$1 Billion Down: Art Loves Money Retrospective (May 2007-September 2008)

Baroque Egg with Bow by Jeff Koons, a sculpture from the artist's Celebration series, fetched $5.4 million from Larry Gagosian at Sotheby's on Tuesday night. In November 2007, Gagosian paid the auction house a then-record $23.6 million for Koons's Hanging Heart from the the same series.

Baroque Egg with Bow by Jeff Koons, a sculpture from the artist's Celebration series, fetched $5.4 million from Larry Gagosian at Sotheby's on Tuesday night. In November 2007, Gagosian paid the auction house a then-record $23.6 million for Koons's Hanging Heart from the the same series.

With the major New York auctions down about $1 billion this spring over a year ago, it seems like a good time to post my collection of Art Loves Money blogs, which coincided with the peak of the art market, for the semi-defunct Men’s Vogue. (Apologies for the imageless formatting, the posts are no longer available online). If you’re happy not to know another thing about the art market and the incredible boom that collapsed last fall, don’t read on.


September 25, 2008

You know things are really askew when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke compares a $700 billion bailout to selling a painting at Sotheby’s. I won’t pretend to understand what Wall Street has been up to with mortgage-related assets but I have a feeling it has as much to do with low- and mid-income people not being able to afford the loans on their homes as Larry Salander’s troubles have to do with paint.

Last spring, I profiled the Upper East Side dealer who went under when he sold percentage shares in dozens of paintings — some he didn’t own, some he used as collateral for loans (from First Republic Bank, among others) that he couldn’t repay. Salander was at least $80 million in the hole when his clients/investors (among them hedge fund superstar Roy Lennox) filed lawsuits and his palatial gallery was padlocked. Bet he would have liked a government bailout.

Damien Hirst’s Dow-defying triumph at Sotheby’s last week is beginning to make a little more sense. The increasingly complex art market is less regulated than Wall Street: Michelangelo (mmm, maybe Murakami) and mortgage-backed securities might have more in common than you might expect.

Grande Dame Provocateur

September 22, 2008

Damien Hirst might be the art world’s most famous renegade for the moment, having successfully auctioned off just over $200 million worth of art at Sotheby’s, but Louise Bourgeois is its favorite 96-year-old grande dame provocateur. Her stunningly tactile retrospective at the Guggenheim is in its final week (through September 28) before it travels to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in D.C.; New York’s Cheim and Read on West 25th Street has new works on view through November 1; and voyeuristic and creative types continue to line up to attend the legendary salons in her unassuming Chelsea brownstone every Sunday.

Anyone is invited to attend the group therapy-like sessions — as long as you call ahead first (her number is publicly listed, 212-242-4083) — and painters, writers, poets, sculptors, and dancers (some famous — Jonas Mekas, Joan Jonas, and Guillermo Kuitca — others unknown) from around the world attend. (The guy who usually answers the phone, her longtime assistant Jerry Gorovoy, can be seen interviewing the artist here.) Alcohol flows freely as a provocatively restrained Louise holds court over the salon proceedings. Things have been known to get out of hand: people fight, get jealous, take their clothes off, or are thrown out. Brigitte Cornand, whose film trilogy of Bourgeois was shown at the Anthology Film Archives this summer, and Robert Storr, dean of the Yale University School of Art, 2007 Venice Biennale curator, and Bourgeois’s biographer, are regulars. There are only two rules: you can’t have a cold and you have to bring your work.

Damien Hirst’s Auction Gauntlet

September 9, 2008

Damien Hirst will throw down another art world gauntlet and test the masses next week when he offers more than 200 new works at Sotheby’s in London, meaning you can bypass his dealers’ waitlists and snag a golden calf with 18-carat solid gold hooves and horns — a sequel to Hirst’s $100 million diamond skull blockbuster last summer — if you are prepared to spend some $15 million or more.

The September 15 and 16 auction, which carries a typically evocative Hirstian title “Beautiful Inside My Head Forever” and a nine-figure estimate, is a groundbreaking sale in the sense that new works by artists have rarely been sold at auction (auction houses specialize in the resale of objects; art dealers traditionally have primary sales cornered like a Hollywood agent) and never en masse by such a major artist. The artworks span all of Hirst’s iconography — from butterfly and pharmaceutical-inspired spot paintings to a formaldehyde-preserved shark — and the setup reminds me a bit of a creative director’s take on a classic fashion house (Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Raf Simons at Jil Sander). It also reminds me of something Hirst said when I interviewed him on the occasion of his unprecedented all-paintings exhibition at Gagosian Gallery in New York a few years ago: “I’m always going to make Damien Hirsts because I’m Damien Hirst. But I was starting to think there was a Damien Hirst before we started or something.”

Greatest hit albums are always questionable endeavors but one of Hirst’s endearing qualities is making a number of people, a significant portion of them with deep pockets, believe that if anyone can pull off a dramatic feat on this scale, this 43-year-old British pickler of mammals can. Browse the catalogue or listen to Sotheby’s beautifully articulate Cheyenne Westphal and Oliver Barker explain why here.

Conspicuous Consumption

May 16, 2007

Francis Bacon became the most expensive contemporary (albeit dead) artist when his triptych of a vulture-ravished man fetched $86.3 million at Sotheby’s. Lucian Freud became the most expensive living artist when his munificently fleshy portrait of a civil servant made $33.6 million at Christie’s. Takashi Murakami became a really expensive young artist (who now outranks the late Robert Rauschenberg at auction) when his larger-than-life, very well endowed My Lonesome Cowboy, spewing a cum lasso like a Met-worthy superhero, commanded an astounding triple-estimate $15.2 million at Sotheby’s. Bloomberg called it the most expensive ejaculation ever auctioned.

With more than $1.5 billion worth of art sold in New York over the past two weeks, the major auction houses proved that the art market continues in prime form — riding roughshod over life, love, death, sex, race, flesh, vanity, and vacuum cleaners. Here are a dozen highlights from the contemporary sales (in descending order) to make Larry Salander shudder:

  • Francis Bacon’s Triptych, 1976: $86.3 million at Sotheby’s (estimate: $70 million)
  • Mark Rothko’s No. 15, 1952: $50.4 million at Christie’s (estimate: $40/50 million)
  • Lucian Freud’s Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, 1995: $33.6 million at Christie’s (estimate: $25/35 million)
  • Yves Klein’s MG 9, circa 1962: $23.6 million at Sotheby’s (estimate: $6/8 million)
  • Takashi Murakami’s My Lonesome Cowboy, 1998: $15.2 million at Sotheby’s (estimate: $3/4 million)
  • Robert Rauschenberg’s Overdrive, 1963: $14.6 million at Sotheby’s (estimate: $10/15 million)
  • Jeff Koons’ New Hoover Convertibles, New Shelton Wet/Drys 5-gallon, Double Decker, 1981-86: $11.8 million at Christie’s (estimate: $10 million)
  • Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (Fallen Angel), 1981: $11.2 million at Phillips de Pury (estimate: $8/12 million)
  • Richard Prince’s Man-Crazy Nurse #2, 2002: $7.3 million at Christie’s (estimate: $6/8 million)
  • Robert Gober’s Untitled (Leg), 1990: $3.6 million at Phillips de Pury (estimate: $1.2/1.8 million)
  • Mark Grotjahn’s Untitled (Blue Face Grotjahn), 2005: $1.2 million at Phillips de Pury (estimate: $300/400,000)
  • Subodh Gupta’s Saat Samunder Paar VII, 2003: $825,000 at Sotheby’s (estimate: $500/700,000)

Chasing Masterpieces

May 7, 2008

If the crowd last night at Christie’s Impressionist and modern art evening sale resembled a pastoral congregation, next week’s offering of contemporary art should bring back all the maneuvering, sweating, and yearning of Caligula.

Last night Christie’s kicked off a two-week marathon of major evening sales in New York that the big auction houses hope will see as much as $1.8 billion trade hands — a sum the Wall Street Journalastutely pointed out would trump the $1.2 billion J.P. Morgan paid for Bear Stearns. The question on everyone’s mind going into May Madness in the art market is whether or when booming art prices will be slapped silly by global economic turmoil.

Last night’s celebrity-less affair indicated that the art market might not be going bust but it may be mellowing — at least in the more polite sphere of Monet, Rodin, and Pissarro. For the first time in four years, Christie’s failed to meet its presale estimate, pulling in $277 million against a target of $287 to $405 million.

