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Latin American Auctions: A Fair Showing, But Some Top Lots Fail

Auctions of Latin American art at Sotheby's and Christie's in New York on Nov. 18–20 achieved a fair showing, despite continuing turmoil in the world financial markets and the failure of many top-priced lots. Between the two houses, the sales yielded a total of more than $34 million, compared with the $49.9 million of last

NEW YORK—Auctions of Latin American art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York on Nov. 18–20 achieved a fair showing, despite continuing turmoil in the world financial markets and the failure of many top-priced lots. Between the two houses, the sales yielded a total of more than $34million, compared with the $49.9million of last fall (ANL, 12/11/07).

The first of the sales, at Sotheby’s, brought in $20.3million for its evening and day sessions, though it was only 55 percent sold by volume, with 150 of the 274 lots finding buyers. The top lot of the auction, and of the week, was America, 1955, a large mural painted by Rufino Tamayo for the lobby of a bank in Houston, Tex. The mural sold to a phone bidder for $6.8million, below its $7million/9million estimate. Sotheby’s officials said the price was a record for any Latin American work sold by the house, surpassing the $5.6million paid for Frida Kahlo’s Roots in May 2006. America had sold at Christie’s in May 1993 for $2.6million, and from 1995 until this year had been on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art.

The second-highest price at Sotheby’s was $1.4million, paid for the Spanish-Mexican Surrealist Remedios Varo’s oil Planta insumisa, 1961. Although the price just met the low estimate with the buyer’s premium, it set an auction record for the artist. An untitled 1964 painting by Varo’s friend and fellow Surrealist Leonora Carrington, which was estimated at $175,000/225,000, failed to meet its reserve.

Among the few top lots that exceeded their estimates at Sotheby’s was Joaquín Torres-García’s oil Construzione Geometrica, 1929, which sold to a Latin American collector for $398,500 against an estimate of $90,000/120,000. A larger tempera painting by the artist, Constuctif avec rythme dentelé, 1931, was the third-highest lot in the sale, selling near its low estimate for $842,500 (estimate: $800,000/1.2million).

A record was also set for the Mexican muralist Dr. Atl (Gerardo Murillo) when Autorretrato, 1938, was bought by a Mexican collector for $314,500 (estimate: $125,000/175,000). An untitled 19½-by-15¾-inch still life of a mask by Cuban artist Wifredo Lam also exceeded expectations, fetching a price of $104,500 against an estimate of $60,000/80,000.

Among high-estimated works that failed to sell at Sotheby’s was contemporary Chilean realist Claudio Bravo’s Anunciación (Vanitas), 1992, which had been estimated at $550,000/750,000. Bravo’s highly detailed studies of packages and draperies have drawn record prices in New York in recent years, but the work offered here is a depiction of two human figures with a still life. A number of lower-priced works by various artists also failed to sell, including a painting (estimate: $30,000/40,000) and a silver sculpture (estimate: $15,000/20,000) by Gunther Gerzso and four paintings by Rodolfo Nieto estimated in the range of $10,000/22,000. Other works by these two artists, however, did sell in the auction.

Auction house representatives noted, however, that 15 artist records were set in the course of the sale. Carmen Melián, Sotheby’s head of Latin American art, remarked, “In these challenging times, it is heartening to see true collectors following their passions.”

Zúñiga Sculpture Leads at Christie’s

At Christie’s, the combined total for its evening and day sales was $14.2million. With 206 of 295 works finding buyers, the sold-by-lot rate of 70 percent was higher than that at Sotheby’s, but several high-profile lots failed to sell.

The top lot of the auction was Grupo frente al mar, a Francisco Zúñiga bronze executed in 1984, which sold to a U.S. collector at its low estimate of $1.2million, including premium. A Fernando Botero bronze, Reclining Venus, 1989, was the second-highest lot, selling within estimate for $962,500 to a private collector. El cantor, a 1934 Cubist-influenced oil by Emilio Pettoruti, set records for a work by the artist and for an Argentine work of art when it sold within estimate for $782,500. Another Botero bronze, Venus Sleeping, 1990, also figured in the top ten lots, as did two paintings by Tamayo from the 1970s.

Other highlights at Christie’s included a ­pyroxiline painting on wood by David Alfaro Siqueiros, ¡Hacia la cumbre! (Homenaje a los pueblos negros en su lucha actual), 1960, which sold for $218,500 against an estimate of $60,000/80,000, and Língua com Padrão Sinuoso, 1998, a painting by Adriana Varejão, which set a record for a work by the contemporary Brazilian artist when it sold for $302,500 (estimate:?$100,000/150,000).

Among the prominent works that were bought in at Christie’s were Lam’s Bonjour monsieur Lam, 1959 (estimate: $1million/1.5million); Chilean artist Matta’s Stop the Age of Hemmohrr, 1947–48 (estimate: $1million/1.5million); and Torres-García’s Tres figuras, 1946 (estimate: $2million/3million). The Garden of Paracelsus, 1957, an oil by Carrington, also failed to meet its reserve (estimate: $700,000/900,000), though a smaller work by the artist, Cour d’Amour Epris, 1960, sold within estimate for $146,500. Two high-estimated Tamayo works failed to sell: an oil, Serenata a la luna, 1949, estimated at $1.5million/2 million, and a 51½-by-77¼-inch oil-and-sand painting, Mujeres, 1960, estimated at $800,000/1.2million.

Virgilio Garza, Christie’s head of Latin American art, pointed out that seven artist records were set in the evening sale, followed by six records in the morning session the next day.

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