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An insider’s guide to the contemporary art sales, New York: Romping with Barney, Whiteread and Kiki Smith

A new strategy at Sotheby’s as private collectors’ appetite for sculpture grows

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New York

Anthony Grant joined the prestigious dealing partnership PaceWildenstein exactly two years ago in a move that made a lot of noise in the contemporary art market. Previously he had been assistant-director and, since 1992, director of the contemporary art department at Sotheby’s which lost his services by failing to match the generous remuneration package offered by the 57th Street gallery. At PaceWildenstein, Mr Grant, who is regarded as one of the most effective salesmen of contemporary American art in the business, works closely with Chuck Close, Robert Mangold, Agnes Martin, Elizabeth Murray, Claes Oldenberg and Coosje van Bruggen, Robert Ryman, Richard Serra and Joel Shapiro.

The raw data to be extracted from the catalogues published by Sotheby’s and Christie’s for their Contemporary Art Part I evening sales held on the nights of 6 and 7 May respectively suggested that Christie’s had secured the more impressive material for a third season in a row and would continue to exercise its domination of the market.

Boasting the two most important Pop Art pictures of the week, a decent, if not thrilling, spread of Abstract Expressionist material and a consignment of twelve important sculptures belonging to Santa Barbara collector Douglas Cramer, they did, indeed, post the superior results, offering sixty-four lots, fifty-three of which found buyers, and generating total proceeds of $23.32 million (including premium). By contrast, Sotheby’s appeared to lack a significant list of consignments and its slim catalogue included just forty-three lots, thirty-six of which fetched $15.22 million (including premium). But at the end of the week, it may, in fact, have been Sotheby’s which tasted greater satisfaction. Its gamble of promoting the collection of convicted fraudster Bernardo Nadal-Ginard, which comprised eleven lots of sculpture by some of the new names in contemporary art (see The Art Newspaper No. 70, May 1997, p. 37), to the front of its auction, had paid off handsomely.

Bruce Nauman, “Large Butt to Butt”, Sotheby’s Nadal lot 5 (estimate $150,000-200,000) $270,000

Nauman’s sculpture used to hang in Nadal’s dining room and works well in a domestic context. I prefer his unique works in styrofoam and wax and this version is a cast in aluminium, but it is a totally successful composition. SoHo dealer David Zwirner was the purchaser but paid a full retail price, comparable to what Nauman’s agent, Leo Castelli, would have charged for it.

Kiki Smith, “Pee Body”, Sotheby’s Nadal lot 7 (estimate $60,000-80,000) $210,000

Kiki Smith’s art deals with the female body and this sculpture, one of the absolutely central works of her short career, is highly desirable and all the more beautiful for being made of wax. It was purchased by London dealer Anthony d’Offay who, market sources have indicated to me, may have been acting on behalf of the Fogg Art Museum. He paid an extraordinary price, approximately twice what we, at PaceWildenstein, would have asked for a comparable sculpture in our gallery. We represent her work but could not, in fact, have supplied a piece in this style or medium. I suppose that her original dealer, Fawbush, would have sold “Pee Body” to Nadal for $10,000 in 1992.

Jeff Koons, “Stacked”, Sotheby’s Nadal lot 10 (estimate $125,000-175,000) $225,000

Koons has been an inconsistent performer at auction but this polychrome wood sculpture, which was acquired by a private mid-West collector, is a particularly good example of the “Banality” series and it benefited from the powerful prices which had already been paid for the previous Nadal lots. But what, I wonder, might have been the final bid for Nauman’s “Butt to Butt” if it had followed, rather than preceded, the works by Kiki Smith and Rachel Whiteread, too?

Matthew Barney, “Transexualis (Decline)”, Sotheby’s Nadal lot 11 (estimate $100,000-150,000) $310,000

Of the eleven lots of Nadal material, this installation by Matthew Barney, a fashionable name in contemporary art but an artist lacking any previous auction form, was the most expensive. It was bought by Anthony d’Offay for a price which I cannot imagine Barbara Gladstone, Barney’s dealer, asking for the same work. I am an admirer of Barney and this particular version encompassed the full variety of his art: sculpture, video and performance. The results of Nadal’s collection proves that sculpture has moved to the front of the agenda. Collectors are not buying these works for the warehouse but for their homes, and may have been encouraged by the example of Ray Nasher whose collection of sculpture is on show at the Guggenheim.

