The Art World's New Math
The spring auctions will be smaller and the sales expectations are lower, but Paul Laster reports the quality is high—Picasso, Hockney, Ernst—and there are even some bargains.
New York’s spring art auctions kick off this week with the impressionist and modern-art sales at Sotheby’s May 5 and 6 and at Christie’s May 6 and 7. Next week contemporary art gets its turn on the auction block at Sotheby’s May 12 and 13, post-war and contemporary art at Christie’s May 13 and 14 and contemporary art at Phillips de Pury May 14 and 15.
After disastrous sales last fall—when Sotheby’s and Christie’s lost millions of dollars on art that went unsold or sold for less than they had guaranteed consignees, and Phillips de Pury earned less than half the low estimate—the auction houses are back with a new game plan, designed to fit the times. Staff has been cut, debt has been written down, catalogs have gotten smaller, and the number of offered lots has been reduced in an attempt to put the companies back on a profitable track.
At previews last week, specialists at Sotheby’s and Christie’s described their upcoming sales of impressionist, modern, and contemporary art as leaner, focused on quality rather than quantity, and centered around works that are new to the market. They stressed that estimates have been lowered—at times back to 2004 prices—to encourage buyers and voiced confidence in the outcome, based on the success of these strategies in recent London sales.
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Sotheby’s leads the impressionist and modern-art sales with Pablo Picasso’s La fille de l'artiste à deux ans et demi avec un bateau (1938), an imaginatively rendered portrait of Maya Picasso that mixes the face of his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter with the face of her mother, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso’s longtime mistress but just one of many women in his life at the time. The colorful painting, which is estimated at $16 million to $24 million, has been in the same collection since 1986, when it was purchased from Jan Krugier, who had it on consignment from Picasso’s granddaughter, Marina.
Alberto Giacometti’s elegant, bronze sculpture of a wiry, prowling feline, Le Chat (1951), is also valued at $16 million to $24 million and expected to garner serious interest, especially because four of the eight editions reside in public collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One of only two animal sculptures from the artist’s oeuvre, a cast of Le Chat has not appeared at auction since 1975.
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The provenance should also benefit the sale of Piet Mondrian’s Composition in Black and White, with Double Lines (1934), which was acquired directly from the artist’s studio in Paris by Eugene Lux in the year it was painted. The striking geometric abstraction, which is still in the original frame that Mondrian designed for it, was on loan to the Dallas Museum of Art from 1967 to 2009 and is priced at $3 million to $5 million.
Ten paintings by Tamara de Lempicka from the collection of German fashion designer Wolfgang Joop are another highlight of the Sotheby’s sales, with four paintings offered in the evening sale and six others in the day sale. Standouts from the group include Portrait of Marjorie Ferry (1932)—depicting a sultry blonde, seductively wrapped in a bedsheet—and Portrait de la Duchesse de la Salle (1925), which portrays the androgynous duchess posing on a red-carpeted staircase with a cubistic cityscape in the background. Both paintings are valued at $4 million to $6 million, which certainly makes them affordable to some of de Lempicka’s other celebrity collectors, including Madonna, Jack Nicholson, and Barbra Streisand.
Revealing the collector could turn into a win-win situation for Christie’s and Schnabel, as witnessed with the recent Yves Saint Laurent and Gianni Versace sales, where higher prices were achieved because of celebrity provenances.
Christie’s also has two de Lempicka paintings in its impressionist and modern-art sales, with The Portrait of Madame M (1932), estimated to sell for $6 million to $8 million, the better of the lots. It’s a luscious painting with gorgeous drapery folds defining the sitter’s dress and the background, but it doesn’t seem more valuable than the best de Lempicka’s paintings at Sotheby’s.
Picasso is well represented at Christie’s with a good selection of paintings and drawings, but two late paintings by the Spanish maestro are already attracting the most attention. Mousquetaire à la pipe (1968), which is estimated at $12 million to $18 million, shows a musketeer in fancy dress and with flowing, curly hair seated in a chair and smoking a pipe. It’s a playful composition of a two-faced man on a bold yellow and orange background. The second late Picasso painting in the sale is Femme au chapeau (1971), which was consigned by artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel.
Valued at $8 million to $12 million, Femme au chapeau humorously represents a bearded lady in a childlike outfit. Picasso handpicked it for a 1973 exhibition in Avignon and Schnabel personally selected it for his collection from a vault containing works bequeathed to Picasso’s grandson, Bernard. Revealing the collector could turn into a win-win situation for Christie’s and Schnabel, as witnessed with the recent Yves Saint Laurent and Gianni Versace sales, where higher prices were achieved because of celebrity provenances. Beyond who’s owned it, praise for the current Picasso: Mosqueteros exhibition at Gagosian Gallery makes both paintings more desirable.
