Strong modern art sales boost market

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  May 16, 2002 at 3:11 PM
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NEW YORK, May 16 (UPI) -- Sales of modern and contemporary works at the three major art auction houses this week displayed exceptional strength and set auction records for many artists, giving the market a much-needed boost.

The sales started Monday at Phillips' auction house and continued at Christie's on Tuesday and Sotheby's on Wednesday, realizing an overall total of $119 million. The amount was pretty much in line with the high pre-sale estimates for the auctions made by the houses' experts, optimistic that the effects of terrorist attacks and the stock market losses were beginning to wear off.

Officials at the three houses expressed their satisfaction, especially in the low number -- 25 -- of lots that failed to sell out of 180 that went on the block. The general feeling of exhilaration was expressed by a London art dealer, Anthony d'Offay, who was attending the sales.

"There is a more big money for art floating around now," d'Offay said. "Everything was strong. It almost couldn't have been better for the market in general."

Phillips', the smallest of the houses and currently struggling under new ownership, was the least successful, with a sale totaling $29.6 million, just above the low pre-sale estimate. The star of its sale, Francis Bacon's "Study for Portrait of Henrietta Moraes," painted in 1964, was sold for $6.7 million, just under its high estimate, to an agent acting for an unidentified New York dealer.

A group of Marcel Duchamp's Dadaist objects -- a urinal turned into a fountain, a bicycle wheel, a snow shovel, a hat rack, and a wooden cage enclosing sugar cubes sold for a total of $5.3 million, far below the low pre-sale estimate of $8.5 million. The famous bicycle wheel fetched the highest individual price, $1.7 million, but still under the low estimate of $2 million.

Other top prices at Phillips' were $3.1 million for a 1986 self portrait by Andy Warhol, $2.5 million for a blue canvas with the word NOISE spelled out in yellow capitals painted by Edward Ruscha in 1963, an auction record for the artist, and $1.3 million for a 1967 steel wall sculpture Donald Judd, also a record for the artist.

The big sellers at Christie's, where records were set for 15 artists, were paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat, the late Haitian-born American stick figure painter, whose 1982 "Profit I" sold for $5.5 million, and Jean Dubuffet, whose 1961 "Paris Montparnasse" brought $4.7 million. They were consigned to sale by Lars Ulrich, songwriter and drummer for the band Metallica.

The Dubuffet brought $1.2 million more than its high estimate, whereas a painting by the same artist in the Phillips' sale, "The Parisian Party," estimated to bring $2.5 million, didn't attract a single bid.

Christie's sold a Plexiglas wall sculpture by Judd for $4.6 million, eclipsing the record for the artist set the night before, Warhol's silkscreen titled "Four Foot Flowers" for $3.7 million, another Ruscha painting bearing a single word and titled "Talk About Space" for $3.5 million, Roy Lichtenstein's Pop canvas "Red Barn 1" for $2.4 million, and Louise Bourgeois' udder-like marble sculpture, "Blind Man's Buff," for $1.4 million.

At Sotheby's, two paintings by the German artist Gerhard Richter, currently getting a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, brought the highest prices. One of his color chart paintings dated 1971 brought $3.9 million, the same price commanded by one of his photo-based studies, "Candle," painted in 1982. Warhol silkscreens also did well, "Five Deaths" showing an overturned car bringing $3.7 million and a self-portrait with fright wig for $3 million.

An Alexander Calder mobile, "Two White Disks (1955)" sold for $1.9 million, and Robert Ryman's 1963 "Uncle Up," a predominately white painting, brought $1.9 million, below the low estimate. The failure of a Bacon, "Study From the Human Body" to find a bidder was the big upset of the Sotheby's sale. It portrayed a naked man in a twisted position, one of the popular British artist's trademark subjects.

"I guess it didn't have psychological appeal," observed Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's director of contemporary art who auctioneered the sale.

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