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Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer Shares His Art Market Insights

How does a collector tell the difference between a “good” Warhol and a “great” Warhol? During a 90-minute lecture hosted by New York’s American Federation of the Arts (AFA) on March 30—the first in this year’s series of “ArtTalks”—Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art and a principal auctioneer at Sotheby’s, noted how slight variations can

NEW YORK—How does a collector tell the difference between a “good” Warhol and a “great” Warhol?

During a 90-minute lecture hosted by New York’s American Federation of the Arts (AFA) on March 30—the first in this year’s series of “ArtTalks”—Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art and a principal auctioneer at Sotheby’s, noted how slight variations can have a huge impact on the hammer price of a work at auction.

Meyer pointed out that Andy Warhol’s turquoise Colored Liz, 1963, brought $3.6 million in November 2001 (see ANL, 11/27/01)—yet three years later his red Liz, 1963, fetched an astounding $12.6 million. Both works measure 40-by-40 inches, though the latter silkscreen is much more precise—the red paint lines up exactly with the subject’s lip line, for example—and this variation is partly what accounted for the price differential. “When you first look, you think they’re both amazing,” Meyer said, “but when you look longer, you become mesmerized by one, while the other is good but not gut- wrenching.”

Meyer, who joined Sotheby’s in 1992 after three years at Christie’s, discussed the verticality of today’s art market. He alluded to factors in its overwhelming growth—namely, the new breed of “I-don’t-care bidder” who will pay any price for a highly sought-after work, regardless of market guidelines. He further remarked on the accelerated increase in buyers from Asia, India and Russia.

Meyer opened the lecture by spotlighting Warhol’s Orange Marilyn, 1964, a painting that soared past expectations when it took $17.3 million at Sotheby’s in May 1998 (see ANL, 6/2/98). The auctioneer chose the image as an example of one of those rare artworks that “have some sense of magnificence outside of the usual,” he explained.

After that landmark sale, “suddenly everything from Warhol became desirable,” said Meyer. “Even the tough iconic images were becoming very expensive.” He related how Warhol’s Little Electric Chair, 1964—sent to auction at Sotheby’s in June 2001 by a dentist in Turin, Italy, who had acquired it for $500—was sold for $2.3 million, way above its $430,000/ 575,000 estimate (see ANL, 7/10/01). Meyer described the market for Warhol as global, citing a collector in Taiwan who bought the Jackie Frieze for $9.2 million in November 2005 (see ANL, 11/22/05).

The market for Abstract Expressionism, on the other hand, is very local, he said. “It’s almost like [these artists] are American heroes, and they’re being bought by an American audience.” When Meyer brought the hammer down on Willem de Kooning’s Orestes, 1947, for $13.2 million in November 2002 (see ANL, 11/26/02), “it was completely a New York experience,” he said. “The picture was painted in New York, it was first shown in New York, and the buyers were from New York.” The collectors who bought the de Kooning work also own Orange Marilyn, he added, and they have hung the two paintings across from one another, “which is a great combination.”

The market for Mark Rothko, whom Meyer considers “the most seductive Abstract Expressionist of his time,” was “changed forever” by the sale of his Yellow over Purple, 1956, for $14.3 million in May 2000 (see ANL, 5/30/2000). Rothko’s catalogue raisonné had been published before the sale, Meyer noted, and collectors realized how few of his works were available.

Then, four-and-a-half years later, Meyer continued, Rothko’s No. 6 (Yellow, White, Blue over Yellow on Gray), 1954, came up for auction. It contained an area of inpainting in the upper-left corner of the canvas that had always proved problematic to its sale value—until Sotheby’s discovered that the work had been included in a 1954 Rothko exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. A search of the institution’s archives turned up the original condition reports, in which Rothko stated that he had repaired the painting himself. The work’s value skyrocketed, and it realized $17.4 million (see ANL, 11/23/04). “People felt completely safe,” Meyer told his listeners. “They felt happy about the condition—it wasn’t a problem.”

Meyer also focused on other artists, including Jasper Johns and Cy Twombly. He showed a slide of his favorite Johns drawing, 0 Through 9, 1961. The owners, the late Ethel and Robert Scull, acquired the work in 1961 for $1,200, but only after David Whitney had passed on it. (“Johns wouldn’t give him a discount,” said Meyer.)

During the next 40 years the charcoal drawing changed hands several times, according to a Sotheby’s 2004 catalogue, and for a time was owned by collector Peter Brant. Then, in November 2004, the drawing brought $10.9 million—the highest price ever paid for a postwar work on paper, Meyer reported (see ANL, 11/23/04). But, he added, “there were very few buyers for this work. It’s not a global market; it’s a connoisseurs’ market—extremely cerebral, very sophisticated. And the more sophisticated an object is, clearly the smaller the audience becomes.” (Meyer did not indicate the identity of the latest seller.)

Citing Twombly’s Untitled (New York City), 1968, as another example of a connoisseurs’ picture, Meyer remarked: “It wasn’t easy to sell.” He remembered bringing the hammer down on it at $8.7 million last November (see ANL, 11/22/05), disappointing his hope that it would reach the high estimate of $10 million: “Not everything is a success story. You have challenges. It’s a tough thing to always get right.”

He compared the market for “quiet” works by Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Twombly to that “other market where the sky’s the limit.” These objects have “iconic quality, enormous energy, enormous desire,” he said, citing Jeff Koons’ 42-inch-tall porcelain sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988. At the May 2001 auction the piece brought in $5.6 million, a record price for the artist (see ANL, 5/29/01). “It had an otherworldly quality,” recalled Meyer.

Damien Hirst’s The Most Beautiful Thing in the World, 2003, a mosaic-like, circular painting with butterfly wings, was also an “object of amazing, seductive beauty,” Meyer said. At auction last November it surpassed its high estimate, selling for $1.3 million (see ANL, 11/22/05). “Like Orange Marilyn, like Michael Jackson and Bubbles, it had something that made it transcend the specific market of that artist,” he explained.

As for the future of the art market, Meyer is optimistic. “I can’t really imagine any end in sight,” he said, “because of the amount of money that is there, the amount of available capital that is coming in.”

Meyer suggested $40 million as the approximate ceiling for an extraordinary Abstract Expressionist painting—except for a Jackson Pollock that, he estimated, could probably make $100 million.

Only after he had finished his presentation and was taking questions from the floor did Meyer mention the record-smashing sale of Pablo Picasso’s Garçon à la pipe, 1905, for $104 million at Sotheby’s in May 2004 (see ANL, 5/25/04). Then, when asked which work he wished he could have bought for himself, Meyer replied, “I fantasize about the Orange Marilyn, and I fantasize about the Picasso.”

JULIE BRENER

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