NEW YORK—On March 15 Christie’s held its first auction focusing on the ultra-new. The sale, titled “First Open,” brought stellar results. Not only were auction records achieved for the contemporary section of the sale, but strong prices also were paid for relatively minor works in the postwar section. A full 90 percent of the lots were sold with ease, many zooming far above their high estimates.
Christie’s, which had projected the sale for a total of $3.1/4.4 million, wound up raking in $5.5 million. This total may be a pittance compared to the major biannual contemporary and postwar auctions—Christie’s sold about $124 million last fall in those sales—but it’s a promising start for a category that aims to bring in new buyers.
The “First Open” sale targets new collectors, inexperienced in the ways of auctions, with pieces starting at $1,000. Art specialist Alicia Bona, a five-year Christie’s veteran, was in charge of the new-sales event. (Bona has since left Christie’s to work for art adviser Sandy Heller.)
There was a concentration on artists whose works have not yet been offered at auction, including the very young talents Kai Althoff, Marcel Dzama and Barnaby Furnas. Christie’s put their works up early in the sale, and with such low estimates they enjoyed sure-fire success.
It was the first time at auction for Furnas, 32, and his 2000 watercolor Where the Boys Are (Iwo Jima) brought $45,600, far above a teasingly low $10,000/15,000 estimate. Another watercolor, a powerful, somber image by German-born Althoff—Untitled, 2000, which had been included in a 2002 show of drawings at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—went for $78,000, more than 10 times its $5,000/7,000 estimate. Dzama’s 13 drawings also nearly doubled their high estimate, fetching $11,400 against a $5,000/7,000 estimate.
Even minor works by postwar artists attracted attention. A circa 1957 abstract-oil painting by William Baziotes, Untitled, achieved $251,200 from a U.S. private collector, well above the $40,000/60,000 estimate. A 7-by-4-inch oil on panel by Mark Rothko, made circa 1938 (before the artist discovered abstraction), took $54,000—again topping the $15,000/20,000 estimate.
The thirst for art still appears to be unquenchable, whether for major works by minor artists or minor works by major artists. The sale is born of a contemporary art market that won’t quit.
The work on the cover of Christie’s “First Open” catalogue, by Dirk Skreber, was snapped up by a European dealer, said by dealers to be bidding for Charles Saatchi. Simply called Untitled, the large oil, foil-tape and foam-rubber painting on canvas depicts a mysterious silver train chugging along a barren desert landscape. Painted in 1991, it was originally purchased from the artist’s German dealer Luis Campana Gallery, Cologne—and somehow wound up in the hands of a collector out to make a buck: With an auction estimate of $120,000/180,000, probably close to double whatever was paid originally, it fetched $396,800.
Dealer Tim Blum of Blum & Poe, Los Angeles, told ARTnewsletter there will be a discussion with the artist and two other dealers, Friedrich Petzel and Luis Campana, about the market, and while Skreber’s prices might get a bump, they won’t do anything drastic. “You have to keep it calm,” explains Blum. “You want it to continue on the arc up, not down.”
Petzel says he sold one of the lots, a photo called Phantom Towers, for $1,200 in 2001. The image, by Julian Laverdiere and Paul Myoda, is an homage to the fallen World Trade Center towers, a nighttime shot of the blue lights projected for a time where the towers once stood. The image was made famous when it graced the cover of The New York Times Magazine.
When the six editions of the color coupler print mounted on Cintra were sold, all proceeds went to a 9/11-related charity. The artists donated the works, and the gallery agreed to forgo a commission. At Christie’s “First Open,” the photo, estimated at $2,000/3,000, brought $2,400.
The end of the sale featured mostly minor works by artists with proven track records. Several pieces by stars of the 1980s soared, including Robert Longo’s 1978 charcoal Jet Boys, which was sold for $42,000 (estimate: $10,000/15,000); and Ross Bleckner’s 1993 painting Trust Over Love, which brought $54,000 (estimate: $25,000/$35,000). The next “First Open” sale is scheduled for September.