Auction Report

Contemporary art sales 1994: Poor stock meets fittingly lukewarm response, exemplified by Sotheby's Warhol fiasco

Contemporary art sales '94 auction report

It is hard to remember when the two leading auction houses packaged such a feeble collection of works of contemporary art for their supposedly prestigious evening sales held on Monday 3 and Tuesday 4 May. Both auctions were treated with a lack of interest, even disdain, Sotheby's raising just $8.1 million (£5.4 million), well short of one half of its lower expectations, from the sale of forty lots, with a further thirty-seven lots failing to attract bids or find buyers. That figure, which includes the disastrous results of a consignment of canvases by Andy Warhol, compares starkly with proceeds of $18.4 million raised in the comparative sale of six months ago, and the record figure of $89.4 million achieved at the peak of the market in November 1989.

John Marrion presided over the auction in particularly poor form, muddling his place in the catalogue on two occasions and hardly bothering to pretend that there were bids for some of the lots as he surveyed a room shrunken by false screens and studded by empty seats. Even his considerable wiles could not mask the presumption of reoffering works which had failed to perform in recent sales. Robert Rauschenberg's "Stop and Rebound" (lot 31, est. $400,000-500,000) had been consigned by Charles Saatchi and included in the identical sale of a year ago, at a slightly higher estimate. It failed to attract a single bid. Another consignment from Saatchi, Malcolm Morley's "Fire Island with Second Ending" (lot 61, est. $100,000-150,000) had been offered in the same rooms in a Part II day sale just last November, having already failed to sell in London in July 1992. Its promotion to the evening sale was incomprehensible and, on this occasion too, it was passed in embarrassed silence. Other lots consigned by Saatchi fared in unexpected ways. Carl Andre's "Equivalent VI" (lot 44, est. $300,000-350,000), one of the eight celebrated brick sculptures, failed to sell, but Richard Artschwager's "Chair" (lot 65, est. $80,000-100,000) resulted in a telephone bidding contest and was bought for $160,000 (£106,700). Pockets of consolation included an important timber sculpture by Mark di Suvero (lot 13, est. $500,000-700,000), which had been purchased by Robert Mnuchin for $290,000 in 1986 and now fetched $425,000 (£283,400) from a prominent collector in San Francisco bidding by telephone; the same bidder paid $400,000 (£266,700) for a decent figurative composition by Philip Guston (lot 33, est. $400,000-600,000). A fine abstract drawing by Willem de Kooning (lot 7, est. $500,000-600,000) was bought by a telephone bidder for the respectable price of $875,000 (£583,400) against spirited competition from private dealer Thea Westreich, who acquired David Smith's "Voltri IX" (lot 36, est. $250,000-300,000) for $210,000. The vendor of this important sculpture was the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington. Another telephone bidder purchased Sigmar Polke's "Untitled Sommerbilder I-IV" (lot 72, est. $450,000-650,000), the most significant German work of art offered during the week, for $410,000 (£273,400). There were no important Italian paintings included in the auctions.

With a marginally more interesting catalogue of works, and Christopher Burge in confident mood in the rostrum, Christie's produced the better results from a smaller auction, raising $10.6 million from the sale of thirty-eight lots. A further twenty-two lots did not find buyers. As expected, the highest price of the evening was achieved for Jackson Pollock's "Number 19, 1948" (lot 10, est. $1.5-2 million), for which a telephone bidder, identified only as a private European collector, paid $2.2 million (£1.47 million) against competition from three bidders in the room. Another telephone bidder purchased Roy Lichtenstein's "White Brushstroke I" (lot 31, est. $750,000-950,000) which had been consigned by New York dealer, Irving Blum. Standing at the back of the room and bidding on several lots, private agent Marge Goldwater paid $650,000 (£433,400) for Robert Rauschenberg's "Nettle" (lot 40, est. $700,000-900,000). Two fine sculptures by Louise Bourgeois deserved to fare well.

An untitled column of painted slices of wood (lot 5, est. $150,000-200,000) was bought by Santa Fe dealer, Laura Carpenter, for $170,000 (£113,400), and "Nature Study" (lot 45, est. $200,000-250,000), a white marble block with a carved hand caressing an organic form, sold to a bidder in the south gallery for $180,000 (£120,000), having been consigned by Finland's largest commercial bank in a bankruptcy case. Looking fresh and jovial, New York dealer Stephen Mazoh purchased two abstract pictures by Ellsworth Kelly, paying $120,000 (£80,000) for "Black Venus"( lot 14, est. $100,000-150,000), and $200,000 (£133,400) for "Blue Red" (lot 27, est. $250,000-300,000).

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Feeble art, feeble prices'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 29 June 1993