The Fall 2008 Major Auction Season

In New York Was Very Traumatic

By Carter B. Horsley

There was only one truly successful major art auction in the Fall 2008 season New York, the November 16, 2008 auction of Sotheby's of African, Ocean and Pre-Columbian Art with 117 of 118 offered works selling for $10,859,944.

Rapa Nui male figure from Easter Island

Lot 94, Rapa Nui Male Figure, Easter Island, 16 1/2 inches high

The auction was the spectacular and very important collection of Frieda and Milton Rosenthal who lived in Westchester County and bought many masterpieces from Helena Rubenstein, Nelson Rockefeller John J. Klejman.

The auction was extremely successful.

Lot 94 is a highly stylized and scrawny but "magnificent "Rapa Nui" male figure from Easter Island that is 16 1/2 inches high. It has an estimate of $250,000 to $350,000. It sold for $614,500, including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article, an auction record for an Easter Island sculpture.

Ivory Coast pair of ancestor figures

Lot 63, pair of male and female ancestor figures, Ivory Coast, 45 5/8 inches

The cover illustration of the catalogue was Lot 63, a "magnificent and highly important" Senufo pair of male and female ancestor figures from the Ivory Coast. The male figure is 45 5/8 inches high. The pair was previously in the collections of John J. Klejman of New York, Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York and The Museum of Primitive Art in New York and had been sold in 1967 at Parke Bernet Galleries in New York. The lot has been widely published and exhibited and has an estimate of $3,000,000 to $5,000,000. It sold for $4,002,500, an auction record for a Senufo sculpture.

Malagan figure from New Ireland

Lot 82, Malagan figure, New Ireland, 58 inches high

The cover illustration of the catalogue for the November 14, 2008 auction of African and Oceanic Art at Christie's from the collection of Robert and Jean Shoenberg is Lot 82, a 58-inch-high wood sculpture of a standing female holding a flying fish and another fish whose tail joins the head of the larger fish biting the lower jaw of the figure. A snake or a fish emanates from the figure's sex and is joined to the feet and a large shark on the figure's back is joined to a long slender fish projecting above the head. The head is surmounted by a hermit crab with spiral shell. The catalogue notes that this figure is "very similar to, and it is tempting to think it might be the pair to a male figure in the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum fur Volkerkunde in Cologne. The lot has a modest estimate of $50,000 to $80,000. It sold for $206,500 including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article.

Of the 82 lots offered for sale in this auction, 65 sold for $1,070,875.

Tim Teuten, Christie's specialist in this department, said after the auction that "In a selective market, the finest items in this collection attracted very strong competition notably from European buyers indicating the continuing strength of the market for fine and rare works."

The second most successful auction of the Fall 2008 season was the the Antiquities auction at Sotheby's December 9, 2008, that sold a respectable 82.8 percent of its offered lots, but even then there were some surprising disappointments.

Roman Imperial bronze of a goddess

Lot 34, Goddess, Roman Imperial, Augustan, bronze, 7 inches high, Late 1st Century B.C./Early 1st Century A.D.

Lot 34 was an exquisite and retal Roman Imperial, Augustan bronze figure of a goddess that is 7 inches high and is in superb condition except that she is missing her arms. While her bolt-upright pose may not recall more sensuous goddesses, but the drapery of her garments and her very beautiful face are most arresting. She is dated Late 1st Century B.C./Early 1st Century A.D. She has an estimate of $600,000 to $900,000. The lot failed to sell.

Lot 142, Hercules, Roman, bronze, 8 1/2 inches high, circa first half of the first century A.D.

The next day at Christie's December 10, 2008 was highlighted by several spectacular works, the foremost being Lot 142 a Roman bronze of Hercules that is 8 1/2 inches high and is not only perfection in execution but poetic and inspiring in its very fluid form. It has a modest estimate of $300,000 to $500,000 and is one of the rare and extraordinary works that by themselves make a collection important without any other works. It failed to sell.

Tribal Arts and Antiquities are not the traditional price leaders in the art and auction market and the traditional "big" fields like Impressionist Art and Contemporary Art performed very poorly, reflecting the world-wide financial crisis that began when it was too late to change the season's catalogues. The crisis, which started in the mortgage business, spread to just about everything and led to spectacular swings daily swings in stock markets, mostly drastically downward. Fortunes were wiped out and at the end the season the end was no way in sight and the short-term future of the art market looked not only bleak but desperate.

