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Art Market Watch


Nov. 10, 2011 

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The Occupy Wall Street demonstrators on the street in front of Sotheby’s New York headquarters last night -- and it was a vigorous group, including an oompah band, not to mention a sizeable security contingent -- should take heart.

The rich art collectors inside were gathered together to tear each other apart -- to cost each other money! Is that not the essence of an auction, prospective buyers fighting it out, making each other pay more, sometimes much more, than they would otherwise?

And is this not especially true with the most expensive lots, when every single bid is costing some plutocrat $100,000, $250,000 or $500,000 each, up to untold scores of millions of dollars? And is it not especially heartening when all this dough goes to a city and its people, as was the case with the Clyfford Still paintings being sold by the city of Denver, Colo.? Well?

Sotheby’s evening sale of contemporary art on Nov. 9, 2011, totaled $315.8 million, with 62 of 73 lots selling, or almost 85 percent. The total is well above the presale high estimate of $270 million, and the highest total of any sale since May 2008 (and compares favorably to the $247.6 million total at Christie’s New York the evening before).

The real excitement came towards the beginning of the auction, with the four paintings consigned by Denver to fund its new Clyfford Still Museum, which opens next week. For the first, lot 11, 1949-A-No. 1, an 8 x 7 ft. oil in black, red and white, auctioneer Tobias Meyer began the bidding at $18 million, launching what turned out to be a lengthy battle between New York dealer Christopher Eykyn, his cell phone held firmly to his ear, and Sotheby’s America’s chairman Lisa Dennison, on the phone with an unidentified client.

The audience sat mesmerized as the bids climbed relentlessly in $500,000 jumps until finally Dennison prevailed, buying the picture for $55 million at the hammer, or $61,682,500 with premium. The price is a new auction record for the artist, of course.

In the subdued drama of the auction theater, Dennison’s clearly enunciated bids, called out steadily and more often than not without hesitation, were electrifying (Eykyn merely nodded, and his bidder was more reticent, and slower). This is the woman who as director of the Guggenheim Museum roped in Thomas Krens, and now, what puny billionaire could dare drop out of the bidding and let her down? She’s Lisa D, and the “D” stands for “domination”!

The subsequent Still lots sold to anonymous phone bidders for $31.4 million (the Sotheby’s expert with the winning bid was Gabriela Palmieri, daughter of Salsa legend Eddie Palmieri; West Coast dealer John Berggruen was an underbidder), $19.7 million (with Dennison offering the winning bid) and, finally, $1.3 million for the early, uncharacteristic PH-351 (1940). It was if the room had suddenly come to its senses.

“Why do you like these paintings so much?” asked a mystified German colleague. The total for all four Still paintings was $114 million. Up in the skybox, the Denver officials were toasting themselves with champagne, or perhaps it was Coors.

The auction also included many other choice lots, and featured no less than eight paintings by Gerhard Richter, who is an art-market favorite, needless to say. Three of these works made the top ten, including the 8 x 11 ft. Abstraktes Bild (849-3) (1997), which brought $20.8 million, and the more colorful if smaller Gudrun (1987), which sold for $18 million, both to telephone bidders.

Cady Noland’s Oozewald (1989), the artist’s signature portrait of Lee Harvey Oswald punctured by large holes, sold for a hefty $6,578,500, well above the $3 million presale high estimate and a new record for the artist. The lengthy battle for the work, which was produced in an edition of four, was carried out between phone bidders, while the audience cooled its heels.

New York dealers in the salesroom took their revenge two lots later, when a second Noland work, a kind of scatter-sculpture titled Bloody Mess (1988), came to the block. Separated by several full rows, David Zwirner and Larry Gagosian bid against each other (presumably without realizing it), until Gagosian triumphed at $350,000 bid, or $422,500 with premium -- definitely a comparative bargain. The artist herself, who retired from art-making almost two decades ago, is notorious for objecting to the whole business.

The very long sale also saw a $19.7 million Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Self Portrait (1967), reputed to be his first, and a record-setting Joan Mitchell abstraction, which sold for $9.3 million. Records were also set for Albert Oehlen ($698,500), David Hammons ($2,266,500, for a wired-together wall-hung stack of African masks) and Dan Flavin ($1,706,500, for the shockingly pretty Four Red Horizontals [To Sonja] from 1963, an edition of five). The buyer of the Hammons was collector Adam Lindemann, sitting with his wife, the dealer Amalia Dayan.

Other buyers in the room included Museum of Modern Art curator emeritus John Elderfield, of all people -- “I don’t work for the museum anymore,” he said in the elevator on the way up -- who took home an untitled neon-red plastic box from 1968 by Donald Judd for $4,674,500, certainly not his usual specialty.

Art consultant Thea Westreich bought lot 37, a Gerhard Richter work on paper, for $902,500, and Dominque Levy of L&M Arts bought lot 42, David Smith’s Agricola XII, for $1,426,500.

The second-to-last lot, Josef AlbersHomage to the Square: Two Grays between Two Yellows, was consigned by the Guggenheim Museum. It sold for $962,500.

Towards the end of the sale, Jose Mugrabi, who had bought works by John Chamberlain (the 1991 sculpture Disguise the Limit, for $866,500) and Andy Warhol (a huge Diamond Dust Shoes, for $2,098,500), got up and moved back a few rows to sit beside Stephanie Seymour. The former model, who was with her husband, Peter Brant, was all smiles in a black dress with a double strand of pearls, her chestnut hair held back with a headband. She was having a good time, and gave sugar not only to Jose but also Robert Mnuchin, who stopped for a hello kiss on his way out.

After all this, it might be worth mentioning the depressing news that Sotheby’s actually lost money last quarter. A few days ago, the firm announced a third-quarter net loss of $29.7 million, an increase from the $19.4 million loss from the year before. Sotheby’s typically loses money during the summer months, its slowest period; the firm was profitable for 2010.
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 Art Auctions Report.

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