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Art Market Watch

by Rachel Corbett
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So, the fall auction season has started. How's the market? The results are mixed. Christie’s New York “First Open” auction on Sept. 21, 2011, totaled $9,920,375, with 74 percent of lots selling, a bit of a drop from the March sale of the same name (which brought in a record $10.3 million). The top lot, a vibrant Gerhard Richter Abstraktes Bild (1997), nearly doubled its $400,000 presale estimate to sell for $794,500.

The number two lot was Frank Stella’s double protractor Khurasan Gate III (1968), which sold for $542,500, right in the middle of its presale estimate. Stella, who is 75, has almost 600 paintings in the Artnet price database, though the protractors are less favored than the concentric squares (currently on view in a mini-retrospective at Paul Kasmin Gallery). Stella's auction record is $5 million, set in 1989 for the black enamel Tomlinson Park (1959).

Sotheby’s New York contemporary art sale on Sept. 22, 2011, came in a close second at $9,155,715, though the 65.5 percent sell-through rate was a little disappointing. Could the disruption of the auction by activists from Occupy Wall Street have anything to do with it? Anonymous protestors, supporting Sotheby's locked-out art handlers, interruped the morning sale nine times before being escorted out by security.

The top lot there was an unusual, eight-foot-wide Roy Lichtenstein abstraction called Prop for a Film (1969), plane of dots on a yellow board, which failed to find a buyer at Phillips de Pury in London last year. It was then estimated at £500,000-£700,000, but with a lowered reserve found a buyer this time around for $422,500.

The sale did set a new auction record for Chicago Imagist Peter Saul (b. 1934), whose raucously comic Double de Kooning Duck (1979) quadrupled its presale high estimate to sell for $272,500. The picture should be shipped straight over to the Museum of Modern Art!

Also selling for well above their estimates: Victor Vasarely, Arman, Jules Olitski, Julian Stanczak, Rainer Fetting.

Both houses had specialty sales during the week. Christie’s star-studded, 26-lot Artists for Haiti benefit auction on Sept. 22, organized by David Zwirner and Ben Stiller, totaled a blockbuster $13.7 million, well above the presale high estimate of $10.5 million.

As has been widely reported, pop princess Jennifer Aniston and beau Justin Theroux, sitting in the front row at Artists for Haiti, bought Glenn Ligon's Stranger #44, a canvas filled with rows of densely illegible text, for $450,000, more than double the presale high estimate and a new auction record for the artist by about $15,000 (Ligon is one of the few living African American artists whose works are in play in the evening sales.)

Another celebrity lot, this one in terms of its subject, was Elizabeth Peyton's black-and-white portrait of Jay-Z from 2008 -- a picture that understandably may be the most macho image the famously girlish artist has ever drawn. The work sold to an anonymous bidder for $85,000.

New auction records were also set for Raymond Pettibon, whose 10-foot-wide bright blue painting of a breaking wave went for $820,000 (more typically, his signature cartoon ink drawings can be had for under $10,000), and Algerian-born artist  Adel Abdessemed, whose printed-steel map of the world sold for $350,000.

The top lot of the sale was an expressionistic, almost golden painting by Marlene Dumas of her mother in her wedding gown, My mother before she became my mother (2010), which more than doubled its $800,000 high estimate to sell for for $2 million. Ben Stiller himself purchased works by Martin Kippenberger, Jeff Koons and Nate Lowman.

At Sotheby's, the specialty sale was the third installment of works from the estate of the late art dealer Allan Stone, which went off on Sept. 23 and totaled $13.2 million, the high end of its estimate. The auction featured choice works by artists the irrepressible dealer had worked with during his long career. (One wonders, with an estate worth $300 million, will the trove of pictures ever be exhausted?)

Wayne Thiebaud's colorful Tie Tray from 1969, which can be seen as a parody of the kind of formalist stripe painting then in vogue, was the number one lot, more than doubling its $1 million estimate to sell for $2.3 million. Willem de Kooning's signature fleshy Woman as Landscape (1965-66), not at all unlike the wall full of similar pictures over at MoMA, sold for $1,594,500, the second best price at the auction.

And the great Alfred Leslie, co-author with Robert Frank of Pull My Daisy (1959), the beatnik film milestone, and a painter known in the 1970s as a pioneer Photo Realist, had a 1958 abstraction go for $254,500.

Last and perhaps understandably least is Phillips de Pury and Company, whose “Under the Influence” sale of contemporary art, also held on Sept. 23, 2011, totaled $2,784,375, somewhat lower than the firm's similar sale in March, and with another bleak sell-through rate of about 62 percent.

The market likes celebrities and the market likes diamonds and the market likes Vik Muniz. Ergo, his Jackie (Pictures of Diamonds) (2005) was the sale's top lot, at $158,500. The picture is in an edition of ten, and has also been produced in a slightly larger size, which sold last year for $212,500. Muniz has more than 700 lots sold at auction, with a photo-portrait of Marilyn Monroe drawn in blood holding the top price, at $266,500.

One surprise at Phillips was the sale of New York artist John Miller’s 1998 painting, Dating Game, a purposely banal scene from the television matchmaking show, for $43,750, well above its $4,000-$6,000 presale estimate and a new auction record for the artist. A pop-postmodernist long associated with Metro Pictures in New York, Miller is "an artist's artist," according to Allison Card, a director at the gallery. No doubt. But he has recently found favor with collectors with his piles of stuff richly covered with gold leaf, and the auction market seems to be catching onto his other work as well. 

For complete, illustrated results, see the Artnet Fine Art Auction Report.

RACHEL CORBETT is the news editor of Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email