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‘Positive Momentum’ at N.Y. Contemporary Sales

Midseason sales of Postwar and contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York earlier this month yielded robust results and pointed to active buying and demand in the middle market.

NEW YORK—Midseason sales of Postwar and contemporary art at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York earlier this month yielded robust results and pointed to active buying and demand in the middle market. However, unlike the sales of previous seasons, the top end of these sales reflected strong demand for works by such established blue-chip contemporary artists as Wayne Thiebaud, Yayoi Kusama, Andy Warhol and Robert Motherwell, as opposed to the cutting-edge contemporary works by younger artists that have typically dominated these sales in the past. The auctions were held a few days after the annual rush of modern- and contemporary-art fairs, anchored by the Armory Show on Manhattan’s West Side and the Art Dealers Association of America’s Art Show at the Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side (see story, page 2).

Sotheby’s sale of contemporary art on March 9 realized a total of $5.8million, within the estimate of $4.8million/6.9million. Of the 333 lots offered, 226, or 68 percent, were sold. By value the auction was 81.5 percent sold. Christie’s First Open sale on March 11 had half the lots of Sotheby’s, with a total of 168 works up for sale, but brought in a total of $7.5million, well above the estimate of $3.5million/5million. Of the lots on offer, 146, or 87 percent, found buyers. By value the auction was 94 percent sold.

At Sotheby’s the top lot was Self Defense, 1985–86, a synthetic polymer and silk-screen ink painting by Warhol from his “Black & White Paintings” series executed in the 1980s, in which the artist incorporated slogans and images from printed advertising material he had collected over the years. Estimated at $250,000/350,000, the work sold for $506,500 to a private U.S. buyer.

The second-highest lot was Robert Mother­well’s oil Open #94, 1969, which sold to a U.S. dealer for $224,500 on a $100,000/150,000 estimate. Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still #63, 1980, from an edition of three, sold to a European collector for $218,500 against an estimate of $80,000/120,000. It had been acquired by the seller at Christie’s in May 2001 for $49,350 on a $40,000/60,000 estimate. Ed Ruscha’s word painting Rusty Silencers, 1979, sold for $110,500 on an $80,000/120,000 estimate. After the sale, Jennifer Roth, Sotheby’s director of fine arts, noted that the “mix of buyers was almost evenly split between collectors and trade. Dealers were hungry for fresh property and willing to compete, signaling the positive momentum in the commercial art world.”

Sotheby’s scored a record for a work by Richard Anuszkiewicz (b. 1930) with the acrylic on canvas Incarnadine, 1970, which sold to a U.S. collector for $86,500 on a $30,000/40,000 estimate. Nearly 20 years ago, the painting sold at Christie’s East, New York, for $6,600 on a $6,000/8,000 estimate. Roth said the record continued a recent trend of strong prices for geometric abstract works, and noted the sale of a “modestly sized but intensely colored” stripe painting by Gene Davis (1920–1985), Circus Sounds, 1967, to an East Coast institution for $68,500 against an estimate of $25,000/35,000.

Christie’s sale was led by Valley River, 1995, an oil landscape by Thiebaud (b. 1920), which nearly tripled the $200,000/300,000 estimate to sell for $842,500 to an Asian buyer. A U.S. collector paid $818,500 for Kusama’s Repetitive-Vision, 1963, a composition of repeated identical red, white and blue labels on paper, each bearing the words “Via Air Mail.” The price set a new record for a work on paper by the artist, more than five times the estimate of $100,000/150,000.

Warhol’s Jacqueline Kennedy II (Jackie II), 1966, a synthetic polymer and silk-screen ink painting on Plexiglas depicting the grieving widow of the president, soared far past its $40,000/60,000 estimate to sell for $446,500 to a private U.S. buyer. Another artist record was the $314,500 paid by a private U.S. buyer for Glenn Ligon’s painting Untitled (Invisible Man), 1992, more than four times the estimate of $50,000/70,000.

Koji Inoue, head of the First Open sale, said the market “responded vigorously to this tightly-edited and attractively priced grouping … that brought in strong buyers looking to both build new collections and develop existing ones in depth.” Inoue said that “momentum grew throughout the sale,” which was notable for its “deep, global buying.”

Other top sellers included Barbara Kruger’s gelatin silver print Untitled (Your every wish is our command), 1982, which fetched $278,500, doubling its $80,000/120,000 estimate; Helen Frank­enthaler’s abstract acrylic on canvas Dawn Stroke, 1977, which sold for $254,500 on a $100,000/150,000 estimate, and George Condo’s mixed media on canvas Figure Collage, 1998, which sold for $122,500 on a $35,000/45,000 estimate. Keith Haring’s Untitled, 1978, a sumi ink, acrylic and spray enamel on paper, sold for $220,900, seven times its $20,000/30,000 estimate, to a U.S. dealer. An unidentified institution was listed as the buyer of Josef Albers’s oil on board Adobe (Variant): New Mexico Black-Pink, 1947, which sold for $188,500 against an estimate of $70,000/100,000.

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