Still, Christie’s set six records last night, including a spot-on $41.5 million for a Monet. Shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos (the grandfather of the Paris-Mary Kate-Lindsay lothario) sold the painting at Christie’s in 1988 for $12.6 million to last night’s seller, the Nahmad family, auction stalwarts and megadealers with a Geneva warehouse stuffed with thousands of artworks.

Next week will be the true bellwether, with Christie’s expecting to break the world auction record for a work by a living artist with Lucian Freud’s portrait of a very portly woman, estimated to make $25 million to $35 million. The record, previously held by Damien Hirst (he of the $100 million dollar skull), is currently held by Jeff Koons whose big pink shiny heart fetched $23.5 million last November. (That’s just a fraction of the reported $80 million privately paid this spring for one of Koons’s iconic Rabbits as part of a half-a-billion-dollar art transaction involving the estate of legendary dealer Illeana Sonnabend.)

Christie’s biggest potential sale this season has been sent to Hong Kong — a 14-foot tall Warhol Mao the auction house hopes will privately fetch a patriotic $120 million. That leaves Sotheby’s with the star lot of the season — a Bacon triptych it expects might make $70 million, on par with the most expensive piece of real estate in New York right now — the former gallery of troubled dealer Larry Salander.

When I recently toured the Met with Salander for an article in this month’s issue, he was outraged over what he sees as the blatant market manipulation inflating the prices for contemporary art. He may well go ballistic if the price paid for a Bacon trumps the value of the palatial manse he could never really afford; particularly if Hirst (he of the tank-encased shark that Salander sniffs at) ends up buying the artwork — a distinct possibility given that the enfant terrible-turned-mogul paid $33 million for a Bacon self-portrait last season.

Animal Madness

December 13, 2007

For all the anonymous 18th-century portraits that turn out to (maybe) be Titians, there are Gauguins that turn out to be exceptionally unattractive fakes. This week the Art Institute of Chicago announced thatThe Faun, in its collection for a decade, wasn’t by Gauguin as it had surmised but was rather the product of a 47-year-old forger whose cohort parents had consigned it to Sotheby’s in 1994.

While forger Shaun Greenhalgh was sentenced to serve four years and eight months in a British jail last month and his octogenarian parents await their fate, the museum reportedly is looking to Sotheby’s for a refund. Perhaps its Board of Trustees will have better luck than these folks.

Sotheby’s was involved in a bestial surprise of another kind last week when a limestone lioness from ancient Mesopotamia fetched a triple-estimate $57 million–the highest price ever paid at auction for a sculpture. Measuring just over 3 in. tall, the palm-sized figurine with killer deltoids and washboard abs was on loan to the Brooklyn Museum of Art for nearly sixty years by Alastair Bradley Martin, an amateur tennis champion and heir of steel magnate Henry Phipps. The mighty feline in a bodybuilder pose is said to have been found at a site near Baghdad and was acquired by Martin and his wife Edith in 1948.

Two holes in the back of its 5,000-year-old head suggest that it was worn 50 Cent-style around the neck of a powerful leader perhaps to repel misfortune and ward off evil forces. Or perhaps it was designed to attract renown and vast fortune: Sotheby’s sold the purported amulet as The Guennol Lioness, adopting the Welsh name for Martin that graces the couple’s formidable collection and their former estate.

To Russia With Love

December 5, 2007

Apparently Russians have a love of money. Eliciting comparisons to Saudi high rollers of the 1970s and Japanese consumers of the 1990s, they shop for Gulfstream G550 airplanes and diamond-encrusted car grilles at modestly named shindigs. They also have a thing for cultural heritage and Faberge eggs.

Last week, Christie’s and Sotheby’s sold a combined $160 million worth of Russian artworks in London–a record haul that toppled previous highs. Among the highlights was a pink Faberge egg with a peek-a-boo diamond-set cockerel that sold for $16.5 million, a good bit of change more than the asking price ofthis ovoidal architectural wonder.

The world has been smitten with Russian collectors ever since an anonymous fellow with a bad dye job and apparently worse shoes mysteriously showed up at Sotheby’s a year ago last May and plunked down $95 million for a Picasso. Today Russia claims some 53 billionaires and more than 100,000 millionaires, according to the New York Times. The nation also claims title to the most expensive female artist: Natalia Goncharova whose Picking Apples, sold for $9.8 million in June. Last week Goncharova’s Bluebells fetched $6.2 million at Sotheby’s, the top lot of its inaugural Russian evening sale.

With its burgeoning scene of art-infatuated oligarchs (and their wives), art foundations, collecting clubs, art fairs, galleries, and private museums, Larry Gagosian paid a well-heeled visit to Moscow in the fall. Now Vik Muniz, who will render you and your significant other in Bosco chocolate syrup for $110,000 (thank Neiman Marcus) for the holidays, has rendered Russian icons in puzzle pieces and sand for an exhibition at Moscow’s Gary Tatintsian Gallery. Must be love or something like it.

Chinese Spectacular

November 27, 2007

Cai Guo-Qiang set a new record for a Chinese contemporary work at auction this week when a set of 14 drawings for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) fetched a double-estimate $9.5 million. The drawings, which Cai created by igniting traces of gunpowder on large sheets of paper resulting in burn patterns and Cy Twombly-ish pockmarks, reference Cai’s pyrotechnic performance at the 2001 APEC conference, attended by George W. Bush and then-Chinese chairman Jiang Zemin.

The work was the top lot of a quadruple-estimate $108 million sale at Christie’s in Hong Kong–the kickoff of a five-day spending spree and the further rise of commerce and culture in China over communism and censorship.

Born in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China, in 1957, Cai first came to international attention during his years in Japan (1986-95) with his series “Projects for Extraterrestrials,” with the aim of reaching distant galactic audiences but as far as we know confined to earthly attendees in locales like Berlin, Hiroshima, Johannesburg, Oxford, and Vienna. In 2002, an exhibition devoted to Cai’s work at the Shanghai Art Museum crowned him the first contemporary artist to be granted a one-person show in a government-run art museum in China.

Now a resident of New York, Cai has left his imprint all over Manhattan with firework extravaganzas from Central Park to the East River. Early next year, the Guggenheim will exhibit the record-setting gunpowder drawings, which sold to an anonymous buyer, in “Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe.” Museum-phobes might check out Cai’s contribution to Beijing’s opening and closing ceremonies at the upcoming Steven Spielberg-approved (maybe) Olympic spectacular.

Spanking a $1.7 Billion Market

November 19, 2007

Phillips de Pury’s November 15 evening sale was a fitting end to the $1.7 billion fall auction season, up from $1.4 billion six months ago and less than half that amount two years ago. The crowd was loud and restless, prompting the irrepressible Simon de Pury to shush them a half-dozen times (to no avail). Still, de Pury rode the audience like a first-rate jockey for three-plus hours, bringing in a mid-estimate $42.3 million and $8.2 million to benefit the New Museum. The top lot was Willem de Kooning’s 1982Untitled XVI, an orange, blue, and white Alzheimer’s-afflicted aerial canvas, which fetched a tepid $5.8 million (estimate: $5/7 million).

By the end of the two-week marathon, buyers were distracted and boisterous–de Pury repeatedly used inflection and one-on-one direction to overcome the constant din of white noise that filled the Meatpacking District warehouse-cum-salesroom. “Would you like to continue?” a flushed de Pury queried one female bidder. “No? You wouldn’t? That’s very, very sad.”

A delectable European openness and voyeurism pervade Phillips beyond the cheeky see-through partition separating the ladies from the gents in the underground restrooms. Newlyweds Amalia Dayan and Adam Lindemann, the widely reported seller of Jeff Koons’s $23.5 million Hanging Heart at Sotheby’s, canoodled in a center row, while jeweler Laurence Graff, who paid a combined $24 million for a soup-can picture and a double-image of Elvis Presley by Warhol earlier in the week, mingled and chatted as if bar-hopping with old friends.

(Over the weekend, the New York Times‘s Carol Vogel kind-a-sort-a reported that Graff was the buyer of Koons’s $11.8 million Diamond (Blue). She also named Damien Hirst as the buyer who paid $33 million for a 1969 Francis Bacon self-portrait; Eli Broad as the winner of Koons’s Hanging Heart; and Steven Cohen as the buyer of Francis Bacon’s $45.9 million picture of a bullfight.)

Larry Gagosian, who normally makes the round at Phillips, was nowhere to be seen, but Philippe Segalot carried on with his seasonal buying spree, winning a Styrofoam work with footprints by Rudolf Stingel for an artists-record $1.9 million (estimate: $500/700,000).