In most auction categories, only 3 of about 5 lots sold, a frightening percentage that is certain to seriously concern future consignors since a work of art that is unsold at a major auction is "burnt" and unlikely to be successfully reoffered publicly for several years.

Furthermore, most of the lots that did sell sold at the low-end of their estimate, or worse, much below such estimates as the auction houses tried to convince consignors to significantly reduce their "reserves," the prices below which lots could not be sold.

The auction houses got burnt, in large part because they had fallen in the habit of "guaranteeing" consignors a level of sales in all-out efforts to get important consignments. It is probably that few such consignments will be offered in the future and that they will be quite conservative.

Despite such bad news, the good news was that there was still money "out there" for some "expensive" art and that some records were still being set. While many have argued that the market was becoming more "selective" and that "quality" counts, the truth really was that there were no reliable rules and the market was floundering in uncertainty. "Big-name" artists saw their estimates move downward by a third or more, back to 2006 levels.

It is likely that the auction houses will survive but will offer smaller, more selective auctions with much more conservative estimates, based on natural turnover works from estates and divorces rather than speculation.

Dealers will have to adjust their prices as well as the public is well aware of auction action, but their historic roles in offering very high quality will help the better ones survive assuming they have some "staying" power to last out the storms.

The season got off to a horrible start, of course, when Sotheby's held its Impressionist & Modern Art auction November 5, 2008. the results were very disappointing with only 64.3 percent of the 70 offered lots selling for a total of $223,812,500. The pre-sale estimates were $337,800,000 to $475,400,000. Most of the lots that did sell, sold below their low estimates.

"Paysage des bords de L'Oise" by Cézannennrr

Lot 51, " Paysage des bords de l'Oise," by Paul Cézanne, oil on canvas, 29 1/8 by 36 5/8 inches, 1873-4

Lot 51. for example, was an early landscape by Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) that is an oil on canvas that measures 29 1/8 by 36 5/8 inches. It was painted in 1873-4 and was once in the collection of Auguste Pellerin, Sam Salz and William and Edith Mayer Goetz. It has a modest estimate of $8,000,000 to $12,000,000. It was passed at $7,250,000.

Christie's was able to only sell $145 million of its Impressionist and Modern Paintings November 6, 2008, way below its pre-sale estimate of about $250 million. Only 45 lots of the 81 offered sold.

"Anemones et grenades" by Matisse

Lot 53, "Anemones et grenades," by Henri Matisse, oil on canvas, 25 3/4 by 32 inches, 1946

Lot 53 was a very beautiful still life by Matisse that is notable for its strong asymmetrical composition. Entitled "Anémones et grenades," it is an oil on canvas that measures 25 3/4 by 32 inches. It was painted in 1946 and at one time belonged to Alfred M. Frankfurter of New York. It has an estimate of $4,500,000 to $6,500,000. It was passed at $3,800,000.

The Post-War & Contemporary Art evening sale on November 12, 2008 at Christie's includes two important self-portraits, one by Francis Bacon, and the other by Jean-Michel Basquiat, who committed suicide, (from the collection of Lars Ulrich) and an outstanding group of drawings by Post War artists Barnett Newman, Ashille Gorky and Willem de Kooning, from the collection of Kathy and Richard Fuld Jr. Other artists whose work is well represented include Lucio Fontana, Gerhard Richter, Joan Mitchell, Louise Bourgeois, Agnes Martin, Brice Marden, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, Subodh Gupta, and many others. The sale is expected to achieve between $227,000,000 to $321,000,000. Including the buyers' premium, the 51 of the 75 offered lots totaled $113,627,500.

"Study for Self-Portrait" by Bacon

Lot 27, "Study for Self-Portrait," by Francis Bacon, signed and dated "Self Portrait No. 1 1964' (on the reverse), oil on canvas, 60 by 55 inches

A triptych by Francis Bacon set a world auction record last year, but a more intimate and unflinchingly introspective "Study for Self Portrait," Lot 27, a full-length, 1964 self-portrait, was bound to generate enormous interest despite its hefty price tag of $40,000,000. It was passed at $27,500,000.

At the Sotheby's November 11, 2008 sale of Post-War and Contemporary Art, the sale sold 43 of the offered 63 lots for $125,131,500. Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of Contemporary Art at Sotheby's, said after the auction that "Tonight we saw a seasoned, smart collecting community responding to great material at levels that were achievable. The American collecting community bought works of quality with intelligence, for the right price." Alex Rotter, the head of the Contemporary Art Department in New York added that "the market has gone up more than 250 percent in the past two yeas, and the global financial turmoil obviously has brought a correction. Tonight's sale...brings us back to the levels of the autumn of 2006, when the evening sale also brought $125 million."