Richard Diebenkorn, “Ocean Park 88”, Sotheby’s lot 15 (estimate $1-1.2 million) $1.15 million

Richard Diebenkorn, “Ocean Park 34”, Sotheby’s lot 30 (estimate $800,000-1 million) $700,000

These two lots belong to the same series of paintings but are quite different. Lot 15 was created in 1975 at the pinnacle moment of the series. It is not by any means the best example but it is a strong diagonal composition with wonderful luminosity created by the transparent veils of colour. It was purchased by San Francisco dealer John Berggruen against competition from New York dealer Larry Gagosian whose shout of $1 million as he entered the bidding was one of the evening’s moments of entertainment. Lot 30 is an earlier version dating from 1970. The colours are pleasing but the shapes of the composition are heavy and its appearance is disappointingly opaque. The condition of both canvases was excellent. Other examples are cracked.

Mark Rothko, “No 19”, Sotheby’s lot 17 (estimate $1.8-2.2 million) $2 million

Mark Rothko, “Yellow-Red and Blue”, Christie’s cover lot 7 (estimate $2-3 million) $1.8 million

Rothko collectors divide into two distinct groups: those who prefer a dark and brooding palette, the character of the lot offered at Sotheby’s, and those who are drawn to the raw appeal of the brighter primary colours which distinguished the version offered by Christie’s. This week they had their cake and they ate it, too. But compared to the paintings which we showed in our spring “Rothko: Bonnard” exhibition, or to the pictures which were seen at the Menil Foundation during the winter, neither of these canvases could be described as large. PaceWildenstein represents the Rothko estate and we would have charged the same prices in the gallery. The unidentified buyers both paid a full retail price for their purchases.

Franz Kline, “Crosstown”, Sotheby’s lot 19 (estimate $1.2-1.5 million) $2 million

This abstract painting, which was created in 1955, may not be the largest picture of Kline’s oeuvre, but its scale, its composition and its condition make it perfect. It comes from the best period of his career and, in my opinion, you could not find a superior example. After 1956, Kline’s paintings are slightly more facile, the impasto slightly less exhilarating. The price suggests that it met the expectations of private collectors, three of whom engaged in a bidding competition. It was purchased by real estate developer Harry Macklowe and his wife, Linda, present in the room.

Willem de Kooning, “Untitled”, Sotheby’s lot 23 (estimate $2-2.5 million) $1.6 million

The market regarded the estimate which Sotheby’s had attached to this small and slightly incoherent composition as excessive, pumped up in the wake of the spectacular price which Christie’s had achieved for Boris Leavitt’s extraordinary “Woman” painting six months ago. But the canvases cannot be compared, neither by date, nor in scale, and not in subject. It was the only moment in the evening when auctioneer Tobias Meyer’s performance lapsed. It was evident that there was no interest in the room, but a single telephone bidder, making one single bid, saved the situation for him. The sheer look of relief on the part of the staff at Sotheby’s, who had turned a potential disaster into a qualified triumph, was quite apparent.

David Smith, “Family Totem”, Christie’s lot 6 (estimate $300,000-350,000) $370,000

This beautiful sculpture stood out during the preview exhibition and, enhanced by a marvellous patina, was my favourite work in the auction. It was purchased by former tennis champion and SoHo dealer John McEnroe.

Willem de Kooning, “Amityville”, Christie’s lot 13 (estimate $2-2.5 million) Bought-in

Christie’s fell into the trap of giving an unrealistically high estimate to this picture which de Kooning painted in 1971. With its bright palette and the sculptural presence of the figure, it is a superficially impressive composition, but not as strong as the “Woman” pictures which precede it, nor the abstract compositions which the artist would paint in 1976-77 and which are available for the same money. Sophisticated collectors who know the de Kooning market would not have been tempted by the estimate.

Francis Bacon, “Three studies for a Portrait of John Edwards”, Christie’s lot 16 (estimate $600,000-800,000) Bought-in

This late triptych of small portraits of John Edwards compares poorly with the marvellous portrayals of Isabel Rawsthorne, for instance. It was thinly painted with no distinguishing marks and no sense of angst and, as a result, failed to attract any interest.

Howard Hodgkin, “First Portrait of Terence McInerney”, Christie’s lot 17 (estimate $250,000-300,000) $320,000

Howard Hodgkin, “Portrait of Mr and Mrs Philip King”, Christie’s lot 57 (estimate $100,000-150,000) $85,000

Consigned by a private collector in Texas and dating from 1981, lot 17 is a superb composition which attracted plenty of interest. But lot 57, which was painted in 1969, should have been offered in London for it is simply not the kind of picture known to an American audience from exhibitions which have taken place at Knoedler and at Gagosian, the two galleries which have worked with Hodgkin.