Dealer Andrew Fabricant, spouse of Laura Paulson, Christie’s international director for contemporary art, wanted Richard Prince’s 2002 Registered Nurse, but lost it to a phone bidder for $4.2 million (estimate: $1.5/2.5 million). Another Prince work dating from 2001 and aptly titled What Can You Do?(estimate: $1.5/2 million) failed to find a buyer when art adviser Kim Heirston was unable to connect with a client on her cell phone.

The slim and seemingly proper de Pury displayed his trademark resolve when it came to Martin Eder’s 2006 Masturbating Woman Surrounded by Bad Towels. Whereas Christie’s Christopher Burge might have smirked and Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer might have teased, de Pury unabashedly spanked the title across the room for $157,000.

A Deep-pocketed Affair

November 15, 2007

It was bound to happen and it did thanks in large part to dealer Larry Gagosian. Jeff Koons usurped Damien Hirst as the most expensive living artist at auction on November 14 thanks to a two-ton suspended hot pink Hanging Heart for which Gagosian paid a record $23.5 million (estimate: $15/20 million). At least Gagosian had competition from two phone bidders for the work unlike the lackluster response to the artist’s Diamond (Blue) at Christie’s the night before. Both Koons and Hirst belong to Gagosian’s stable of what might be described as most-expensive-living-artists-in-waiting. Gagosian also bid Koons’s 2001 Pancakes up to $3.3 million before letting a phone bidder have it for $3.4 million hammer, a record for a painting by Koons with buyer’s premium ($3.8 million).

But enough about Gagosian, who also paid $2.3 million for Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Beef Noodle (Crushed) (estimate: $1.2/1.8 million). He wasn’t the only bidder with deep pockets in the room. Philippe Segalot, restless in his chair and armed with his cell phone, won the top lot of the sale and the season–Francis Bacon’s 1969 Second Version of Study for Bullfight No. 1–for $45.9 million (estimate: $35 million-plus), Andy Warhol’s 1978-79 Shadow for $7.6 million (estimate: $4.5/6.5 million), and Robert Ryman’s 1981 Sector for $4 million (estimate: $2.5/3.5 million). Segalot has a charmingly insistent way of raising his paddle before the hammer comes down–as if signaling the auctioneer that he’s not going to take no for an answer.

The phone banks took on the air of a tower of Babel as specialists speaking in hushed voices and multiple languages attempted to coax bids from telephone clients and kept them apprised of the action in the room. “$1 million against us; would you like $1.1 million?”

From the front row Valentino unsuccessfully tried to win Warhol’s 1986 Self Portrait (Green Camouflage), which sold for a high-estimate $12.3 million, and Mark Rothko’s 1968 Untitled, which fetched a double-estimate $7.8 million and whose color scheme matched the peacocked hair of Marc Jacobs, also seated in the front row, and a regular at this week’s sales. Gina Gershon strode out of the salesroom in a long black leather coat and Louboutin booties towards the end of the sale.

By the end of the night, Sotheby’s had sold 65 of the 71 works on offer and racked up $315.9 million, its highest sales total in its 263-year history. Tobias Meyer, sporting his signature double-breasted suit, nipped and tucked to suggest six-pack abs, stuck around for the post-sale press conference this time, pronouncing the firm’s unprecedented sale results “evidence of the hunger that exists across a global community of buyers.”

It appears that the sky’s still the limit for the art market and particularly for Koons (literally). Next Thursday, a 53-foot tall rendition of his 1986 Rabbit will debut in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Koons has described his stainless steel cast of an inflatable bunny as “a symbol maybe of the Resurrection, of the Playboy bunny, of masturbation.” Quite a heady holiday combination.

Cognitive Dissonance

November 14, 2007

About a week ago the New York Times ran an article about cognitive dissonance describing how the first evidence of rationalizing irrational behavior has been found in monkeys. Turns out that simians are able to convince themselves they have made the right choice, much like the collectors and dealers who showed up at Christie’s on November 13 and spent a collective $325 million–the second highest auction total in the field–in under two hours.

The crowds were out in full force for the occasion and successfully shook off any doubt about the health of the art market after last week’s tumultuous results. Sarah Jessica Parker teetered around in a strapless black dress. Marc Jacobs, his shorn hair dyed a cobalt blue and purple, took in the performance with an arched eyebrow from start to finish. By lot 12, eight artist’s records had been broken, sparking repeated bouts of applause from the audience. Fifty-one of the 67 lots on offer sold for more than $1 million, prompting one dealer to offer the Times an exuberant soundbite: One million dollars is the new $10 grand.

Despite the celebratory mood and standout prices for Lucian Freud, Richard Prince, Ed Ruscha, and Mark Rothko (a red, blue, and orange canvas from 1955 fetched an above-estimate $34.2 million), there were several indicators that the market is not quite as ebullient as it appeared a few months ago. Several top-end works failed to meet their estimates but broke records regardless. Jeff Koons’s Diamond (Blue), with an unpublished estimate of $20 million, was saved from near-failure by a sole bidder–dealer Larry Gagosian, who has been funding and selling the artist’s Celebration series, including the giant blue bauble. Gagosian paid an artist’s record $11.8 million to reclaim it. Gerhard Richter’s 1963 Dusenjagerlikewise attracted limp bidding, selling for an artist’s record $11.2 million against a $10/15 million estimate.

At the beginning of the sale, auctioneer Christopher Burge disclosed that interested parties might be bidding on six lots in the sale, including Freud’s 1992 Ib and Her Husband, which sold for a record $19.3 million (unpublished estimate: $15 million-plus); Warhol’s 1963 Liz, consigned by Hugh Grant who paid $3.5 million for it six years ago, which sold for $23.5 million (estimate: $25/35 million); and Willem de Kooning’s 1977 Untitled XXIII, which fetched $19.9 million (estimate: $16/19 million). In other words, the works involved third-party guarantors, meaning the firm effectively pre-sold the work to an outside party who provided a guarantee to the seller in return for a portion of the winnings if the selling price exceeded the guaranteed sum. Third-party guarantees are controversial because the guarantor, whose identity is not disclosed, is permitted to bid on the work during the auction. If a third-party guarantor ends up winning the property for a price that exceeds the minimum guarantee, their share in the upside amounts to a decrease in the buyer’s premium.

Cognitive dissonance indeed.

Van Gogh for Sale

November 8, 2007

It was a bad sign when Larry Gagosian didn’t show up for Sotheby’s November 7 sale of Impressionist and modern art and things only got worse from there. A stalwart Tobias Meyer, in a double-breasted suit so snug it could sub for crime-fighting attire (Batman came to mind), couldn’t compensate for the lack of bidding in the room for the firm’s aspiring blockbusters. Are we all done? It was a rhetorical question for which Meyer repeatedly needed no answer.

Sotheby’s sale was proof that one less major bidder at an auction can make the difference between a record price and a buy-in (i.e., bombed to the point of not selling). So far the big bidders and buyers this season have been Franck Giraud and Phillipe Segalot, two former Christie’s executives who went into business together six years ago. The leonine-maned Segalot is Francois Pinault’s primary art adviser. Shortly after Pinault’s acquisition of Christie’s in 1998, Segalot was appointed Christie’s worldwide head of contemporary art while Giraud became international director of 19th and 20th century art.

Giraud, bidding for a client on his cell phone, was the underbidder (i.e., runner-up) of the record $33.6 million for Matisse’s 1937 L’Odalisque, harmonie bleue at Christie’s. At Sotheby’s, Segalot persistently bid, at Giraud’s nudging, on Egon Schiele’s 1917 Self-Portrait with Checkered Shirt, against an unknown bidder whose silky coif rivaled John Edwards’s. Segalot/Giraud ultimately won it for $11.4 million. The French duo also went on to win Picasso’s enormous Tete de Femme (Dora Maar) sculpture for $29 million.

Among the major casualties of the night were Picasso’s 1931 La Lampe (estimate: $25/35 million) and Van Gogh’s 1890 The Fields (Wheat Fields) (estimate: $28/35 million). It can’t help when the New YorkTimes calls a work shopped around; not to mention a tough sell as was the case with Gauguin’s 1892 Te Poipoi (Le Matin), which depicts a robust squatting Tahitian woman, apparently relieving herself, with her dress hiked up around her waist. The painting elicited only one phone bidder, Joseph Lau of Hong Kong, who paid $39 million (estimate: $40/60 million) for the work and requested that Sotheby’s announce at the post-sale press conference that he was the buyer.

In total, the Sotheby’s sale achieved $269.7 million, nearly $100 million less than the sale’s lowest expectation. Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern co-chairman David Norman was loath to blame the results on the health of the market, chalking it up instead to over-aggressive estimates. “I am not at all ready to read the results as a correction of the market,” Norman said at the press conference, from which Meyer was notably absent while newly minted Sotheby’s exec Lisa Dennison wandered around looking stunning and stunned.

