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Buyers Stick to Established Names At Midseason Contemporary Sales

Sotheby’s and Christie’s midseason sales of Postwar and contemporary art (March 10–11)—which came on the heels of a weekend of major contemporary-art fairs such as The Armory Show and related events in Manhattan (ANL, 3/17/09)—yielded modest results in comparison with last year’s sales.

NEW YORK—Sotheby’s and Christie’s midseason sales of Postwar and contemporary art (March 10–11)—which came on the heels of a weekend of major contemporary-art fairs such as The Armory Show and related events in Manhattan (ANL, 3/17/09)—yielded modest results in comparison with last year’s sales. Unlike in the past few years’ midseason sales, the emphasis of the offerings this year was on work by ­more-established modern and contemporary artists, with fewer ­cutting-edge works executed within the past decade by ­up-and-coming-artists.

Sotheby’s sale on March 10 realized $3.3 million for 248 lots offered, of which 153, or 62 percent, were sold. By value the auction was 69 percent sold. The total was down sharply from the $12.6 million Sotheby’s realized at its much larger midseason contemporary sale last April, in which 459 works were offered and 76 percent were sold (ANL, 4/15/08).

Christie’s First Open sale on March 11 took in $3 million for 149 lots offered. Of these, 111, or 74 percent, were sold. This was also a considerable drop in volume from the First Open sale held last April, which took in $10.1 million for 275 lots and had a sold-by-lot rate of 80 percent.

Phillips de Pury & Company held its midseason Under the Influence sale on March 9 (ANL, 3/17/09), and had a similar sharp decline in volume, to $1.6 million from $5.2 million a year ago. With 102, or 52 percent, of the 195 lots finding buyers, the Phillips sale had the lowest ­sold-by-volume rate of the three houses, down from the 65 percent sell-through of last year.

At Sotheby’s, observers were surprised by the top lot of the sale, a large example of George Rodrigue’s signature paintings of blue dogs with yellow eyes, famous for their association with Absolut vodka advertisements in the 1980s. I Hear the Blues, I See the Blues, I Sing the Blues sold for $170,500 to a U.S. collector, far above the $30,000/60,000 estimate, in a battle with a phone bidder in Sweden, according to Jennifer Roth, Sotheby’s senior vice president and specialist in charge of the sale.

That price was followed by the $134,500 paid by a European collector for Passé Fantôme, 1987, an abstract oil by Georges Mathieu (b. 1921), against an estimate of $60,000/80,000. Fish Fry, 1967, a collage by Romare Bearden (1911–88), rounded out the top three, selling within its $60,000/80,000 estimate to a U.S. dealer for $74,500.

Roth told ARTnewsletter that the predominance of material by more established artists “wasn’t necessarily intentional. We were already being conservative with estimates. People who acquired very young contemporary artists in the last few years are leery of selling right now, and probably rightly so.”

Selective Bidding at Sotheby’s

Roth pointed out that while the mix of U.S. and European buyers for the top lots shows that the market is “still very international,” she noted increasingly selective buying amid the continuing economic crisis. “People are not bidding as aggressively as they once were,” she said. “Things not fresh to the market just did not find buyers, even when the estimates were significantly reduced.”

Also among Sotheby’s top lots were The Poet, 1983, a painting by Albert Oehlen depicting Jim Morrison, which sold for $56,250, below the estimate of $60,000/80,000; and two gouaches by Alexander Calder, Marguerites, 1971 (estimate: $20,000/30,000), and Descending Loops, 1970 (estimate: $25,000/35,000), which each sold for $53,125, the former to a European dealer and the latter to a private U.S. collector.

Among the few recently executed works that scored top prices was La vie en rose, la vie en recyclage, 2007, an acrylic and mixed-media painting by Korean-born artist Namhong (b. 1956), which had been exhibited at the 2007 Florence Biennial and which sold here for $62,500, just above the $60,000 high estimate with the buyer’s premium included.

The trend toward works by more established artists was also evident at Christie’s, where Back to Blue, 1998, a large oil on cut-out aluminum by Tom Wesselmann, led the sale, selling for $146,500 on an estimate of $80,000/120,000. The consignor of the work had acquired it directly from the artist, according to Christie’s catalogue.

New-Landscape, 1976, by Yaacov Agam (b. 1928), was the second-highest lot, bringing in $122,500 from a private European collector (estimate: $50,000/70,000).

A set of three large ink, charcoal and graphite drawings by Robert Longo—Study of Dave, 1981–93; Study of Cindy, 1981–93; and Untitled, 1993—sold for $110,500 (estimate: $40,000/60,000) to become the third-highest-selling lot of the sale.

By value, Christie’s auction achieved an 86 percent sell-through rate. Alexandre Carel, head of the sale, called the results “positive,” adding that they were “a reflection of the right amount of lots offered and correct estimates.”

The auction opened with several works by younger artists who have received considerable curatorial and market attention in recent years. These works were given modest estimates, and in general their results were equally modest. Two examples of this trend are a pair of 1997 drawings by Marcel Dzama (b. 1974), which were both estimated at $1,500/2,000: Midnight Special failed to meet the undisclosed reserve and did not sell, and Put Your Makeup on and Fix Your Hair up Pretty just cleared its low estimate, with premium included, to sell for $1,875.

Ludwig II Caresses Marie Antoinette, 1993, an oil on canvas by Elizabeth Peyton (b. 1965)—whose work was the subject of a solo show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, last fall—sold for $25,000 with premium, well short of the $40,000 low estimate, indicating that the reserve had been lowered prior to the sale.

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