Andy Warhol, “Big Torn Campbell’s Soup Can (Pepper Pot)”, Christie’s lot 26 (estimate $1.5-2.5 million) $3.2 million

Andy Warhol, “Colored Campbell’s Soup Can”, Sotheby’s lot 31 (estimate 350,000-450,000) $350,000

The later and more artificially coloured version of Warhol’s soup can, which was offered at Sotheby’s, was created entirely by silkscreen, whereas the marvellous and more important picture, included in the auction at Christie’s, reveals the hand of the painter and reminds us of his origins as a graphic artist. In fact, the Christie’s version is highly expressive, particularly in the treatment of the raw aluminium can exposed by the torn label. It was created in 1962, the same date as the series of thirty small soup can canvases which New York dealer Irving Blum sold to the Museum of Modern Art for $15 million six months ago. The action took place on the telephone.

Joel Shapiro, “Untitled”, Christie’s lot 32 (estimate $300,000-400,000) $550,000

Joel Shapiro is one of the leading sculptors of our times and has performed consistently well at auction. This lot comprised three bronze sculptures representing crouching, diving and reclining figures and their quality justified the price which was a new auction record for the artist’s work. The consignor was Douglas Cramer who had installed it to great advantage at his ranch in Santa Barbara. PaceWildenstein did not need to bid [to support the price].

Roy Lichtenstein, “BLANG”, Christie’s lot 42 (estimate $3-4 million) $2.6 million

This picture had belonged to Ted Ashley who had sold it at Christie’s, New York, on 12 November 1986 for $720,000. Since then it has moved around the art market, having belonged to Zurich dealer, Thomas Ammann; the Seibu Museum of Art, Tokyo, which is, in fact, a gallery; and, more recently, Basel dealer Ernst Beyeler. I’ve been offered the painting which belongs to Lichtenstein’s war series but is not one of the finest examples.

Ellsworth Kelly, “Red Blue Green Yellow”, Christie’s lot 45 (estimate $450,000-650,000) $480,000

This marvellous painting had belonged to Robert Meyer who had sold it at Christie’s on 7 November 1989 for $600,000. On that occasion it was purchased by a consortium of dealers, Paula Cooper, Margo Leavin and John Berggruen, who will have been its vendors in this auction, having failed to entice a buyer in the intervening years. It is in excellent condition but is a tough and difficult decision for a private collector because it includes such a prominent floor unit. The recent survey of Ellsworth Kelly’s career, which was staged by the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, was favourably received but has not led to a re-rating of this particular work.

Commentary by Anthony Grant

Sotheby’s, 6 May, Grand total $15,218,600 (£9,511,625), lots offered 43, lots sold 36, lots unsold 7. 90% sold by value, 83.7% sold by lot.

Christie’s, 7 May, Grand total

$20,704,500 (£12,940,312), lots offered 64, lots sold 53, lots unsold 9. 82% sold by value, 83% sold by lot.

Soap producer cleans up

Hollywood producer Douglas S. Cramer is dispersing his important collection of contemporary American art and the future of the Cramer Foundation’s Santa Ynez gallery is now uncertain. Mr Cramer is one of Hollywood’s wealthiest and most prolific producers, with a string of over a hundred television and cinema films to his name. These include long-running series such as “Love Boat” and “Dynasty”, and he has brought twenty Danielle Steel novels to the screen. Mr Cramer began collecting Californian artists in the mid 1960s, expanded to include major American artists a decade later and developed his collection in the 1980s. His Californian ranch, La Quinta Norte, was the dramatic backdrop for his sculptures, but he is now moving to New York. This led to the decision to sell twenty-two works, which fetched $2.9 million at Christie’s New York on 7-8 May (see above). Prior to the auction, Mr Cramer offered sculptures to several museums. New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) received an Andy Warhol. Curator Kirk Varnedoe said, “We were discussing the idea of collecting a set of Campbell’s boxes, and Mr Cramer said he would start the ball rolling by offering us ‘Tomato’.” MoMA recently appointed Mr Cramer chairman of its Acquisitions Committee. Douglas Cramer jokingly refers to the Tate as his “second favourite gallery,” and he has offered two sculptures to the London collection. These are Anthony Caro’s “Salamander” and Richard Serra’s “Trip Hammer,” and they are expected to be formally accepted by the Tate trustees shortly.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Romping with Barney, Whiteread and Kiki Smith'

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