Of the Van Gogh, for which the firm had offered a guarantee to the seller (meaning Sotheby’s kind-a-sort-a already bought it), Norman remarked, “It’s a great picture that we are prepared to own and be patient with.” In other words: anyone wanna buy a Van Gogh?

Best in Show

November 7, 2007

Christie’s sale of Impressionist and modern art on November 6 was very big. There were 91 lots, which took the debonair and astutely alert Christopher Burge some 2.5 hours to magistrate. By lot 47 (Amedeo Modigliani’s 1916 Portrait du sculpteur Oscar Miestchaninoff, which fetched a near-artist’s record $30.8 million) I could barely keep the numbers straight–opening bids, increments, order bids, phone bids, saleroom bids, underbids, winning bids, not to mention paddle numbers.

It was about that time that I started fantasizing that there was a Christopher Guest script taking place behind the black curtained stage where men in white shirts and black aprons could be glimpsed placing and removing paintings from the turntable. Delusional thinking perhaps but it seemed like a ripe scenario for Eugene Levy.

Much of the audience must have felt the same way, as many of them made their exodus eight lots later with still nearly half of the sale to go. Nothing personal and par for the course–at auctions dealers and collectors (physically) move on when they’ve had their fill, they don’t hang around out of a sense of politeness. This isn’t church or the opera; the only decorum is to air-kiss your peers and pat each other on the back on your way out.

Larry Gagosian hung on longer than most, taking his leave during lot 81 (a pedestrian Monet being sold by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art); he took home Picasso’s Homme a la pipe for $16.8 million perhaps for a new Russian client. Christie’s owner Francois Pinault stayed the course, looking down on the sale from a skybox window where he could be seen leaning into an outstretched arm as if he were trying to make a move on someone. Overall the crowd seemed unaffected (although perhaps secretly relieved) by the history-making potential of the event–the auction brought in $394.9 million, the second highest total in auction history, surpassing any of last season’s offerings, and achieving record prices, including $33.6 million for Matisse’s 1937 L’Odalisque, harmonie bleue. Big business CEOs might be dropping like flies, but the art market is still preening.

Billion-Dollar Delights

November 6, 2007

Lisa Dennison, former director of the Guggenheim in New York, is now firmly ensconced at Sotheby’s, and superdealer Larry Gagosian is back from last month’s attempt to woo Russian clients in a Moscow mall. The scene may have changed somewhat since Christie’s and Sotheby’s boasted record-breaking sales in New York last May, but auction specialists expect that the two-week New York marathon of back-to-back Impressionist, modern and contemporary sales, which gets underway this week, might result in close to $2 billion worth of art trading hands.

The fall New York auction season arrives after a Grand Tour summer for the art world, which might have blissfully ignored the subprime mortgage disaster had it not been for its knee-buckling effect on hedge funds. Thank goodness for petroleum profits and the draw of a weak dollar.

In order to secure eight-figure trophy consignments by Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Picasso, this season Christie’s and Sotheby’s reportedly issued $1 billion worth of guarantees, an undisclosed sum promised to a seller regardless of the outcome of the sale, kind of like buying a horse and betting on it. According to a recent Sotheby’s SEC filing, for the last 14 years guarantees (both parties typically participate in any excess above the promised sum) have proven to be a moneymaker.

Still, the markups on some works this season seem high. Two years ago Pissarro’s Four Seasons, a suite of four landscapes, attracted a single bidder at Christie’s who was willing to pay $8.9 million. This time around, Christie’s produced a separate catalog for the paintings in addition to offering the seller a guarantee and a $12/18 million estimate. In light of the sale of Damien Hirst’s Lullaby Spring, one of four pill cabinets belonging to Hirst’s seasonal allegory, which reset the contemporary art world when it fetched 9.6 million pounds ($19.2 million) in London in June, perhaps the estimate will seem perversely modest to someone.

Next week the stakes get even higher. Christie’s expects that the Warhol Liz that Hugh Grant paid $3.5 million for six years ago will fetch $25 to $35 million. (For a more affordable, albeit less illustrious Warhol, check out the artist’s take on Conrad Black, being sold at Christie’s day sale in order to help pay creditors of Black’s former private company, Ravelston, Corp, Ltd, estimate: $100/200,000).

Reports of $100 million-dollar skull sales aside, both Christie’s and Sotheby’s are betting that Jeff Koons can surpass Hirst as the most expensive living artist at auction. Christie’s is offering Diamond (Blue) and Sotheby’s is selling Hanging Heart, two large-scale sculptures from Koons’s mythic Celebration series, which purportedly set out to induce a sense of childhood wonderment and are estimated to fetch in excess of $20 million each.

Koons has said that he produced the Celebration series to communicate with his estranged son (now age 15) during a well-publicized custody battle during the early 1990s with his ex-wife, the Italian porn star Ilona Staller, known as La Cicciolina. In quizzically Koonsian fashion, the artist has described the four prongs surrounding the eight-foot-tall, seven-foot-wide Diamond as “sperm attacking an ovum. The facets of the diamond are the egg in the process of being fertilized.” So much for innocence.

Hot Asian Export

July 20, 2007

Two years ago New York hedge fund manager Rajiv Chaudhri, paid$1.6 million for Tyeb Mehta’sMahisasura (left) at Christie’s, making it the first work by a contemporary Indian artist to surpass the $1 million mark. Since then, S.H. Raza and F. N. Souza have followed suit.

New Indian wealth both at home and abroad has elicited prices at auction dramatic enough to make one rethink Chinese contemporary art as the most promising Asian export. Now, with exhibitions of contemporary Indian art taking place all over the world and the art market’s nascent endorsement, India has set out to build an international contemporary and modern art museum of its own, the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art (KMOMA), a project said to be inspired by the Tate Modern and earmarked for a world-renowned architect (Frank Gehry and Herzog and de Mueron have been reported to be among the contenders). The museum, a joint venture between the West Bengal government and private investors, including artists, gallery owners, and collectors, is expected to cost $150 million and five years to build.

On Tuesday, Sotheby’s offered 84 artworks by nearly 70 artists, many of whom had donated their works to benefit the museum, including Jorgen Chowdhury, Somnath Hore, Ram Kumar, Ganesh Pyne, and Souza. Estimated to tally as much as $3 million, the auction brought in just half of that sum—$1.5 million.

Despite some notable failures–the star of the sale, Mehta’s Kali Head (Green), failed to sell against a $400/600,000 estimate—current market strength was reflected in some of the results. Rameshwar Broota’s Untitled fetched a double-estimate $300,000, while Arpita Singh’s Classified File went for $204,000, exceeding it’s top estimate by more than $50,000. Keep Cooking II, a bright red steel sculpture by Venice Biennale exhibitor Riyas Komu sold for a mid-estimate $14,400. Subodh Gupta’s bronze and chrome accoutrements, meanwhile, fetched an above-estimate $78,000. Dubbed the Damien Hirst of Delhi, Gupta preempted Hirst last year, creating Very Hungry God (above), a giant skull rendered in stainless steel pots and utensils before Hirst opted for diamonds. Owned by Christie’s proprietor Francois Pinault, the work is currently on exhibit outside Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice. No security guards required.

War Booty

July 17, 2007

Auction experts often describe their business as being dependent on three Ds: death, debt, and divorce. In recent years, they might add restitution.

Last week Christie’s held the second of three sales of property restituted to the heirs of Amsterdam dealer Jacques Goudstikker. The heirs waged an eight-year legal battle before the Dutch government agreed last year to return 202 paintings in its national collections, including Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. So far the Goudstikker works have brought in $16 million. Part three of the collection will be auctioned at Christie’s in Amsterdam in November. And that may not be the end of it. The heirs continue to search for hundreds of works that are still missing from the collection.

Restitution is big business. Many of the most valuable works of art at auction in recent years have been restituted objects previously in museum collections. Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have departments dedicated to restitution and provenance research. Museums have been scouring their collections for works with unclear wartime ownership. And websites all over the world (including one assisted bySotheby’s) now host lists of art objects that might rightfully belong to the heirs of Holocaust victims.

Last year, cosmetics heir and Neue Galerie founder Ronald lauder paid $135 million for Gustav Klimt’s (top) Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), one of five Klimt paintings on display in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery that Austria returned to the heirs of Austrian sugar industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. The remaining four Klimts were sold at Christie’s last November, bringing in an astounding $192 million and resulting in the highest total –$491 million–for an auction. At the sale, Lauder bought another restituted artwork, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Berlin Street Scene (it will be on exhibit at New York’s Neue Galerie July 26-September 17), which had hung in Berlin’s Brücke Museum for 30 years, for a record $38 million.

