Carter B. Horsley
For many years, Pre-Columbian
at Sotheby’s have had their own separate catalogues, but
this year they have been incorporated into the back of other catalogues
and given the same "sale" number, which is a bit confusing.
Last Spring, it was combined with the American Indian Art catalogue
and this fall it has been combined with the African and Oceanic
The Pre-Columbian section of
has its own "front page" in the middle of the catalogue,
but that is not quite the same thing as having a real "front
page." Given the fact that there were 225 lots in the Pre-Columbian
section of the auction, it could have had its own catalogue, but
perhaps the absence of any "blockbuster" works explains
why Sotheby’s has combined the two normally separate departments
into one catalogue.
This has been a strange fall
that has witnessed the continued setting of record prices for
some individual works but a high "buy-in" rate at many
of the sales. Each department is a little different, of course,
because of the general level of prices in a particular field sometimes
attract different collectors than the "major" auctions.
Normally, the best works are put into evening sales, but the remainder
of the works in the "day" sales, which are much bigger
in terms of the numbers of lots offered, often include some very
fine pieces. Because the quality of works traditionally offered
at evening auctions is normally very high, such evening auctions
usually have fewer works that go unsold than the much longer and
larger day auctions. Generally, a "good" auction will
be one in which 85 to 90 percent of the offered lots sell with
the majority within or above the pre-sale estimates. Very rarely
do all lots sell, but it has happened.
This auction sold only 59.2
percent of the
225 lots offered, which is very poor, but some of the other auctions
this season have even had lower rates, which is surprising as
generally the estimates have been reasonable, the quality typical
and the economy, while volatile, still relatively strong.
When a work of art does not
sell, or "passes,"
or is "bought-in," its value is obviously diminished,
but perhaps more importantly its owner is not likely to be able
to sell it for more at auction for a few years, and the piece
is considered "burned" in the marketplace because its
failure to sell has become a matter of public information.
works will be reoffered within the next few seasons but inevitably
with lower estimates than initially given.
The auction specialists, of
course, do not
accept everything offered to them for auction and those that are
accepted are given estimates that the specialists consider "reasonable"
given current market conditions and knowledge, and past results
of similar or related works. Over the last decade or so, the major
auction houses have generally been quite conservative in their
estimates, arguing with their consignors that lower estimates
encourage more bidding and de-emphasizing the possible psychological
impact of the estimates on potential buyers on the basis that
knowledgeable buyers will have a good idea of what a piece is
worth. Neither the consignor nor the auction house likes buy-ins,
obviously, for economic reasons. For the consignor, the buy-in
not only means no revenue but also incurs various charges such
as insurance and photography and sometimes a fee for not selling.
The argument that buyers are
influenced by estimates is questionable as most collectors are
interested in more than one item in a particular auction and often
have elaborate and complex "game plans" for bidding
that they may adjust at the time of the sale depending on how
the auction is going and whether they have "disposable"
In any event, the estimates are
and the auction houses have a pretty good overall record of accuracy,
perhaps not for an individual lot, but for the entire auction.
This season, however, many auction specialists have spoken about
"competitive pressures" in the marketplace that have
driven up estimates and resulted in more "buy-ins" than
usual. The pressures result mostly from consignors arguing for
higher estimates, and reserves, based on the recent escalation
in art values in recent seasons, and from the entrance of a new
competitor, Phillips Auctioneers, which has let it be known that
it was willing to make pre-sale financial arrangements with consignors
with regard to advances and guarantees. Both Sotheby’s and
Christie’s have been making such arrangements to get major
consignments but they have been discrete in disclosing such
A third factor this season has been the litigation over collusion
between Sotheby’s and Christie’s over fees that has
resulting in very high fines that have significantly increased
economic pressure on them to get more business and revenues and
apparently weakened their resistance to consignors’ pleas
for higher reserves and estimates.
While there has been no
apparent fall-off in
attendance at this season’s auctions, there has been a fall-off
in bidding and a great many lots have been offered and received
no bids at all, which is rather unusual and particularly difficult
to reconcile with the fact that there does not appear to be a
dearth of funds for some works. The argument that buyers have
become more sophisticated and knowledgeable and are only interested
now in top quality lots rather than good, decorative works and
that speculation is on the wane sounds good, but too many fine,
high-quality lots have not sold this season, possibly indicating
that many formerly active buyers, possibly including dealers,
are experiencing financial difficulties or concerns about the
economy and the market.
Whatever the reason, the market
now is very
inconsistent and that is likely to make the next season even more
difficult for the auction houses. Consignors like to have some
confidence that their consignments will sell. It would be foolish
to predict that the market is falling or that the auction houses
will relinguish their large share of the art market to dealers,
but it may well be that dealers will regain a more prominent position.
Auctions offer consignors the prospect of a "quick sale"
and in the escalating market of the past few years the prospect
of getting very high prices whereas consignments with dealers
sometimes take much longer to result in sales.
This auction had quite a few
The "cover" lot, Lot 333, a
Mayan Polychrome Vessel, Late Classic, circa A.D. 550-950, had
an estimate of $60,000 to $80,000 and failed to sell. The handsome
and colorful 5 ¼-inch high vessel had four images of the
Hero Twins as scribe, each seated crosslegged with hands in gestures
that creating circles.
Lot 304 is a Teotihuacan Mask,
A.D. 450-650m whose superb condition made it look like it was
made yesterday. The 8 ¼-inch high mask of a classic idealized
face with a serene expression is surprisingly abstract and impressive.
It had an estimate of $75,000 to $95,000 and it failed to sell.