"Half face with Collar" by Lichtenstein

Lot 17, "Half Face with Collar," by Roy Lichtenstein, oil and magna on canvas, 48 inches square, 1963

Lot 17, Roy Lichtenstein's iconic Pop Art graphic cropped from a comic book "Half Face with Collar," was one of three paintings by the artist on offer at this sale. It has an estimate of $15,000,000 to $20,000,000. It failed to sell.

"America" by Tamayo

Lot 12, "America," by Rufino Tamayo, vinylite and sand on canvas, 13 feet 2 inches by 45 feet 10 3/8 inches, 1955

A major masterpiece by Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991) was the highlight of the evening auction of Latin American Art at Sotheby's November 18, 2008.

Entitled "America," it is a vinylite and sand on canvas mural that measures 13 feet 2 inches by 45 feet 10 3/8 inches and was created in 1955 for the Bank of the Southwest in Houston. The very impressive work has been widely published and has an estimate of $7,000,000 to $9,000,000. It sold for $6,802,500 including the buyer's premium as do all results mentioned in this article and it set a new Sotheby's record for any work of Latin American art at auction. Artist's records were also set for Remedios Varos, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Thomas Jacques Somerscales and Dr. Atl. The pre-sale estimate for the 78 lots in the evening sale was $21,770,000 to $29,235,000. The evening sale total was $16,797,875, indicating that the auction seemed to follow the pattern set by the earlier auctions this season of significantly reduced sales and sales prices but still indicated that there were significant buyers for some premium works.

Carmen Melián, head of Sotheby's Latin American department, said after the evening sale, that she was "delighted with the results...particularly in light of the economic climate," adding that "the sale total was comparable to our evening sale in the spring of 2007." "We saw strong interest for a wonderful section of abstract works from the 1960s and for 19th century landscapes.

The next night, the Latin American Art auction at Christie's did not fare better.

"Bonjour monsieur Lam" by Lam

Lot 35, "Bonjour monsieur Lam," by Wilfredo Lam, oil and charcoal on burlap, 29 1/2 by 59 1/4 inches, 1959

The auction was highlighted by several masterpieces by such important artists by Wilfredo Lam (1902-1982), Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), and Matta (1911-2002).

Lot 35, show above, is a large and very impressive oil and charcoal painting on burlap by Lam that is entitled "Bonjour monsieur Lam." Painted in 1959, it measures 29 1/2 by 59 1/4 inches.

In a catalogue essay for the lot, Alejandro Anreus provides the following commentary:

"Throughout most the 1940s Lam's paintings are colorful and lush, after 1947 his palette becomes starker - browns, blacks and grays are balanced with areas of red, yellow or blue. His earlier more expressionistic use of replaced by a precise, elegant drawing endowed with neo-classical rigor. His canvases of the 1950s possess a grand sobriety, where sharply defined forms are interlaced within fields of dark blues, olive greens, brown and blacks. Bonjour monsieur Lam belongs to this period. A horizontal composition, Bonjour monsieur Lam contains a winged horse that fills most of the picture plane; interlaced with it and leaning towards the lower right is a reclining figure with a horned mask for a face, while in the background a branch-like form with thorns floats diagonally. The elongated figures reflect the artist's re-invention of oceanic sculpture, which he studied and collected with particular focus during the 1950s. The title evokes self-portraits by both Gustave Courbet and Paul Gauguin, where the artist is greeted by a patron or audience. It is possible to read this image as a metaphorical self-portait (winged horse) where the artist is entangled with his audience (masked horned figure) in a world of struggle (thorns)."

This painting's composition is sensational and its horizontal format and large size is unusual for Lam. The painting was once in the collection of Prince Furstenberg of Vienna and has been widely exhibited and published. It has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It failed to sell.

"Stop the Age of Hemmohrr" by Matta

Lot 15, "Stop the Age of Hemmohrr," by Matta, oil on canvas, 78 by 117 1/2 inches, 1948

Lot 15 was a very vibrantly colored, large and very, very impressive oil on canvas by Matta. Painted in 1948, it measures 78 by 117 1/2 inches and is entitled "Stop the Age of Hemmohrr." It has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It failed to sell.