Sotheby’s has also handled a number of high-profile restituted works. In 2003, the firm sold Gustav Klimt’s Landhaus am Attersee, previously in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery, for $30 million, and Egon Schiele’s Landscape at Krumau, a work that had been in the collection of the Neue Galerie in Linz, Austria, for $20 million.

It isn’t just European museums that are giving up Nazi loot. Just last year, the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, agreed to restitute J.M.W. Turner’s Glaucus and Scylla to the rightful heirs. When the painting appeared at Christie’s in April, the museum reclaimed the work, paying $5.7 million for it.

Ranking Masters

July 12, 2007

It wasn’t so much a portrait as a means of introduction, kind of like posting your picture on myspace or wherever. In this case, Raphael had been commissioned to paint Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, for a portrait swap with his future bride-to-be. Lorenzo’s uncle, Pope Leo X, arranged his marriage to Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, a cousin of Francois I, King of France, and an important ally of the Vatican against the Holy Roman Empire.

Wedded bliss or not, it was New York dealer Ira Spanierman who scored big when he spotted the portrait at an auction forty years ago and paid $325 for it. Three years later, Renaissance scholars identified the work as a lost de’ Medici portrait by Raphael. Last Thursday, it fetched an artist’s-record 18.5 million pounds ($37.3 million) at Christie’s.

It wasn’t the only work to fetch eight figures at the Old Master sales in London last week. Saint Rufina(above) sold for an artist’s-record 8.42 million pounds ($17 million) at Sotheby’s, becoming one of the top dozen Old Masters to ever sell at auction. (Check out Sotheby’s ranking below.)

Maybe I can’t get erotic connotations out of my head, but I’m not sure I understand why the plume in her hand is quite so big or the purpose of the vessel she is proffering. Reminds me of Meret Oppenheim’s fur-lined teacup and makes me wonder what Freud would think.

But wait…Sotheby’s provides an explanation for the seemingly gratuitous symbols: Saint Rufina was the daughter of a humble potter…during a pagan festival, she and her sister, Saint Justa, destroyed an image of Venus after refusing to make offerings to it…unwilling to renounce their faith, the sisters were tortured on a rack with iron hooks and starved and, in the case of Rufina, beheaded.

Yikes. It’s a martyr’s palm.

TOP OLD MASTER PAINTINGS SOLD AT AUCTION BY DOLLAR (alternative ranking by British pound in parentheses)

$76,730,700 (£49,506,650)

2. (5) RAPHAEL
$37,277,500 (£18,500,000)

$35,200,000 (£22,278,481)

$32,568,600 (£18,600,000)

$30,006,650 (£16,245,600)

$29,167,755 (£19,803,750)

$28,568,000 (£17,666,450)

$25,800,000 (£13,656,574)

$19,990,250 (£11,423,000)

10. (11) CANALETTO
$17,799,230 (£10,100,000)

11. (12) VELAZQUEZ
$17,003,348 (£8,420,000)

$15,866,500 (£10,112,492)

Open House

July 9, 2007

If I could do anything tomorrow morning, something other than sitting in my office nursing a lukewarm coffee deciding which rock-skipping tasks I should tackle next, I might make my way to Christie’s.

It would be a breezy, crystal blue kind of morning and before entering Christie’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center between Saks Fifth Avenue and Radio City Music Hall, I would watch a bunch of beautifully or at least compellingly or perhaps just confidently dressed people going about their weekday business in the company of others without necessarily being in the company of others.

Just before 10 a.m., I would take my place at Christie’s “Open House” sale of postwar and contemporary art and if the estimates were spot on it would cost me as much as a Kobold watch, these Bang & Olufsen speakers or, at the very high end, this Hermes leather desk set to acquire my heart’s desire. Maybe I would bring someone along to share my bungled attempt at raising my first paddle. Maybe I would be alone. I would most certainly be in the mood to bring something home.

Among the possibilities: Brian Alfred’s Untitled (Racetrack) (estimate: $4/6,000); Vik Muniz’s (below) portrait of Mr. Rogers, 2000 (estimate: $8/12,000); a pair of Tony Oursler Stimorol chewing gum and Camel Filters watercolors (estimate: $2/3,000); Robert Rauschenberg’s (top) All Abordello Doze 1(estimate: $30/40,000); James Rosenquist’s Drawing #10 for Heart Time Flowers (estimate: $8/12,000); Donald Sultan’s August 1977 (estimate: $7/9,000); and James Turrell’s Roden Crater Fumarole Entrance, 1983 (estimate: $12/18,000).

Initially, I might only allow myself to bid on something if someone else bid on it first. If I felt like the crowd was a bit distracted or misguided or if I was really smitten (if I could feel how it would feel to live with it and if that feeling would be happiness; if it unexpectedly drew me in and made me feel connected and elevated; or if it simply provoked or amused me to a significant degree), I would make the first move and not worry about the consequences. If someone else came along and tried to have it, I would be faced with two options: letting it go or losing my mind over it. If I could do anything tomorrow morning, I might like to lose my mind over something before heading off into the sunshine.

Buying a Brushstroke

July 6, 2007

Sotheby’s described the sale as one of the finest collections of watercolors by Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) to have come to the market in living memory, somehow suggesting that the works had been squired away in a baron’s castle for at least a lifetime. In actuality the works weren’t entirely fresh to the market. Baron Ullens spent the last two decades pulling the collection together, buying some of them at auction as recently as five years ago. On Wednesday, the fourteen works sold for 10.76 million pounds ($21.74 million) altogether, short of its low estimate sans buyer’s commission and just over half the record $35.8 million Steve Wynn spent to acquire a Turner oil painting of Venice last year.

The highest price paid for a watercolor on Wednesday was 3.6 million pounds ($7.26 million) for Turner’s A Swiss Lake, Lungernzee, not quite approaching the 5.8 million pounds ($11.4 million), a record for any watercolor, paid for Turner’s The Blue Rigi: Lake of Lucerne, Sunrise (below), at Christie’s last June. Earlier this year, Tate Britain launched a public appeal that successfully saved The Blue Rigi for the country, after the government temporarily refused an export permit to Christie’s foreign buyer, giving the nation until March 20 to come up with a reduced purchase price of 4.95 million pounds. Over 11,000 people donated 550,000 pounds–some “buying a brushstroke” (make that a pixel) online for 5 pounds each–to keep the watercolor in a public British collection.

Britain’s most expensive artist until Francis Bacon’s Study from Innocent X (1962) set a $52.6 million record at Sotheby’s in May, Turner left the contents of his studio, 19,000 watercolors, drawings and oils, to Britain upon his death in 1851, including risqué images that The New York Times assures us were not destroyed in a bonfire in 1858.

Tate Britain will loan 86 works that were part of the Turner bequest to the National Gallery of Art in Washington this fall (October 1, 2007 – January 6, 2008) for what the museum is calling the largest and most comprehensive Turner retrospective ever presented in the United States, ostensibly outshining the retrospective accorded to the artist at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. The U.S. Turner exhibition was postponed two years ago because of the enormity of the $1 billion-plus cost to insure it.

The retrospective, which will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, promises to offer a new look at the eccentric pioneer of Romanticism and major influence on impressionism and modern art. A lifelong bachelor who fathered two daughters, scribed long poetic titles for his compositions, and bolstered paint with spit and snuff, Turner claimed that he had himself tied to the mast of a ship for four hours in a howling storm in order to experience the drama of the sea. Perhaps fittingly, Britain’s most controversial tribute to the painter of light is the Turner Prize, that great whipping post of contemporary English society.

Pope Art

July 3, 2007

Yue Minjun became the most expensive Chinese contemporary artist last month when The Pope (1997)sold for $2.15 million pounds ($4.28 million) at Sotheby’s in London. In his portrayal of the Pope, a Western figure depicted by Western artists like Diego Velazquez, Francis Bacon, and Maurizio Cattelan, Minjun conveys a stereotypical Western vision of Chinese people: squinty eyes; full-frontal smile; ill-fitting clothing.

The record price fetched for Minjun’s The Pope, is the latest demonstration that money (aside from Charles Saatchi’s) is being drawn to Chinese art. Christie’s spring auctions in Hong Kong brought in $195.4 million in May, including $1.78 million for Emperor Kangxi’s (1662-1722) throne, which was bought by Macau casino mogul Stanley Ho. Last week, Ho paid $5.37 million for five works of Hong Kong “reunification” art and announced his plans to donate the works to the Chinese government. The highlight of the sale was Ma Baozhong’s 19 December, 1984, commemorating the date then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher transferred ownership of Hong Kong back to China from Britain in 1984. Ho paid $2.19 million for it.

