Halloween and the New York print auctions came at the same time this year, and specialists at both auction houses were looking rather haunted earlier in the week, as they placed multiple calls to consignors and begged them to lower their reserves another 30 percent before the sales.
Part of the problem was timing, since the auction houses had to wrap up their fall catalogues for press in August, and the economic tsunami had not yet hit our shores. As Sotheby’s contemporary print specialist Christopher Gaillard explained, "We knew prices were going to be lower, but it was very hard to gauge the full effect three months in advance."
The final tallies from both houses showed that this new market has shifted radically from previous years: Christie’s sale on Oct. 28-29, 2008, totaled $8,165,663, roughly 62 percent of the value of all the lots in the sale, and a sell-through rate of 61 percent. Sotheby’s did a little worse on Oct 30-31, 2008, totaling $8,325,317, about 52 percent of the value of its sale, and a sell-through rate of 58 percent.
Overall, many works saw price corrections, especially those by artists whose prints had seen stupendous increases in value over the past few years. The biggest loser was Andy Warhol, whose decline was confirmation of a trend that Pop dealers had noticed over the past year. Warhol prices dropped at least 30 percent overall, and in some cases more.
Both houses offered "Campbell’s Soup II," the portfolio of 10 silkscreens from 1969. The set at Christie’s, estimated at $150,000-$250,000, opened at $95,000 and drew no bids. At Sotheby’s, where the estimate was $200,000-$300,000, the lot opened at $110,000 and also elicited no bidding. The result moves the price for the portfolio to 2005 levels, when the set fetched $105,000 at Sotheby’s New York. (The top price for "Campbell’s Soup II" is $312,000, paid at Phillips de Pury & Co. on May 18, 2007.)
The good news is that Sotheby’s sold one of Warhol’s "Marilyn" portfolios of ten multicolored silkscreens for just over $1 million ($1,022,500). This is the third highest price ever achieved for a Warhol price at auction, proving that "Marilyn" is still a big draw for collectors. The same cannot be said, however for the "Mao" and the "Electric Chair" portfolios, which both passed at Sotheby’s at top bids of $400,000 and $110,000, respectively.
Prices also dropped for the business end of the inventory -- the lower-end modern and contemporary prints that provide fodder for the retail operations of many art dealers. Most of the Picasso ceramics at both houses passed, as did the minor Miró, Picasso and Chagall prints that had seen big jumps in price over the last few years. This trend indicates that dealers are holding back, hoping to sell more of their current inventory before they buy any more.
But that’s not the only reason dealers held back. Los Angeles dealer Leslie Sacks reported he had curtailed much of his auction bidding due to the poor condition of many of the works offered. "I have a mint condition Essence Mulberry from 1977 by Helen Frankenthaler, priced at $90,000. The one that sold at Christie’s for $74,500 wasn’t as nice."
Collectors seem to agree with Sacks’ emphasis on connoisseurship: a sparkling impression of the Henri Matisse Marie-José en robe jaune with fresh colors sold to a private collector at Christie’s for $170,500. A duller copy at Sotheby’s failed to find a home, with the bidding stopping at $70,000.
Since his well-attended retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in 2006, works by Edvard Munch have been on the collector radar (as witness the record-setting $34 million for Munch’s Vampire paid at Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern sale on Nov. 3). Christie’s offered a lovely impression of Munch’s famous Madonna print, in the fourth state (without the garland of swimming sperm).
Former Sotheby’s print department head Marc Rosen, now a private dealer, purchased the work, presumably for a client, for $650,500, which is about the same price as the $679,400 brought by another impression at Sotheby’s in May 2008. (N.B. the sperm jacks up the price: a beautifully colored one fetched the equivalent of $1,274,209 in November of last year at a Munch auction in Oslo at the Grev Wedels Plass Auksjoner.)
Over at Sotheby’s, print expert Mary Bartow was sorry to see Munch’s rare and seminal Das Geschrei -- The Scream -- appearing for the first time ever at auction, only to fail to find a buyer. With its presale estimate of $2 million-$3 million, this particular impression, measuring ca. 18 x 13 in., was not signed, which may have put collectors off.
The top end of the Picasso market was not all gloom and doom, however. One of the better selling lots at Christie’s was Picasso’s great Cubist masterpiece, Femme au Tambourin (1938). This rich impression sold for $578,500 (with premium) to Paris print dealer Marc Lebouc -- a respectable price in any market.
The provenance of the piece is quite wonderful, as it was offered by the Estate of the late Baroness Marcella Korff, who received it from her famous aunt, Mary Callery, a socialite of great beauty and old money who lived in Paris in the 1930s. She was also a talented sculptor and apparently had other talents as well, since, according to the Christie’s catalogue, she had a string of celebrity artist lovers, including Matisse, Léger, Calder, Maillol and indeed Pablo P., who gave her this work as well as the spectacular 1956 linocut, La Femme a la Resille (woman with green hair), which sold for $60,000 to London dealer Max Reed.
Over at Sotheby’s, a snappy example of Picasso’s Femme a la Fenetre fetched $134,500, apparently paid by Emmanuel Benador of Jan Krugier Gallery, which of course represents the Picasso estate. The print fetched the equivalent of $141,312 at a sale at Calmels Cohen in Paris in 2005.
Alan Cristea and Max Reed were not only showing Richard Hamilton prints in their booths at the nearby IFPDA print fair, they also attempted to acquire more at auction. Sotheby’s offered a spectacular trove of works from the Lauffs Collection in Germany. Reed waved his paddle in the air, but most of the action was on the phone. MOMA print curator Deborah Wye said the museum was eyeing Hamilton’s rare Patricia Knight from 1964, produced in an edition of six unique impressions, which carried a presale estimate of $40,000-$60,000.
