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Art Market Watch


by Jessica Mizrachi
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The auction houses are warming up again after a brief holiday hiatus. Tired of year-end review lists? Below are highlights of upcoming sales in January 2012, sales that reflect both old and new marketing efforts.

“Tastemakers” in London
The most notable marketing initiative is at the South Kensington salesrooms of Christie’s London on Jan. 17, 2012, where “Three Tastemakers” offers a “diverse” selection from the vaults of London designer and architect Anouska Hempel, collector Kay Saatchi and London contemporary art dealer Ivor Braka.

Could Christie’s be taking a leaf from the Phillips de Pury playbook, notably its collaboration with Philippe Segalot last year? Though the premise of this sale is different -- the titular tastemakers actually owned these things, rather than just having sourced them -- the otherwise mostly ho-hum objects acquire a certain cachet from their association with these well-known art-market players.

Two-hundred of the 366 lots come from Anouska Hempel, the former British actress who got her start as a Bond Girl (in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969). The sale “represents an opportunity for the re-organization” of her warehouse. Her offerings are eclectic, ranging from a set of 14 Regency-era klismos chairs, ca. 1820 (est. £20,000-£30,000), to a contemporary “Thai School” painting showing five hunky men, from the rear, pushing some kind of recreational vehicle (est. £200-£400).

Kay Saatchi, the former wife of Charles Saatchi, has been selling things ever since she announced plans to move from London to Los Angeles last year. In June, she sold Ron Mueck’s Big Baby at Christie’s London for a record $1.32 million, and the catalogue for this sale includes a picture of the oversized child in the room where it was once exhibited. Though the Damien Hirst work in the sale (a print) is Braka’s, Saatchi is selling works by “Neurotic Realist” Chantal Joffe (est. £2,500-£4,000) and the British realist Sophie de Stempel (est. £500-£800). A top lot is an Italian scagliola table attributed to the Della Valle brothers that may bring as much as £18,000.

As for Braka, the pioneering supporter of the London School who was once described by the cheeky British art writer Sarah Thornton as looking like an Afghan Hound, he’s selling property from a traditional St. Tropez fisherman’s house that he designed, plus furnishings bought for the Gunton Arms, a pub in Norfolk that he has been redecorating with his wife Sarah. His material thus ranges from richly inlaid Syrian and Damascus furniture and exotic lanterns to Arts & Crafts tables and an early 20th-century wooden globe on four spindles that opens for use as a work table (est. £500-£800).

Americana Week
The first of the art world’s themed weeks hits New York mid-January during Americana Week, Jan. 19-24, 2012 (give or take a few days either way). During the patriotic extravaganza, auction houses large and small will serve up silver, furniture and folk art while dealers exhibit their wares in concurrent shows at the Park Avenue Armory and the Hudson River piers.  

Bonhams New York sale of American and European furniture and decorative arts on Jan. 19, 2012, has a small silver porringer by Paul Revere that may be taken for upwards of $20,000, and a rare tortoise-glazed pottery owl from North Carolina is expected to bring at least three times as much. The most charming lot, though, is a rosy-cheeked Staffordshire figurine of Ben Franklin that a painter in the English factory mislabeled “General Washington” (est. $700-$900).

The same day, Christie’s New York holds its “Important Silver” sale. If you’ve ever wanted to chill your wine the way the founding fathers did, this is your chance.

When George Washington decided to move from the President’s official residence to a bigger home and had the task of outfitting the new abode, he enlisted the help of Gouvernor Morris, another founding father, who was traveling in Paris. Washington gave Morris an extraordinarily detailed description of the qualities his ideal wine cooler should possess.

Morris delivered, and the silver-plated cooler arrived on this side of the Altantic in 1790. In 1797, Washington gave it to Alexander Hamilton as a token of their friendship, and it has remained in the family ever since. In the mid-19th-century Hamilton’s descendants engraved both sides of the vessel, one side with the text of the letter from Washington to Hamilton that accompanied the gift, and the other with the names of those who had owned it.