A year ago April, Ho’s Macau casino mogul competitor Steve Wynn, the infamous mastermind whobrought Cezanne, Matisse, and Picasso to Las Vegas a decade ago, paid more than $10 million for a Ming vase at Christie’s Hong Kong and donated it to a Macau museum. This Wednesday, Belgian collector Baron Guy Ullens is selling his collection of 14 watercolors by J.M.W. Turner at Sotheby’s in London (combined estimate: $19.7/29.55 million) as he focuses on establishing a center for Chinese contemporary art in a vast Bauhaus structure in Beijing. Ullens’s Turner sale comes a year after Wynn paid a record $35.8 million for a Turner oil painting of Venice at Christie’s in New York. Reminds me of the Warholian observation that Sotheby’s London used as a press release logo last month: “Big time art is big time money.” It’s also big time publicity.

Something Somewhat Erotically Shocking

July 2, 2007

If you want to see something that’s still somewhat erotically shocking, check out this video above, depicting naked young women smothering themselves in paint, pressing their bare torsos against a hanging canvas, and dragging each other around by outstretched arms across a canvas-covered floor. The tuxedo-clad maestro in the middle projecting this sensuously subversive bravado is French artist Yves Klein accompanied by an orchestra and an audience of prudently dressed women and men. Makes Damien Hirst seem almost modest.

Klein spent eight years (1954-1962), before dying of a heart attack at age 34, upending the artist’s relationship to art and art’s relationship to its audience. Before Warhol, Klein advocated the idea of the artist not as a machine but as a shaman capable of infusing space and objects with his aura. Artistic touch was not relevant; artistic conveyance was what Klein was after.

A judo black belt, Klein used female models as brushes; blanketed naked skin, sponges, and canvas with his patented International Klein Blue in the name of immaterial enlightenment; sold invisible paintings in an empty gallery; and asserted that the identical IKB monochrome paintings in his 1957 Picasso-tagging exhibition L’Epoca Blu (The Blue Period), were each priced differently. (According to Nan Rosenthal, while Klein told critics during and after the show that the prices were discordant, each painting in actuality was priced identically at 35,000 lire or about $56.)

A perpetual showman, Klein called his material oeuvre the “ashes of his art.” Still, Klein likely would have been pleased with the results of last month’s auctions in London. Two monochrome paintings nearly identical in size, identical in color and content, and painted a year apart, sold for different prices.IKB 94 (1959) (at right) fetched $2.9 million at Christie’s, while IKB 170 (1960) garnered $2 million at Sotheby’s. Turns out that even without his continued orchestration, Klein was onto something after all. There are plenty of reasons why artworks fetch the disparate prices they do, many of them (previous ownership, exposure, opinion, and salesmanship) having nothing to do with the physical work of art itself but rather the various auras that have attached themselves to it, beginning with the artist’s.

For the Love of God, Part 2

June 27, 2007

Damien Hirst, enfant terrible, became the most expensive living artist at auction last week (unlike withPeter Doig note the absence of a European modifier). With Larry Gagosian, Jay Jopling, and a diamond-studded $100 million skull in his corner, it almost makes one want to shout foul.

But there’s no arguing with records. They are what they are. People set them. People break them — breathtakingly quickly nowadays. Since the dawn of artistry, artists have succeeded in the market because of the patrons in their corner. In this case, patronage helped the 42-year-old figurehead of the Young British Artists dethrone American iconoclast Jasper Johns, 77, who’d held the record at auction for a living artist since 1989 when publisher S.I. Newhouse paid $17.1 million for the artist’s False Start(1959). (This record was improved upon in May when Gagosian paid $17.4 million for Johns’s Figure 4(1959) at Christie’s.) Newhouse subsequently sold False Start to entertainment mogul David Geffen, who sold it last year to hedge-fund manager Kenneth Griffin for a reported $80 million.

Modern-day patronage also helped Hirst trump the most-expensive-living-European-artist-at-auction record set by the 84-year-old School of London painter Lucian Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud andportraitist of the Queen, when his depiction of the late Bruce Bernard sold for 7.86 million pounds ($15.6 million) at Christie’s the night before.

Lullaby Spring, the work that reset the contemporary art world when it fetched 9.6 million pounds ($19.2 million) at Sotheby’s London on June 21, is one of four pill cabinets belonging to Hirst’s take on that allegorical mainstay, the Four Seasons. The stainless steel cabinet contains 6,136 Easter-hued pharmaceuticals (unlike the 8,601 diamonds used for his high-security skull, the pills are hand-painted bronze placebos). In May, its more despondent counterpart, Lullaby Winter, summoned a record $7.4 million at Christie’s.

Despite Hirst’s coup, it was Freud’s late buddy Francis Bacon who was the undisputed star of the recent auction sales of Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary & Postwar art in New York and London, which fetched nearly $2.5 billion altogether at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips de Pury, including day sales.

Two paintings by Bacon alone racked up nearly $100 million in May and June. Bacon’s 1978 Self Portrait (at right) fetched 21.58 pounds ($43 million) last week, the second highest price for the artist. His Study from Innocent X (1962) set a $52.6 million record at Sotheby’s in New York just last month. All of which makes one wonder about Venice Biennale director Robert Storr’s recent observation, “‘Money talks but generally, when it comes to art’s substance, it doesn’t have much to say.”‘ Maybe, but it sure does move it.

Monet, Monet, Monet

June 22, 2007

What does it mean when a Monet bought in 1990 for $3.4 million returns to the market and makes $35.5 million? Maybe it means we should stop feeling sorry for those Japanese buyers who appeared to lose their shirts in the last art market boom.

Ostensibly, the Japanese buyer who bought Waterloo Bridge, temps couvert (1904) in 1990 and consigned it to Monday’s evening sale of Impressionist & Modern art at Christie’s in London, made a sweet profit, albeit nearly twenty years later. This time around the painting was bought by an anonymous American collector for nearly three times its estimate and remained the second most expensive Monet at auction for 24 hours. Sotheby’s barely skipped off with the title on Tuesday night when an Asian collector paid $36.7 million for Monet’s Nympheas of 1904, consigned by a European collector who had purchased it from the artist’s son. What goes around comes around, particularly in the art world.

What was meant to be the star of the Christie’s sale, a fresh-to-market Monet, Les acreaux de roses, Giverny, sold for $17.8 million, shy of its $18 million low estimate, commission included. Still, Monet helped Christie’s achieve the highest total ever for a European auction this week, selling more Impressionist & Modern art in its London evening sale ($239.9 million) than in its corresponding New York evening sale last month ($236.5 million). Sotheby’s sale on Tuesday brought in $159.6 million against its New York total of $278.4 million. This, compared to 1997, when the June London sales of Impressionist & Modern art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s brought in $22.4 million and $58.3 million, respectively.

Further illustrating how much the world has changed in the past decade, both top-selling Monets this week exceeded the artist’s record at auction in U.S. dollars, but not in pounds. (The record-holder,Bassin aux Nympheas of 1900, fetched 19.8 million pounds or $33 million at Sotheby’s London in 1998.)

What does it all mean? For starters, all bets are off.

For the Love of God

June 19, 2007

Sometimes it’s really hard to take the art world seriously. Sometimes, in particular, it is really hard to take Damien Hirst at all.

Just in time for the art world hordes that arrive in London this week, Hirst has revealed For the Love of God, a $100 million diamond-encrusted skull at the White Cube gallery in London — the most expensive artwork to be proffered, announced, and most likely imminently sold by a living artist. Viewing of the tricked-out tchotchke with a mega 52.4-carat pink diamond smack dab in the middle of its forehead is by ticket only, and apparently sold out. Commodity art, indeed.

A few years ago, I wrote an article for ARTnews identifying the top ten most-expensive-living artists. It was a nearly impossible task considering that (at the time, at least) privately paid prices weren’t openly — or at least not regularly — discussed. In the article, I explained that the artists in the piece were considered based on the sum paid for a single work of art at auction or privately (private sums can and often do exceed an artist’s record at auction), regardless of how many works have sold at that level, the production costs involved in creating the work, or how prices for new works measured up.

Hirst didn’t make the list — The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, his14-foot tiger shark in formaldehyde, hadn’t yet sold for somewhere in the neighborhood of $8 million to hedge-fund billionaire Steven Cohen. (Having recently substituted a new shark for the badly deteriorating original perhaps the sculpture should be renamed The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Replaced Because He Was Decomposing.)

