s painting?

Top lot of the sale was John Chamberlain’s bouquet of early crushed auto parts, the appropriately titled Nutcracker (1958), which sold for $4.8 million, well above the presale high estimate of $1.8 million, and a new auction record for the artist. With a triumphant new exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, his new dealer, now is definitely the moment for the aging (b. 1927) and ailing artist.

The buyer of Nutcracker was Millicent Wilner, a director at Gagosian London, sitting in the steel-gray-haired dealer’s usual chair, sixth row on the aisle. Wilner also bought another Chamberlain, the second lot, an untitled, small crushed-metal “bas relief” from 1961 -- you can almost feel the artist thinking about converting Abstract Expressionist collage into 3D -- which sold for $662,500, more than double the presale high estimate of $300,000.

Of the sale’s nine Willem de Kooning works, many of them early and distinctly guttural, only two made the top ten, including Event in Barn, the smallish 1947 abstraction (a palpable repository still of post-war American art’s earliest days), which sold for $4.7 million to a phone bidder, possibly at the reserve.

When queried after the sale by Art & Auction reporter Judd Tully about “what happened with the de Kooning lots,” Sotheby’s expert Anthony Grant simply said that the marketplace is offering a lot of de Kooning this week.

Otherwise, an Arshile Gorky pencil drawing from ca. 1935 sold for an impressive $674,500, more than five times its presale high estimate, and Michael Goldberg’s large, de Kooning-esque canvas from 1959, a potential break-out lot (Goldberg’s first in an evening sale), sold for $230,500, merely a notch or two above the estimate -- but a new auction record for the artist all the same.

Tonight, May 10, 2011, it’s back to the multimillion-dollar grind of Warhols and Koons, as Sotheby’s holds its second evening sale of contemporary art.

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.