Life Stirs in Contemporary Art Market: Sotheby’s

NEW YORK ~ Sotheby’s declared the return to life for the contemporary art market this week after a US$47-million auction of mostly abstract paintings and sculptures in New York.

“The contemporary art market is alive and well,” Anthony Grant, a senior contemporary art specialist with the auction house, said on Tuesday. “The market delivered us a great result tonight.”

The art market has been badly holed by the global financial crisis and sales since late last year have been far off their heady records.

Tuesday’s auction, experts said, was not spectacular, but healthy – already an improvement.

A quarter of lots sold for more than their pre-auction estimate and several records were set, including $4.1 million paid for Martin Kippenberger’s untitled and highly unflattering self-portrait.

The highlight of the auction, a Jeff Koons sculpture of a chocolate egg wrapped with a bow, fetched a relatively disappointing $5.458 million after being forecast to raise $6-$8 million.

Several major pieces failed to sell. They included a cast wax sculpture of buttocks covered in musical notations by Robert Gober and estimated to sell at $2.5-$3.5 million.

But there were other big performers, including a $3.554-million painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, and $3.498 million paid for Alexander Calder’s sculpture of small ebony sticks hanging from a semi-circular metal rod – a work originally sold for only a few hundred dollars in the 1930s.

The sale featured several Andy Warhols, including a purplish version of the Mona Lisa, which sold for $1.762 million, as well as paintings by Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, and Cecily Brown.

Auctioneer Tobias Meyer said the evening confirmed a healthy trend in the market.

“It’s moving and shifting around us, but the ground feels a little more solid now,” he said.

According to Meyer, buyers from across the globe, including in relatively recent art-consuming countries outside Europe and the United States, took part.

“As this financial economy is changing so dramatically, you still have new economies coming in…. It’s not as if these new buyers who were there disappeared,” he said.

Even in harder times, the contemporary art market is able to command big prices for works that non-specialists might find puzzling.

A Richter painting titled Mirror Painting (Blood Red) and consisting of an entirely reddish canvas went under the hammer for $1.1 million.

A Warhol called Fifteen One Dollar Bills and featuring 15 lifelike paintings of dollar bills sold for $750,000 before added fees.

Even unadulterated jokes sold well.

Can You Imagine, a painting by Richard Prince, was sold for $1.150 million before extra fees.

There is nothing on the painting except solid blue background and three sentences written in yellow letters that read:

“‘I understand your husband drowned and left you two million dollars. Can you imagine, two million dollars, and he couldn’t even read or write.’ ‘Yeah, she said, and he couldn’t swim either.’”

Meyer said the secret was to stick to fundamentals and sell “artists who have a very solid collecting background.”

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