Look for Sotheby’s to upend Hirst’s $7.43 million auction record set for Lullaby Winter at Christie’s last month when it offers Lullaby Spring, a cabinet full of candy-colored pills, in its London salesroom this Thursday (estimate: $6-8 million).

Still, it’s a bit unfair to compare market prices for an oil-on-canvas number painting by Jasper Johns to a large-scale investment-grade Celebration sculpture by Jeff Koons. Part of the wow-factor involved when an artwork sells for eight or nine figures is the fact that someone out there parted with that much cash for an object that, when you break it down, is composed of rather ordinary materials. It may be perverse, but there’s a sense of magic in that.

Affixing 8,601 diamonds (apparently ethically acquired ones) to a platinum cast of an 18th-century skull reeks of a rather sophomoric attempt at piracy. Hirst recently told Reuters, “I’ve stopped worrying about what art is.”

His confusion is apparent. Memento mori or not, when you break it down, For the Love of God is jewelry.

The Grand Tour, Part 2

June 15, 2007

A once puritanical art world has become more comfortable with its capitalist side. In the present art market boom, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago have been some of the biggest sellers.

Museum provenance (owned or exhibited), like a Rockefeller provenance, undoubtedly contributes to an object’s value. Christie’s and Sotheby’s include this information in their sales catalogues alongside exhibition pedigree. Retrospectives of artists like Richard Serra (above) at MoMA or exhibitions of younger artists like Neo Rauch at the Met irrefutably raise an artist’s profile and prices. (Let’s avoid for now what happens when museums possess or exhibit looted objects.)

Museum directors and curators are VIPs on the grand tour that is today’s art market, which is as synchronized as the art fairs now taking place across the continent and due to come to a luxurious halt at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips de Pury in London next week. The London evening sales of Impressionist & Modern and Contemporary & Postwar art could fetch more than $600 million, an encore to the $1 billion-plus sold at the evening sales in New York in May. As Robert Storr, former Museum of Modern Art curator and presently the dean of the Yale School of Art, who is curating this year’s Venice Biennale, told the International Herald Tribune, “The art world no longer has a single center, or even two or three. It’s truly international now.” (In other words, it too is flat like the rest of the world.)

When museums sell artworks, they are often hoping, like any insatiable collector, to purchase something better. If they are fortunate, they acquire something headline-grabbing like Robert Rauschenberg’s early combine painting Rebus (1955, at left). Two years ago the Modern paid about $30 million to acquire Rebus from French luxury goods magnate Francois Pinault, who coincidentally owns Christie’s and just signed a $30-million deal (winning out against the Guggenheim Foundation) to transform the Punta della Dogana into a contemporary arts center to house his personal collection in Venice (he already owns the Palazzo Grassi). While sealing the deal for the Venice space last week, Pinault reportedly purchased the entire Sigmar Polke exhibition at the Venice Biennale, outmaneuvering several interested museums. He’s planning to house them in a special Dogana room designed by Polke and Japanese architect Tadao Ando. If that doesn’t work out, perhaps we’ll see the works for sale at Christie’s.

Who knows? Perhaps a museum will end up buying them.

The Grand Tour, Part 1

June 14, 2007

The Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo has been on a selling spree as of late, disposing of more than 200 works at Sotheby’s this season. On June 6, its prized bronze statue Artemis and the Stag sold for a staggering $28.5 million, five times its estimate and a record for any sculpture or antiquity at auction.

Altogether the works have fetched $76 million (including Sotheby’s commission) against a presale estimate of $20 to $30 million. With the proceeds, the Albright-Knox aims to collect more modern and contemporary art. The sum could get them a decent Warhol.

Deaccessioning museum artworks was once a hot-button issue. To a lesser degree, it still is (protestors filed a lawsuit to try to halt the Albright-Knox sales) but public outrage doesn’t always carry the weight you might expect. Just a decade ago selling works from your permanent collection was as likely to elicit criticism from your colleagues as was selling your name or renting your collection to keep your institution in the black (or in the green). Of course, that was before Tom Krens came to town and the Louvre ate his franchise concept for breakfast.

Next, in Part 2 of “The Grand Tour”: A fiscally puritanical art world grows more comfortable with its capitalist side.

Kate Moss: Art World Sphinx

June 11, 2007

Four photographs of Kate Moss sold for more than $360,000 at Christie’s London in May, the latest demonstration that she has become an art world darling. “Sphinx,” an exhibition of Moss in a series of remarkably vacant contortions (left) by Marc Quinn is currently on view at the Mary Boone Gallery in New York (through June 30). Moss was the official poster-girl for “Face of Fashion,” an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Two years ago a painting of a pregnant Moss by Lucian Freudsold for more than $7 million.

Among the photos sold in May was Chuck Close’s rendering of Moss sans makeup and clothes for the September 2003 issue of W magazine — a complete set of six prints that fetched nearly $166,000, more than five times the estimate. A larger-than-life nude of Kate in Marrakech (right) taken by Albert Watson in January 1993 and published in German Vogue, fetched an artist’s-record $106,542. Irving Penn’s platinum print Kate Moss (Hand on Neck) from 1996 sold for $75,763, and Corinne Day’s notorious 1993 depiction of a scantily-clad waifish Kate framed by candy-colored lights, first published in British Vogue, sold for more than $13,021.

Recently named one of Time‘s 100 most influential people and with a clothing line now in Topshop and Barneys, Moss has become an even more ubiquitous icon since the Daily Mirror caught her on camera in 2005 partaking in what appeared to be a pile of coke. Last year, two pranksters snuck a Kate Moss Floor Mat, appropriating the infamous Daily Mirror cover shot, into the Whitney Biennial. As Quinn sees it, “In a world without gods and goddesses, celebrity has replaced divinity. What is interesting to me about Kate Moss is that she is someone whose image has completely separated from her real self and this image has a life of its own.”

A life that elicits a lot of cold hard cash.

Hot Diggity Doig

May 31, 2007

It used to be seen as bad luck if Charles Saatchi unloaded your work. Sandro Chia’s career famously crashed after Saatchi’s divestment. But in the last year, since Sotheby’s reportedly bought seven of his paintings from Saatchi for $11 million, the painter Peter Doig’s market ascent has been meteoric.

Among the works Saatchi reportedly sold to Sotheby’s last year was White Canoe (1990-91), an eerie Munch-ish scenario inspired by the horror classic “Friday the 13th,” which fetched an auction-record $11.3 million in February at Sotheby’s in London. The painting was expected to sell for up to $2.4 million, a top-end estimate that would have set a record for the artist. Last month, another Saatchi-parlayed painting, The Architect’s Home in the Ravine (1991), sold for $3.6 million at Sotheby’s in New York, neatly doubling its $1.2/1.8 million estimate. Saatchi paid £314,650 for the work five years ago.

Born in Edinburgh, raised in Canada, educated in London, and currently living in Trinidad, the 48-year-old Doig is now “Europe’s most-expensive-living artist at auction” (emphasis on the modifiers). Short-listed for the Turner Prize in 1994 and a former trustee of the Tate Gallery, Doig first attracted recognition when he won the Whitechapel Art Gallery’s Artist Award in 1991, shortly after earning his Masters from the Chelsea College of Art and Design. The award culminated in a solo exhibition at Whitechapel that year for which Doig produced a number of large canvases now considered his early masterpieces.

Saatchi was turned on to Doig relatively late in the game; it wasn’t until 2000 that he began to pay six-figure sums to acquire Doig’s work privately and at auction. Since showing Doig in “The Triumph of Painting” exhibition at his eponymous gallery in 2005, Saatchi has moved on to collect the works ofChinese contemporary artists and neophytes from all parts of the world displayed on Your Gallery and STUART, free forums Saatchi launched on his website a year ago in the spirit of MySpace.

Evicted from London’s County Hall in late 2005, Saatchi plans to open a new 50,000-square-foot gallery in Chelsea in November. In the meantime, according to this week’s New Yorker, Saatchi has developed a list of forum-perused prospects that he is nearly free to begin acquiring (his self-imposed year of abstinence is soon set to expire). Apparently, he’s also been preoccupied with fetching stirrups.

Jaw-Dropping Spectacle

May 23, 2007

David Rockefeller was lavishly installed in a skybox. Al Taubman was grinning like a Cheshire cat in the fourth row. Sotheby’s head of client services, Roberta Louckx, situated alongside a bank of phone-addled specialists, took the winning bid via telephone.