Another museum-quality painting is Max Ernst’s surrealist Malédiction à vous les mamans (1928), estimated at $7 million to $9 million. Subverting a traditional image of a Madonna and child, Malédiction à vous les mamans, which translate as “curse on you mothers,” shows two bird-headed figures in a rebellious embrace, while a peaceful dove and a devilish figure, throwing the curse, look on. The twisted, dreamlike figures, which preceded and possibly influenced Francis Bacon and the younger Inka Essenhigh, float on a Grecian blue background, separated from reality.
Week two of the spring sales focuses on contemporary art. Over the past decade, contemporary prices have soared and with each round of sales, new auction records are set. Christie’s was fortunate to land the significant collection of Betty Freeman, a Los Angeles philanthropist and photographer who only recently passed away, for its post-war and contemporary-art sale.
Roy Lichtenstein’s Frolic (1977), a painting estimated at $4 million to $6 million from Freeman’s collection, employs Ernst’s birdlike heads and surrealist whimsy in an irreverent interpretation of an iconic 1932 Picasso painting of a girl running with a balloon on the beach. As delightful of a painting as it is, Frolic gets trumped by David Hockney’s Beverly Hills Housewife (1966-67), a large diptych from Hockney’s seminal California Dreaming series that pictures Freeman in her modernist L.A. home. Estimated at $6 million to $10 million, it could break the auction record of $5.4 million for Hockney’s work.
A notable painting from another generation, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Mater (1982) is being sold by a European collector, who hopes to get $5 million to $7 million for his iconic, energetically painted Basquiat. Illustrating the mother figure as a haloed, sexualized saint, painted in patches of solid colors and frenetic, colorful oil-stick lines, Basquiat captured the love and anger children possess for their parents. Sotheby’s also has a powerful Basquiat painting from the apex of his career, Red Man One (1982), which uses acrylic, oil stick and collage to render a funky character on an equally funky shaped canvas, and is estimated at $3 million to $5 million.
Sotheby’s scored a coup in getting one of Martin Kippenberger’s rare self-portraits, Untitled (1988). Although there are two self-portraits in his current retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Kippenberger painted less than 10 in his lifetime and the paintings from 1988—like this one, which shows him as a failed idol, who’s bearded, overweight, and dressed in his underwear (like his hero Picasso), while kept afloat by two shriveled balloons—are the most coveted. Estimated at $3.5 million to $4.5 million, it will test the strength of his market longevity.
Then there is Robert Gober’s Untitled (1990), a cast-wax sculpture of hairy buttocks with musical notes painted across the lower back, cheeks and legs. The truncated torso, which is displayed on the wall, mixes naturalism and surrealism to create a rare and enigmatic work. Estimated at $2.5 million to $3.5 million, the relatively small piece might seem overpriced, but a Gober sculpture of a severed leg sold for a record $3.6 million in 2008. While Gober’s cryptic sculpture may never be fully understood, Jeff Koons’ Baroque Egg with Bow (Turquoise/Magenta) (1994-2008) shouts sexy, pop art from every angle. Big and beautiful, it’s exactly what the title describes: an egg wrapped in crinkly, turquoise foil, topped by a silky smooth, magenta bow. The contrast between the egg and the bow is dynamic. Priced at $6 million to $8 million, it seems like a bargain.
Similarly, the contemporary art day sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, as well as the night and day sales at Phillips de Pury are chock full of conservatively priced pieces by established and emerging artists. Aaron Young’s Burn out —California is a Garden of Eden, a paradise for you and me, but believe or not (2008), a big triptych made by burning out layers of paint on aluminum panels with a motorcycle, is estimated at $35,000-$45,000 at Phillips de Pury and the house is offering Zeng Fanzhi’s Little Boy (2006) for $250,000-$300,000—a great price, considering that a 1996 painting of similar size sold at Christie’s Hong Kong sale in May 2008 for $9.7 million.
However, there is one lot at Phillips de Pury that would make even the most jaded art collector do a double take. No, it’s not Tracey Emin’s When I Think About Sex … (2005), a neon sign that spells out the phrase in bright, white script, which is estimated at $50,000-$70,000, but Mike Kelly’s Estral Star (1989), a found sock monkey that hangs on the wall, which can be yours for a similar price—the only problem is that you would continually have to be explaining that it really is a work of art.