Though Christie’s estimates the piece will fetch about $500,000, its rich and well documented history may propel bidding to several times that amount.

Sotheby’s New York annual Americana sale is a two-day affair, Jan. 20-21, 2012. One top lot is a Queen Anne high chest made by famed Newport cabinetmaker John Townsend when he was just 23 years old. He must have been pleased with his work, since he signed it twice and put his monogram mark on it five times. The estimate is $2 million-$3 million.

Collectors might experience déjà-vu with another highlight of the sale, the so-called Ptarmigan Vase, named for the Canadian partridge that perches on the rim. An identical vase was sold at Sotheby’s last year (for $662,000, to the National Gallery of Canada) and was thought to be unique.

In the spring, Sotheby’s was notified not just of a second identical vessel, but also of the romantic details surrounding their making by Paulding Farnham, Tiffany’s “Lost Genius,” who lost his fortune by investing in a British Columbia silver mine, but not before producing these twin artworks from a one-ton block of ore.

The first vase carried an estimate of $80,000-100,000. The second vase, which is being sold along with a book detailing its creation, is estimated at $400,000-$600,000.

On Jan. 22, 2012, Sotheby’s is selling nearly 200 schoolgirl embroideries, made in the late-17th through the mid-19th centuries, from the collection of renowned needlework historian Betty Ring. An embroidered mourning picture honoring George Washington that is featured on the cover of the reference book Ring authored is estimated to bring $50,000-$100,000.

Another piece by John Townsend is the featured lot at Christie’s furniture and folk art sale, also held on Jan. 20, 2012. The block and shell cabinet stands just 28 inches high and is being sold by the Chipstone Foundation near Milwaukee to benefit its acquisitions fund. The estimate is “on request” -- about $1 million.

More Newport furniture is being sold during Christie’s sale devoted to the collection of Joseph K. Ott, a scholar and collector of Rhode Island cabinetry. Two card tables, one by Townsend and one by John Goddard, are each estimated to bring at least $2 million.

Audubon is always popular, and Christie’s is selling a set of all four volumes of The Birds of America, John James Audubon’s massive “double-elephant folio” collection of bird prints. The ornithologically obsessed artist collaborated with printmakers to turn his watercolors into engravings, and subscribers received a set of five prints about every two months. This group of 435 engravings took 13 years to produce, and it is believed that not more than 200 complete sets exist. The set at Christie’s belonged to the Duke of Portland and carries an estimate of $7 million-$10 million.

Old Masters Week
Several million-dollar paintings at Christie’s and Sotheby’s are slated to test the strength of the Old Masters market at the end of the month. As always, the challenge with this sector of the art market is said to be about supply rather than demand. As the great International Herald-Tribune reporter Souren Melikian regularly reminds us, aggressive estimates on less-than-desirable lots have also hampered sales.

The Sotheby’s headliner is a view of Venice by Canaletto that carries an estimate of $5 million-$7 million. The painting is later and smaller than a similar picture that brought $5.7 million at Christie’s in December 2008. It remains to be seen whether buyers chase after the Canaletto offered at Sotheby’s, which was last sold in 1986.

Christie’s has less to worry about with its top lot, since the painting carries a third party guarantee. a 15th-century devotional image showing Mary nursing Christ by Hans Memling measures just under 7 inches in diameter and was purchased privately in 2007 by the present owner. The work has been widely published and was the focus of an exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art last year titled “Hans Memling's Virgin Nursing the Christ Child and the Early Netherlandish Tondo.” Christie’s consignor hopes the painting is admired to the tune of $6 million-$8 million.

Outside the auction room, don’t forget “Master Drawings New York,” Jan. 21-28, 2012, taking place at more than 20 dealers, including Didier Aaron, Barbara Mathes, Achim Moeller, Mireille Mosler, Jill Newhouse and David Tunick.

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