Who bought the $72.8 million Rothko?

The New York Times says it was a mysterious bearded collector in a skybox. New York magazine speculates that the buyer was one of the unidentified Russian collectors (along with hedge fund managers) who have taken on the same mystique as those late 1980s Japanese buyers whose feverish collecting met with a rather ugly demise in the early 1990s. Last week the influence of rubles in the art market was legitimized on both Sotheby’s and Christie’s currency boards–appearing for the first time along with dollars, euros, pounds, Swiss francs, Hong Kong dollars, and Japanese yen.

What was described as a silent boom a decade ago has turned into unmitigated jaw-dropping spectacle. The two-week evening sales of Impressionist & Modern and Postwar & Contemporary art at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York tallied $1.15 billion, just eclipsing last November’s record total and attracting everyone from auction veteran Stephanie Seymour (a marigold ribbon tied in her hair) to fledgling art collector Tobey Maguire (turned out in jeans and a baseball cap).

Collectors were hungry for Impressionist & Modern art, but they were “ravenous” for postwar and contemporary works, according to Christie’s auctioneer Christopher Burge. Sotheby’s set a new $254.8 million record for a contemporary sale on May 15 only to have Christie’s break it less than 24 hours later with its stupendous $384.6 million contemporary sale–the second highest total for an auction ever. (Last November’s $491 million sale of Impressionist & Modern art at Christie’s holds the record.) Artist’s records were set for Francis Bacon ($54.7 million), Jean-Michel Basquiat ($14.6 million), Damien Hirst ($7.4 million), and Gerhard Richter ($6.2 million), among others. Rothko’s 1950 White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), sold by David Rockefeller at Sotheby’s, held its position as the top price paid for a postwar artwork at auction, but nipping very closely at its sherbet-hued edges was Warhol’s Green Car Crash (1963), which fetched $71.7 million at Christie’s. Before Burge opened bidding on the Warhol at $17 million, market-maker Larry Gagosian traded his cell phone for a Christie’s-provided landline. He waited until $61.5 million to raise his hand, just as Burge was about to hammer it down to a telephone bidder, eliciting laughter in the audience and prompting Burge to scold playfully, “Talk about waiting until the last minute.” The telephone bidder, speaking to Ken Yeh, deputy chairman of Christie’s in Asia, was persistent, however, and Gagosian let it go at $64 million.

Gagosian also tried to snag Warhol’s Lemon Marilyn (right) for $24.5 million, then went a step too far when he bid $25.5 million on behalf of a client and called out to rescind the bid. The painting sold to a telephone bidder for $28 million. Gagosian went on to win Jasper Johns’s Figure 4 (1959) for an artist’s-record $17.4 million and Warhol’s Miriam Davidson for $6.3 million. During the sale, even Gagosian could be seen shaking his head incredulously and craning to catch a glimpse of who was in the skyboxes.

Figuring out who bought what isn’t voyeurism–it’s business. Artworks appear fetchingly at auction only to quickly disappear into anonymous private collections. Dealers and auction specialists at the top of their game spend their careers trying to glean where the most wanted artworks are at any given moment and what price might wrest a coveted object from its owner. Knowing where the bodies are buried is an essential part of the game.

Extraordinary Hunger

May 11, 2007

A loud, unambiguous message emerged from the recent spate of high-profile auctions in New York: There’s a lot of money out there, and it’s looking to buy art.

Halfway into the annual two-week auction marathon, bidders have already plunked down more than $500 million — with nary a masterpiece in sight. The potential blockbusters arrive with next week’s Postwar & Contemporary sales, which promise to be explosive if bidder interest maintains its current level.

Considering that only one lot sold for more than $25 million this week, the results at the Sotheby’s and Christie’s evening sales of Impressionist & Modern art were astounding. Sotheby’s May 8 sale came to $278.5 million, its highest tally since May 1990 when it sold Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Au Moulin de la Galette for $78 million. This time around the highest priced artwork was Nature Morte au Melon Vertby Cezanne (above) — a watercolor, no less — that fetched $25.5 million. Sotheby’s had the smaller, tighter, and more successful sale of the two houses, selling all but six of the 61 lots on offer. “There’s a thirst for great work whatever the medium, whatever the period,” said David Norman, Sotheby’s co-chairman of Impressionist & Modern art, after the sale. New price levels were achieved for non-household-name artists like Lyonel Feininger, whose Jesuiten III sold for $23.3 million; De Stijl artistTheo van Doesburg, whose Contra-Composition VII fetched $4.1 million; and Marino Marini, whoseL’Idea del Cavaliere drew $7 million.

Christie’s auctioneer Christopher Burge, who presided over a long and laborious 78-lot sale on May 9, described an “extraordinary hunger in the market at all levels.” Christie’s sold all but ten lots, pulling in a total of $236.5 million with three works by Pablo Picasso, Alberto Giacometti, and Juan Gris each tying for preeminence at $18.5 million. Two years ago Christie’s sold the Picasso, Tete et main de femme, for $13.5 million. The Gris, Le pot de geranium, fetched $8.5 million at Sotheby’s five years ago. Dealer Larry Gagosian determinedly pursued Giacometti’s falling-man sculpture, L’homme qui chavire(right), up to $16 million, before letting it go with a shake of his head to a competitor for $16.5 million at the hammer. Fifty-two lots sold for more than $1 million at Christie’s; just five exceeded $10 million. Europeans outbid Americans and all others, taking home 48 percent of the works.

Both houses saw disappointing results for works by Amedeo Modigliani, whose paintings have fetched as much as $30 million-plus in the last three years. All three works by the artist on offer this season failed to sell. Burge attributed the flops to the fact that given the quick rise of the Modigliani market and sellers’ inflated expectations, it was tricky for specialists to estimate less-than-top-rank material by the artist. Portrait de Jeanne Hebuterne failed to fetch the $8 million to $10 million that Sotheby’s had expected; the house had no better success with Jeune fille assise, les cheveux denoues, which failed to sell against its $12 million to $15 million estimate. At Christie’s, the matronly La femme au collier vert (Madame Menier), estimated to fetch between $12 million and $16 million, likewise failed to attract a wealthy suitor.

Wall Power

May 7, 2007

Now comes a strange and decadent season. For two weeks beginning May 8, the art world will gather in sumptuous rooms in New York to play the swift backhand game that is the art auction market.

Evening sales at Christie’s (right) and Sotheby’s are expected to rival or surpass last November’s record-setting billion-dollar tally as masterpieces change hands during the four Impressionist & Modern and Post-War & Contemporary auctions. Over the course of two hours, Christie’s and Sotheby’s are expected to sell some $200 million or more worth of art each night. Christie’s auctioneer Christopher Burge will be a devilish flirt; Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer will be immaculately standoffish; and when Phillips de Pury & Company closes out the evening sales with its youth-filled Meatpacking District contemporary auction on May 17, auctioneer Simon de Pury will be a maestro at keeping the room hot and loose.

Ever since Sotheby’s hammered down a record-breaking $104 million Picasso in 2004, collectors, dealers, and specialists appear to be in a grand race to claim the-most-expensive-artwork-ever-traded title. Ronald Lauder privately paid $135 million for Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I last summer. Steve Wynn reportedly had sold Picasso’s Le Reve for $139 million before he put his elbow through it last fall. And David Geffen has recently been on a selling spree, unloading Jackson Pollock’sNo. 5, 1948 for $140 million and De Kooning’s Woman III for $137.5 million.

Art and money are basking in the sunshine (and offering perks). Given their biannual trend-forecasting influence, the major evening sales are similar to the fashion shows at Bryant Park. But here the objects are spun out on pedestals and pursued by men and women (and the occasional precocious kid) with paddles and cell phones. Every season the auction stars change. Last season, on the heels of Lauder’s record purchase, it was an $87.9 million Klimt at Christie’s (left). This season David Rockefeller is selling a $40 million Rothko at Sotheby’s, and Christie’s believes it has a Warhol “Death and Disaster” painting that may fetch $35 million.

Stephanie Seymour and her husband, newsprint magnate and avid Koons and Warhol collector Peter Brant, are regular attendees at the evening sales (you can spot them seated near the front). Uber-dealer Larry Gagosian, his silver surfer hair beaming through the room like a homing device, is ever-present, seated on the center aisle, perpetually on his cell phone and bidding on most, if not all, of the biggest-ticket items. Artworks worth $1 million, $3 million, even $5 million provide filler between top-tier works expected to exceed $20 million and blockbuster items expected to soar beyond $40 million.

The art market has a phrase for this phenomenon: wall power.

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