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Still Market Runs Deep

Ab Ex Master among "recession-proof" artists at auction

Still’s painting 1949-A-No. 1, 1949, soared to $61.7 million after a two-way bidding war.


NEW YORK—At the end of a four-day sale series (both evening and day auctions) at Phillips de Pury & Company, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, the overall contemporary art total was $769.4 million, compared with $755 million in contemporary sales achieved in fall 2010 and $718 million achieved this past spring.

“It’s unbelievable that something like this can happen in a deep recession like what we are in,” London dealer Nicolai Frahm told ARTnewsletter. “It kind of goes with the predictions that great art is going to be more or less recession proof. This is really one of the best contemporary sale series ever.”

The leader in the contemporary sector was Sotheby’s with a total of $370 million. It was followed by Christie’s, which posted a total of $318.1 million, and Phillips, which realized $81 million—far higher than its $26 million total last November, excluding its special “Carte Blanche” sale results.

Continuing a trend that has gathered momentum in recent seasons, the volume of contemporary sales far surpassed that of Impressionist and modern art, which realized $400.2 million in the recent season. The change reflects both the tastes of younger, wealthy international buyers as well as the decreasing supply of Impressionist and modern masterpieces available, as the best works have been snapped up by major private collectors and institutions.

Said Frahm: “Art has really become one of the safest, if not the safest asset class. People really trust in it in a way they have never done before. Buyers are now from all over the world. It has really become such a global market where everyone wants to get in on the action.”

For the two-week series, which includes the Impressionist and modern sales held in the first week of November, the auction houses realized $1.16 billion compared with $1.29 billion seen last fall.

Sotheby’s had the two highest-value collections including a collection of four works by Clyfford Still, which had belonged to the artist’s widow, and were being sold by the City of Denver to benefit the Clyfford Still Museum. Still’s work is rare because he gifted most of it to Denver. Only 27 paintings have appeared at auction since 1990, according to an auction database. Of these, the highest price was $21.3 million, set in November 2006. Sotheby’s, which had agreed to a $15 million cap on the commission it would receive on the sales, had estimated the four works to fetch at least $51 million—they sold for $114.1 million including premium.

The top lot was 1949-A-No. 1, 1949, which had been used to illustrate the cover of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s retrospective exhibition in 1979-80. It sold for $61.7 million (estimate: $25 million/35 million) to a phone bid through Sotheby’s Americas chairman and former Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum director, Lisa Dennison, after a lengthy bidding contest against dealer Christopher Eykyn, seated in the saleroom and speaking to his client via cell phone.

Christie’s mixed-owner part one sale on Nov. 8, totaled $220.8 million including buyers’ premium, against a pre-sale estimate of $215 million/298 million excluding the premium, so, technically, the sale fell below the estimate.

While all but nine of the 65 lots were sold, and seven records were broken, half of the sold lots reached hammer prices on or below their low estimates. Four of the top 12 lots—estimated to fetch $4.5 million or more— were unsold. Six of the top ten selling lots in this sale sold on or below low estimates at hammer prices, all indicating a resistance to compete at the top level. Even combined with the Peter Norton sale lots, the total $247 million was the lowest part one sale for Christie’s since November 2009, ceasing the upward trajectory that had taken place since then.

Still, overall results were healthy, especially considering the state of the global economy. Roy Lichtenstein’s Pop art classic, I Can See the Whole Room, 1961, fetched a new record when it sold to private dealer Guy Bennett for $43.2 million, compared with an estimate of $35 million/45 million. The painting was being sold by Courtney Ross, the widow of the late Time Warner CEO, Steven Ross, who bought it at the Emily and Burton Tremaine sale at Christie’s in 1988 for $2.1 million.

At Phillips, all but seven of the 45 lots sold for a total of $71.3 million, just edging past the lower pre-sale estimate of $66.1 million by virtue of the buyer’s premium.

In any case, 18 works were guaranteed with a combined low estimate of $51.1 million (excluding premium) and sold for a hammer aggregate of $45.3 million ($51.7 million including the premium). The top seven lots were all guaranteed.

Cy Twombly’s late painting, Untitled, 2006, sold within its estimate for $9 million including premium, against an $8 million/12 million estimate—almost in line with retail prices and a record for a late, i.e., post 1970s, painting.

  • Caitlin Kelly

    Perhaps during this deep recession investors are looking to diversify their portfolios beyond their traditional investment options. As the stock market fluctuates radically from day to day, fine art might look like a more stable investment. What sort of effect do you think this sort of buying will have on the art market once (if) the stock market recovers and investors return to buying traditional securities? Should we in the art world be concerned by these record setting auction sales?

  • Daniel Fisher von Fischerbach

    This is not a new question, and has been repeating over and over for as long as I can remember. Good art is like gold. It’s never going to be so low that it wont’ be good to hold on to it. Of course, the problem is that unlike gold, which can be assayed for goodness, (purity) what is good in art remains problematic. Especially with non representational. There are people out there who know what is good, and why, and can define it clearly, but the are getting harder to find. For instance why is Clifford Still so good? One has to really know a lot about it. A good work like the authentic piece is readily identifiable by someone who really knows what to look for. Every nook and cranny will tell so to speak, but you have to know what those are by intense study of the work over years.
    As always, art will be there as a good stable investment. I remember when I was advised not to buy gold as it was only good as a hedge against inflation, but nothing else. That was 20 years ago. What a fool I was not to follow my own propensity to foretell the future of this.
    What one needs to do is to study it as much as possible like any other stock, learn as much as you can. There are a lot of good artists out there who don’t publicize their work, don’t have websites, eschew such things, and are only interested in making a good piece of work. Go with them, find out all you can from them while they are still alive, and if you like it, then go for it. It will never decrease in value. It may stay the same for a long time, but then so did gold. That’s my opinion, and the way I would do it.

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