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by Deborah Ripley
The spring print auctions ended last week and prices continued to tumble. Unlike the fat catalogues of last fall, the offerings at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s were smaller -- Christie’s 228-lot sale on Apr. 28 was its smallest since the art-market crash of 1989. Sotheby’s two-day auction on Apr. 30 and May 1 featured 346 lots, substantially fewer than the 570 works offered six months ago.

The sale results also show how much the market has shifted. Last October, Sotheby’s sale totaled $8,325,317, but the spring results were little over half that, $4,575,315. At Christie’s, the October total was $8,165,663, while this slim spring sale netted a mere $2,958,375, a drop of 64 percent.

The two houses adopted very different strategies in these trying times. Christie’s specialist Adam McCoy reported that his team had been very firm with consignors in setting conservative estimates, resulting in a notably smaller number of prints to sell. The strategy paid off to some degree, as Christie’s sold an astonishing 94 percent of its lots by value.

Christie’s material was also tailored to fit the new economy. After noticing that dealers were not replenishing their stock by buying mid-range material like smaller Miró prints and Picasso pots, Christie’s cut back on such offerings substantially and offered larger, more expensive graphics by those artists. The firm also trimmed its Chagall offerings, after concluding that the Chagall market has run out of gas after enjoying a very strong market for the past few years.

Sotheby’s strategy was a bit different. Head contemporary print specialist Molly Steiger reported that her department’s goal was the bottom line. “Although our sell-through was not as high [just over 66 percent by value], we sold $1.5 million more than Christie’s." Sotheby’s offered fewer Warhol prints than in the past, including only two complete portfolios of ten prints, a 1972 "Mao" (est. $400,000-$600,000) that did not sell and the 1980 portfolio "Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century," which fetched $104,500.

For the first time in decades, Warhol did not rate at the top of the list of best-selling works at both houses. (Contemporary prints made up only three of the top ten works at Christie’s). The star of the Christie’s sale was a rare Edward Hopper etching, House by a River (1919), coming up for the first time at auction and one of only ten known examples (all the others are in institutions). Estimated at $50,000-70,000, it fetched $116,000 and was sold to an American collector.

Another strong seller at Christie’s was an Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph of the famous dancer at the Folies Bergere Miss Loie Fuller (1893), with hand-applied gold powder, that fetched $74,500; Lautrec dealer Gary Bruder noted that this was one of the best examples he had ever seen, and emphasized that in previous years it would have sold for much more 

At Sotheby’s, the highest priced lot was a Jasper Johns Target (1974) that sold to a Canadian private collector for a very respectable $182,500, a price that holds up well against other “Targets" that have appeared at auction over the past two years. Classic Pop Warhol prints were also a factor at Sotheby’s, with the hot pink Marilyn (1967) fetching $158,500. 

Picasso notched four spots on the sale’s top ten. One stand-out was a rare hand-colored proof from 1945, Deux Femmes Nues, that bested its $40,000-$60,000 presale estimate, going for $92,500 to an American private collector.

At both houses, technology is making its mark. Christie’s new online bidding was responsible for 10 percent of overall sales, and the highest selling online lot in the auction, the Toulouse-Lautrec Partie de Campagne (1897), fetched $60,000, putting it into the top ten.

Over at Sotheby’s, in an effort to encourage online viewing (and save catalogue costs), the condition reports were purposely left out of the catalogues, forcing bidders to go online and register to receive the data. Once online, superlative photos, with the ability to zoom in on each object, rewarded tech-savvy bidders.

Despite this advantage, however, many regulars complained after they noticed that the condition information was quite abridged, and that info on the publishers of the prints had been completely deleted.  And the changes will continue -- the new Latin American catalogue at Sotheby’s is the size of a pocketbook, making online viewing a necessity to examine the works outside of the preview.

In the “we try harder" department, a smaller New York auction house, Swann Galleries, had its print sale on Apr. 30, and offered more lots (496) than either Christie’s or Sotheby’s. Still more remarkable was the sale’s consistent performance -- the auction totaled $1,485,740, only a slight drop from the firm’s total of $1,546,272 in October 2008.

Swann’s spokesperson Rebecca Weiss suggested that the 183 Old Master print offerings at the house (neither of the larger auctioneers offered Old Master prints) may have been a contributing factor. One of the stars was a Dürer engraving, Erasmus of Rotterdam (1526), that fetched $36,000, just over the high estimate.

Perhaps because of their higher overheads, the larger houses are forced to come up with ways to cut costs as they weather the economic downturn. The challenge is finding property that consignors will be willing to part with at lower prices, a particularly trying task if the owners had paid more to begin with.

Finally, in this market buyers are not thrilled to pay the premium, which averages 25 percent on top of the hammer cost. Bigger houses may be forced to part with some of their commission to lure buyers and sellers back to the sales. It is still a waiting game.

DEBORAH RIPLEY is Artnet’s print expert.