NEW YORK, May 19 (UPI) -- Sales of Impressionist, modern and contemporary paintings and sculpture held during the past two weeks at New York's major auction houses indicate the art market has entered an era of very selective buying as a result of the uncertain economic climate that persists throughout the world.
The annual spring sales at Sotheby's, Christie's, and Phillips' auction galleries totaled $234 million, which was $28.5 million below the three houses' low pre-sale estimate of what the sales would total. This reflected the penny-pinching mood of the mostly American dealers and collectors who make up the majority of bidders at sales now that European and Asian bidders have all but vanished.
"The market was made very clear by these sales," Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's director of contemporary art, told UPI after last week's sale at his auction house. "People want quality, but only at the right price. They are being very selective."
Of the 46 contemporary works put up for sale at Sotheby's, bidding on six lots failed to reach the secret minimum price (reserve) agreed upon by the seller and the auction house and therefore did not sell. Altogether 46 of the 219 lots that went on the auction block over the two-week period failed to find a buyer, representing a disappointing 21 percent of the total.
Among the sellers were such players in recent financial news stories as Enron, Samuel D. Waksal, former chief executive of ImClone Systems, Vivendi, French wheeler-dealer Francois Pinault, and Charles Saatchi, the British advertising billionaire. Also selling were several distressed Japanese and Korean firms.
A large Pierre-August Renoir study of a fashionable woman seated in a garden fetched the highest price in the series of five sales -- $23.5 million. Painted in 1882 and titled "In the Roses (Madame Leon Clapisson)," Sotheby's pre-sale estimate for the dazzling oil had been $20 million to $30 million.
It was purchased by Las Vegas casino owner and collector Stephen A. Wynn for exhibition at the Desert Inn until he opens a gallery at his new casino, La Reve, and puts it on exhibition there. Wynn also was a bidder at Christie's where he purchased Paul Cezanne's 1895 self-portrait for $17.3 million, also for exhibit in Las Vegas. The pre-sale estimate on the Cezanne had been $15 million to $20 million.
Other top prices commanded by 19th century French paintings at Sotheby's were $10.6 million and $3.5 million for two Edgar Degas pastels of ballet dancers from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts collection, and $5.6 million for Camille Pissarro's 1871 "Road to Rocquencourt." At Christie's, a posthumous casting of Degas' bronze sculpture, "Little Dancer at 14," fetched $10.3 million.
Also at Christie's, a 1936 Piet Mondrian painting, "Composition in White, Blue and Yellow: C," brought $8 million, and Giacometti's 1950 bronze, "Walking Man III," was sold for $4 million, right at its high estimate. Two other Giacommeti sculptures, identical castings of nine gaunt female figures titled "Clearing," one offered by Sotheby's, the other by Christie's, failed to sell.
The big disappointment at Sotheby's was the failure of Russian modernist Kazimir Malevich's "Suprematist Painting, Rectangle and Circle," dated 1915 to elicit a single bid although it was expected to bring as much as $7 million. This lack of interest was all the more unusual in that Malevich is currently getting a major exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum.
But some 20th century works were sold at Christie's for satisfactory prices, including $16.3 million for Mark Rothko's 1958 abstraction, "No. 9 (White and Black and Wine)," a world record auction price for the artist, and $6.7 million for another Rothko, "Brown and Blacks in Reds," painted in 1957.
Yves Klein's 1958 blue monochromatic painting, "RE 2." sold for $5.2 million, and Andy Warhol's 1966 silk screen portrait of Marlon Brando on a motorcycle from the film, "The Wild One," brought $5 million, exactly the top estimate. Two other Warhols - "Fox Trot," a rare 1962 work depicting dance steps, and "Hammer and Sickle" of 1977 - realized $2.2 million and $1.2 million respectively.
At Sotheby's a Jackson Pollock drip painting, "No. 17, 1949," sold for $5.2 million, and Warhol's 1964 "Four Foot Flowers," a stunning silk screen, went for $2.1 million although one of his classic "Campbell Soup Can" series failed to sell. A colorful 1978 Willem de Kooning abstract, "Untitled V," brought only $1.9 million, below its low estimate.
Phillips, which has had to abandon it elegant new midtown auction galleries for an ordinary space in downtown Chelsea neighborhood due to money troubles, sold Cy Twombly's 1969 "Untitled (Bolsena)," a jumble of numerals and words, for $1.9 million, below its low estimate, and Gerhard Richter's 1976 photo-like painting, "Vesuvius," for a disappointing $1.3 million.