Abby McEwen provides the following excellent commentary on this marvelous and spectacular work in her catalogue entry:

"'If we admit that we are entering a new world in which there are laws that we do not understand,' Matta reasoned mid-career, 'in such a world it is the task of the poet and the artist to represent this new physics where we must now live and which is revolutionary.' The experience of the Second World War was profoundly unsettling for Matta, and to the physic hemeticism of his early work he began to introduce imagery more deeply existential and catacylismic in feeling. Influenced by the wartime exhibition of Picasso's Guernica in the United States and the Mexican muralist movement, whose work Matta saw during two trips to Mexico in the 1940s, he began to paint on a far greater scale than his American contemporaries at the time. A dynamic figure on the New York scene since his emigration from Paris in 1938, Matta served as a conduit between the European Surrealists who had gathered in New York, including Breton, Ernst and Tanguy, and the emerging New York School. The visionary projection and uncanny originality of his Surrelist paintings, would have a great impact on the young Pollock, Rothko and Gorky'; and his monumentally-sized canvases of the mid- to later 1940s anticipated those of the Abstract Expressionists. In early masterpieces such as the present Stop the Age of Hemmohrr and Being With (1946), a complex labyrinth people with unnatural humanoid beings and grotesquely contorted architecture, Matta began to unveil a new iconography of monstrous anthropomorphic beings that acted within what he described as a social rather than personal or psychic, morphology of form. 'To move away from the intimate, imaginary forms...toward the cultural, totemic expressions of civilizations...the formation of cultures in confrontation with social landscapes,' he explained, was to invest his forms with the historical consciousness of the present reality. 'I want to show the contradictions involved in realty,' Matta further emphasized to William Rubin. 'It is the space created by contradictions, the space of that struggle, which interests me as the best picture of our real condition. The fault with most pictures today is that they show an a priori freedom from which they have eliminated all contradicton, all resemblance to reality'....Realist in a most desultory, purely visionary way, the present work is rife with contradictory elements; the pictorial space warps and expands around the grotesquely outsized half-human, half-insect creatures that punctuate the gelatinous, suggestively catalytic background. 'I want to replace perspective,' Matta explained, 'by a kind of prespecting and simultanously to replace the space of distance with the space of feeling....All extremes and everything that is found within them - should be seen in terms of prospecting and be expressed in a special kind of space: a space of feeling.' This affective space grounds Matta's universalism in the anguish of his own experience, lending a compelling intimacy to painting that became increasingly non-referential....In Stop the Age of Hemmohrr, the torquing diagonal, carried by a strangely attenuated yellow form, connects the jagged, pincer-like figures at the top to the more aggressive exoskeletal bodies looming below. Encased within an amber blister at the left sits a sinister composite form, appedances sharply angular and innards gapingly exposed. 'They seem monstrous cybernetic embodiments of the hidden forces that seek to control our lives,' Rubin observed, the signs of the devastation and catalcylismic shock of a facturerd, post-war reality experience, by Matta working from New York this time, first-hand."

At the November 17, 2008 American Paintings auction at Christie's, a great and large Tonalist masterpiece by George Inness failed to sell.

"Tenafly, Autumn," by Inness

Lot 83, "Tenafly, Autumn," by George Inness, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 by 45 1/2 inches, 1891

Lot 83 was a very great oil on canvas by George Inness (1825-1894) that is entitled "Tenafly, Autumn." It measures 30 1/4 by 45 1/2 inches and is dated 1891. It has a modest estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. It has been consigned by the Corcoran Gallery of Art and had been given to it by Senator William A. Clark of New York. It failed to sell.

"Pink Orchids and Hummingbird on a Twig" by Heade

Lot 162, "Pink Orchids and Hummingbird on a Twig," by Martin Johnson Heade, oil on canvas, 18 by 24 inches

At the same auction, an exquisite and wonderful painting by Martin Johnson Heade also failed to interest buyers. Lot 162 was a wonderful and exquisite Hummingbird painting by Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904). An oil on canvas, it measures 18 by 24 inches and is entitled "Pink Orchids and Hummingbird on a Twig." It has an estimate of $1,000,000 to $1,500,000. It failed to sell.

The story was not much better at Sotheby's.

"Railroad Tracks" by Bluemner

Lot 55, "Railroad Tracks (Cityscape with Sun)," by Oscar Bluemner, watercolor and gouache on paper, 4 3/4 by 6 1/4 inches, 1927

One of the most beautiful works in the auction was a small watercolor and gouache on paper by Oscar Bluemner (1867-1938) entitled "Railroad Tracks (Cityscape with Sun)." It measures 4 3/4 by 6 1/4 inches and was painted in 1927. It has a modest estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. It failed to sell.

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