Lot 266, a very dramatically
carved bowl, early Preclassic, circa 1200-900 B.C., had an estimate
of $30,000 to $50,000 and failed to sell. The 5 1/8-inch high
vessel had a deeply carved fold depiction of the dragon-serpent
One of the most interesting
works in the auction,
Lot 228, a Jama Coaque figural double vessel, circa 500 B.C.-A.D.
500, shown at the top of this article, had an estimate of $20,000
to $30,000 and failed to sell. The catalogue gave the following
description of this fascinating, 18-inch-high work: "the
priest in an advanced stage of a ritual transformation invoking
serpents, standing alertly with short arms raised and serpents
forming the hands, the removable head with interior chamber forming
a whistle and pieced at the back, the fact with broad protruding
tongue applied with snakes, fangs at the side, bulging globular
eyes with double-headed serpents as brows, wearing created headdress
with beaded trim, multiple collars, and flaring belt similarly
trimmed by beadwork and sinuous serpents, attached by three tubes
and a strap-handle to a globular vessel at the back, the spout
with slender snakes emerging and a crouching figure at the rim."
Lot 253, a green stone Costa
axe-god, Guanacaste/Nicoya region, circa A.D. 1-500, had an estimate
of $8,000 to $10,000 and failed to sell despite its large size
of 11 3/8 inches and nice detailing of a half-man, half-bird figure
Other Costa Rican jade pieces
Lot 256, a 6 ¾-inch-long jade pendant from the same region
and era as Lot 253, was carved at each end with a stylized alligator
head and sold with its estimate for $7,800; and Lot 257, a 5 ¼-inch
axe-god piece possibly from the same culture sold within its estimate
for $9,600. It was finely carved with a fierce human figure whose
eyes peered out behind buccal style mask and wearing a patterned
headband with addorsed bird heads.
The illustration on the
cover was Lot 288, a Jalisco Female Figure, El Arenal style,
circa 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. The 13 7/8-inch high clay figure had
an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 and sold for $58,250, including
the buyer’s premium as do all results in this article. The
work has a very sinuous and dynamic form and pose and a fine dark
The most dramatic and
spectacular work in the
auction was Lot 305, a Veracruz polychrome jaguar, Late Classic,
circa A.D. 550-950. This striking work is 24 ¼ inches high
and shows a guardian effigy of the jaguar wearing a thick collar
with a pendant and crouching on its rear haunches with forelegs
straight to the front with claws flexed and mouth open baring
fangs. It had an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 and failed to
sell despite the fact that it is a stunning work.
Lot 307, a Veracruz warrior,
Classic, circa A. D. 250-450, had an estimate of $12,000 to $18,000
and sold for $13,200, but a smaller but very similar warrior,
Lot 308, from the same collection had an estimate of $8,000 to
$12,000 and passed. The pieces were unusually bold in that the
warriors had elaborate ornamental clothing and helmets that were
very light-colored in bold contrast with their black skin. Normally,
a collector would not pass up the opportunity to have a "mate,"
especially at a reasonable price.
Lot 297, a Colima Figure of a
of the same period as Lot 288, is a delightfully stylized and
finely modeled figure with a "thoughtful face," and
a skirt incised with depictions of outstretched lizards. The top
of the head has a spout and the figure had a good patina. It had
an estimate of $45,000 to $65,000 and sold for $52,500.
Lot 317, a 55 ½-inch high
figure, Late Postclassic, circa A.D. 1200-1500, sold within its
estimate for $75,500. The catalogue described the work as "the
majestic human figure of stoic posture…[with] serene face
with parted lips." The imposing piece, however, was not finely
A very impressive Honduran
marble vessel, Ulua
Valley, Early Postclassic, circa, A.D. 900-1200, Lot 337, sold
for $52,500, just below its low estimate of $55,000. The 8 1/8-inch
high white marble vessel, which was covered with nicely detailed
geometric patterns, had a central panel of a stylized feline face
with oval mouth with fangs and teeth, and had "robust"
handles in the form of jaguars.
The auction had numerous gold
pieces, the most
spectacular of which was Lot 239, a pair of Narino ornaments,
circa A.D. 500-1000 that were finely hammered disks with dramatically
projecting human faces surrounded by a band of high domes. The
lot sold for $14,400 within its estimate.
In recent years, Valdivia stone
Ecuador/Colombia that are thin and very abstract small sculptures
have become quite popular with collectors. They are dated circa
2300-2000 B.C. Lot 225 had an estimate of $5,000 to $8,000 and
sold for $11,400. The 13 ¼-inch high statue of a stylized
avian figure was more detailed than most with a double row of
knobs above the beak.
A charming 5 5/8-inch-high
Chimu silver beaker,
circa A.D. 1100-1400, in the form of a crouching human figure
wearing a loincloth and headband had an estimate of $3,500 to
$5,500 and sold for $9,000. Many of the gold pieces sold within
their estimates, but good silver pieces are rarer on the market
in recent years.
Mochica works have also become
with collectors and Lot 202 surprisingly sold below its conservative
estimate of $3,000 to $4,000 for $2,400. The 11-inch-high figure
portrayed a naked male figure with abstractly demarcated ribs,
and nose and ears pierced and attached with rings with flattened
dangles and more dangles trimming the lower lip and flanking the
Lot 348, an Early/Middle
Mochica copper mask,
Loma Negra, 300 B.C.-A.D. 300, 6 3/4 inches high, shown above,
is a damaged but powerful work that had an estimate of $3,000
to $5,000 and sold for $2,400.