The final price for the Hamilton: $92,500. Sotheby’s contemporary specialist Christopher Gaillard reported that institutions were outspent. Not to worry: Hamilton buyers will have another chance at Swann Galleries on Nov. 20, 2008, when several of the same prints, including I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas (1971), are offered -- with rather lower estimates.
Finally, the other shoe has apparently dropped for Chinese contemporary prints, at least at auction. A portfolio from 2005 entitled "Giants of Contemporary Chinese Art" went unsold at Sotheby’s, unable to muster a bid above $20,000. Also bought-in were eight works by artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Ye and Zeng Fanzhi. At Christie’s, seven works by Wang Guangyi hit the block, with only three finding buyers.
Phillips contemporary print chief Cary Leibowitz predicted that the day of the phone-book-sized catalogue has passed. "Right now there are too many works, and not enough bidders," he said. "Next season’s offerings will be substantially smaller."
This paradigm shift of prices had still not penetrated the dealer rank-and-file that participated in the International Fine Print Dealers Association (IFPDA) Print Fair at the Park Avenue Armory, Oct. 30-Nov. 2, 2008. Although Sotheby’s failed to sell -- for a second time -- Picasso’s bellwether L’Egyptienne from 1953, which carried a presale estimate of $125,000-$150,000, the print was offered in two booths, both with price tags of $300,000.
R.S. Johnson Gallery from Chicago sold a lovely example of Rembrandt’s Three Trees (1643) for around $230,000, well below the price the same etching brought at Christie’s London in December 2005 -- $346,456. As of Oct. 31, however, New York dealer David Tunick had not sold his spectacular impression of Three Trees for the equally spectacular price of $675,000.
Barry Walker, curator of modern art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston reported that the most exciting print at the IFPDA fair was Picasso’s Portrait d’Olga au Col de Fourrure (1923), offered at John Szoke’s booth. Originally from the collection of Marina Picasso, the etching and drypoint was never editioned. The price was reported to be over $1 million and Szoke indicated that he had received strong interest from three institutions.
The contemporary dealer Glenn Dranoff reported that business was slow, but he did manage to make some sales, including a pleasing pair of glittering Damien Hirst digital prints, Cathedral Print with Diamond Dust (2007), for $52,500 each. Jim Kempner Gallery director Dru Arstark reported that sales were decent, including Horsefeathers #1 (1972) by the late Robert Rauschenberg, for $7,500.
New mother Larissa Goldston was exhibiting her ten-month-old daughter Tatyana, named after her famous print-publishing grandmother, Tatyana Grossman, along with the last works by Robert Rauschenberg, which are entitled "The Lotus Series." Made in 2008, the digital collages are based on the artist’s photos from his 1982 trip to China and published by U.L.A.E. The price: $20,000 each. The entire series is on view at Goldston’s gallery in Chelsea, Oct. 10-Nov. 8, 2008.
Publishers offered an array of new editions. Two Palms Press had a group of recent Elizabeth Peyton prints and monotypes, an offering that coincides with her current show at the New Museum. One of the standouts was John Kelsey from 2007, priced at $20,000. The publisher also had some wonderful new Mel Bochner releases, including the luminous Blah, Blah, Blah (2008), etched by master intaglio printer Craig Zamiello, for $3,600.
Bud Shark had some colorful and large lithographs by Roberto Juarez. Tandem Press continues its explorations of the many possibilities of prints with artist Judy Pfaff; works in her new "Year of the Dog" series are complicated and large (36 x 84 in.) woodblocks, with digital and hand-painting, as well as collaged cut-outs. Release price is $16,500.
Arion Press was offering the 2007 collection of Emily Dickinson poems, entitled Sampler, illustrated by Kiki Smith, who studied 18th- and 19th-century American samplers for inspiration. Limited to an edition of 400, the book is priced at $1,400.
Mixografia offered the first sculpture ever created by John Baldessari, a hand-colored sailboat made of paper pulp, for $20,000.
The cutting edge, however, was to be found downtown at the Tunnel, where the Editions / Artist Books Fair set up shop, Oct. 31-Nov. 2, 2009. Opening night had music surging and collectors swaying.
The artist Kiki Smith was herself spotted at Dieu Donné, looking at a new edition by Kristen Hassenfeld -- a silkscreened and hand-stenciled linen pulp piece entitled Blue Ware Ornamental. Its release price is $1,400. The experimental papermakers also had four new sculptural paper works by Richard Tuttle, and two new cast-paper reliefs by James Siena that resemble African textiles.
Cirrus Editions in Los Angeles had handsome new monotypes by Mark Bradford of his hair salon. Cirrus Founder Jean Milant was most excited by his new editions with Kori Newkirk, whose current show at the Pasadena Museum and exhibition last year at the Studio Museum in Harlem have brought him into the spotlight. His lithographs of hands clapping and empty microphones, printed on mirrored surfaces, point to the artist’s interest in politics and racism -- especially trenchant during the 2008 Presidential campaign.
One final campaign special: New York dealer Chris Neptune was offering a new edition by Mickalene Thomas printed by Brand X, a portrait of a smiling Michelle Obama. Offered at $750 during the fair, the price may just go up after election day. Our new First Lady definitely has something to smile about.
DEBORAH RIPLEY is Artnet’s print expert.