ARTnewsletter Archive

Middle-Market Contemporary Sales Dip Uneven Bidding at Christie’s and Sotheby’s Fall Auctions

First Open, Christie’s middle-market contemporary-art sale geared toward newer collectors, realized $6.5 million on Sept. 9, down from the previous First Open sale in April, which took $10.1 million (ANL, 4/15/08), and from the auction last September, which brought in $12.2 million.

NEW YORK—First Open, Christie’s middle-market contemporary-art sale geared toward newer collectors, realized $6.5 million on Sept. 9, down from the previous First Open sale in April, which took $10.1 million (ANL, 4/15/08), and from the auction last September, which brought in $12.2 million. Sotheby’s larger sale, held the next day, produced a total of $10.6 million for 412 lots, compared with $12.6 million for its mid-season sale of 459 lots last April.

Christie’s had fewer lots on offer than in the previous two First Open sales. This auction offered 229 lots, compared with 275 last spring, but the sold-by-lot rate dipped to 74 percent from 80 percent in April. And last fall’s auction, of 333 lots, produced a 76 percent sold-by-lot rate. On a value basis, this sale was 80 percent sold against a presale estimate of $6 million/8 million. Sotheby’s sold-by-lot rate dipped as well, to 69 percent from 76 percent last April. By dollar value, the auction realized 80.4 percent. The total presale estimate was $9.8 million/14 million.

Although overall demand was selective, many of the highest lots at Christie’s yielded prices well within or above their estimates, indicating healthy demand for top-quality works. The high end was dominated by U.S. and European buyers, according to Christie’s. Specialist and head of sale Zach Miner said the sale results pointed to “the continued strength and health of the market for works of quality and rarity.” The top price was the $902,500 given by a U.S. collector for Untitled Film Still #13, 1978, a unique gelatin silver print by Cindy Sherman. The work, which was featured on the catalogue cover, depicts the artist reaching for a book on a shelf. The photograph had previously been in the Saatchi Collection and exhibited extensively at museums. The final price was well above the $300,000/500,000 estimate, and was the second-highest for a work from this series. (Last November, Sherman’s Untitled Film Still No. 48, 1979, fetched $1.2 million, its high estimate, at Christie’s evening sale of Postwar and contemporary art.)

Nouns, a 2003 painting by David Salle (b. 1952) that juxtaposes 24 images in a grid of squares, sold for $242,500, within the estimate of $200,000/300,000. A U.S. dealer gave the same price for Robert Rauschenberg’s Per’s Art Garden [Anagram (A Pun)], 1997, which carried the same estimate as well.

Jeff Koons’s stainless steel Inflatable Flower Sculpture (Green), 2000, one of an edition of seven, roughly doubled expectations when it sold for $116,500 (estimate: $40,000/60,000). Noting the top prices achieved by Rauschenberg, Koons, Salle and others, Miner said that “recognized masters led the way in this sale.”

TI, 1978, a realist painting of tattered storefront awnings and signs by Robert Cottingham (b. 1935), sold for $92,500 against an estimate of $40,000/60,000. The consignor of the work had acquired it at a Sotheby’s contemporary day sale in 1989, for a below-estimate $38,500. The work carried an identical low estimate of $40,000 at the earlier sale.

A sculpture by Yves Klein (1928–1962), La victoire de Samothrace, 1962, sold for $86,500, just clearing the high estimate of $80,000, while a cast bronze sculpture with black patina by Tony Smith, The Snake Is Out, conceived in 1962 and cast in 1977, sold for $74,500 (estimate: $40,000/60,000). This latter work has not been in the market for close to 17 years; the consignor had acquired the piece from the Paula Cooper Gallery in 1991.

A Wide Range of Offerings at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s top lot was Roy Lichtenstein’s mixed-media Interior with Three Hanging Lamps, 1991, which sold for $482,500 to a U.S. dealer. Even with premium, however, the price fell short of the $500,000/700,000 estimate. Lichtenstein’s Pistol, 1964, a red felt banner with an image of a hand holding a gun, was also among the top lots, selling well above expectations for $254,500 (estimate: $100,000/150,000), to an anonymous buyer.

Robert Indiana’s 1965 acrylic-on-canvas Nine came from the Helga and Walther Lauffs Collection, which had dominated Sotheby’s contemporary offerings last spring. The work took in $338,500 (estimate: $200,000/300,000), and had been in the Lauffs collection for three decades.

The auction “covered the spectrum of the contemporary art field,” said Jennifer Roth, Sotheby’s senior vice president and specialist in charge of the sale, who added that “particularly strong prices were seen for fresh property from estates and private collections.”

Work from the collection of Mary B. Arnstein and the late Robert L. Arnstein that fetched strong prices included Isamu Noguchi’s marble sculpture Little She, 1966, which sold for $134,500 (estimate: $120,000/180,000) to a South American collector, and James Rosenquist’s Small Doorstop, 1963–67, a canvas with lightbulbs and cable, which fetched $134,500, within its estimate of $100,000/150,000.

Roth also noted demand for younger contemporary artists featured in the sale, including Ouattara Watts (b. 1957) and British artist Chantal Joffe (b. 1969). Two works by Watts, a New York–based artist born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, sold well above expectations: Samo The Initiated (Dyptich), 1988, took $23,750 (estimate: $10,000/15,000) and Gindo Voodoo, 1994, a mixed-media work on wood, soared past its modest $6,000/8,000 estimate to fetch $34,375. Joffe’s oil-on-board Long Haired Brunette with White Wallpaper, acquired by the consignor in January 2006 from a show at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London, sold for $68,500 (estimate: $20,000/30,000).

The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth, 2007, a sparse drawing by Damien Hirst on his own letterhead, sold within the modest $7,000/9,000 estimate for $8,750.