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Art market

Unexpected success in contemporary auctions, where unidentified Californian collector buys $3.5 million Gorky and $925,000 Hockney

Despite lukewarm predictions and no blockbuster items there was increased buyer confidence

New York

To the relief of the art market, the contemporary art sales held in New York at the beginning of last month confounded the predictions of those observers who had doubted that either house had secured sufficiently interesting material for a successful result. The various sessions cannot be described as exciting, but they were characterised by a growing mood of confidence, even determination, among American private collectors and new auction records were established for Arshile Gorky, Alexander Calder, Eva Hesse, Robert Indiana and several lesser artists. By contrast, the American trade played little part in the action and dealers from London and other European cities did not even register for bidding paddles.

In a reversal of the usual order of business, Christie's opened the week's trading on the evening of Tuesday 9 November, when it found buyers for fifty of sixty-two lots and raised $14.5 million, which compares favourably to the sum of $10.6 million earned in the comparable sale of six months ago.

Arshile Gorky's "Year After Year" (lot 26, unpublished est. $3-4 million), a thinly washed biomorphic composition dating from the year before the artist's death and sent to auction by Gifford Phillips, accounted for a substantial proportion of those proceeds when it sold to a Californian collector, unrecognised by the New York art trade and apparently new to the auction rooms, for $3.5 million (£2.3 million). A telephone bidder paid $130,000 (£86,000) for a fine drawing by the same artist (lot 6, est. $120,000-180,000) against competition from private dealer Edward Tyler Nahum.

Gagosian's only bid of the evening secured an enamel painting by Jackson Pollock (lot 10, est. $800,000-1,000,000) for $750,000 (£500,000), a purchase which the New York dealer celebrated with a triumphant wave of his paddle. Joseph Chachmi, chairman of an insurance company in Tel Aviv, paid $600,000 (£400,000) for Frank Stella's "Kingsbury Run" (lot 35, est. $550,000-750,000), an important notched aluminium painting which had failed to attract any bids when it was offered in these same rooms exactly two years ago with the fancy estimate of $2-2.5 million. It was rumoured that the canvas had been extensively restored or repainted.

Other abstract and colour field paintings, which featured strongly in this sale and represent the taste of department director, Diane Upright, performed rather well. Adolph Gottlieb's "Cold Front" (lot 8, est. $150,000-200,000) fetched $250,000 (£166,666); Helen Frankenthaler's "Swan Lake II" (lot 9, est. $200,000-300,000) was purchased by a telephone bidder for $220,000 (£146,666); and two canvases by Morris Louis, a stripe painting (lot 16, est. $120,000-180,000) and an unfurled painting (lot 22, est. $250,000-300,000) were sold for $230,000 (£153,000) and $320,000 (£213,000) respectively.

The most important and expensive British painting of the week was Francis Bacon's "Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud" (lot 28, est. $700,000-900,000), the left wing of a dismembered triptych dating from 1964, which sold for $1.6 million (£1.06 million) after competition between two telephone bidders.

Boasting a sale of greater variety which took place the following evening, Sotheby's achieved a virtually identical result, finding buyers for fifty-four of sixty-eight lots and raised $12.7 million (£8.46 million). It was an entirely satisfactory result, with auctioneer John Marion returning to confident form in the rostrum, and compensated for the poor performance of the comparable sale of six months ago, when proceeds of only $8.1 million were raised.

The outstanding feature of the evening was the strong performance of the sculpture of Alexander Calder, a continuing trend which has been noted in international sales in recent seasons. "Take it easy, we'll get to all of you", quipped the auctioneer, as six bidders competed for "Constellation" (lot 38, est. $500,000-700,000), a large standing mobile which established a new record for the artist's work when it was sold to a telephone bidder for $1.65 million (£1.1 million), the highest price of the evening. Leading Los Angeles collector, Eli Broad, stabilised the volatile market for Cy Twombly's work when he paid $1.55 million (£1.03 million) for one of the fourteen Bolsena paintings which the artist created in 1969 (lot 25, est. $1.5-2 million). Christie's had failed to sell an energetically scribbled grey painting (lot 42, est. $1.8-2.2 million) on the previous evening.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Who is the new mystery buyer?'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 33 December 1993