Contemporary Art

Part 1


May 19, 1999

Auctions Move to Higher Plateaus


"Self-Portrait as a Heel, Part Two," by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Lot 16, "Self-Portrait as a Heel, Part Two," by Jean-Michel Basquiat,

acrylic and oil point stick on canvas, 96 by 61 1/2 inches, 1982

By Carter B. Horsley

In terms of the total amount sold at this auction, $9,524,850, this was not a sensational sale, but that figure is rather meaningless and misleading for this was a sensational small sale with very strong prices that set records for 11 artists.

Christopher Burge, Christie's auctioneer, described the sale afterwards as "really extraordinary" and "a triumphant vindication" of the auction house's decision to offer works by younger artists many of which are not even a decade old. Of the 46 lots offered, 41 sold, most above their high estimates, and the sales total just exceeded the pre-auction high estimate even though the top lot, No. 19, which was illustrated on the catalogue's cover, Robert Ryman's, "Signet 20," passed at $1,100,000 far below its low estimate of $1.5 million. Mr. Burge said that he recognized "all the bidders," but added that many were "seasoned buyers in a new area." He said he was disappointed by the failure of the Ryman (b. 1930) lot to sell but described it as "marvelous" and "had been on the market before."

As in the earlier major spring sales, bidding increments were erratic. At one point during the offering of Lot 12, for example, an ink drawing by Charles Ray (b. 1953), a telephone bidder jumped from $300,000 to $320,000, leading Mr. Burge to say, "I like that." The next bid, however, was a paltry $10,000 increment, leading Mr. Burge, again in fine form, to comment, "Alright, back to the bad habits." (The lot was knocked down for $340,000, not counting the buyer's premium, a world auction record for the artist.)

Traditionally, auctioneers have thresholds for bid increments and those "guidelines" are published in the catalogue and for many decades have been followed closely. Typically, a bid over the $5,000 level would be a $500 increment, and would rise to $1,000 at the $10,000 level, $2,000 at the $20,000 level, $5,000 at the $50,000 level, $10,000 at the $100,000, $50,000 at the $500,000, $100,000 at the $1 million level, and so on.

"Untitled" (Leg With Candle) by Robert Gober

Lot 9, "Untitled (Leg With Candle)," by Robert Gober,

wax, human hair, leather, cotton and wood,

13 3/8 by 7 by 38 inches, 1991

For Robert Gober's untitled leg with candle, shown above, Lot 8, Mr. Burge announced at the $700,000 that he would "still take 10," and indeed the lot sold was knocked down at $720,000, not including the buyer's premium. The lot's high estimate had been $400,000 and this auction's price set a world auction record for Gober that previously had been $552,500, set last November at Christie's.

Both Christie's and Sotheby's have redesigned many of their important auction catalogues this season. For this sale, Christie's inserted a two-spread, printed on different colored paper, in the catalogue about Gober in front of three lots of his works.

"Robert Gober is among the most important American artists to have emerged during the past twenty years. Mixing the commonplace with the symbolic, he creates profoundly original works that resonate with memory and emotion, trauma and desire. His sculptures are powerful, disturbing, and loaded with suggested meaning. And like all true relics, his sculptures retain and give off an aura that confronts the viewer directly. Leg with Candle is characteristic of Gober's genius. In a manner reminiscent of the Surrealists, Gober has reconfigured the universe, uniting separate categories of being; leg and candle, flesh and wax, nature and culture, creator and created have been joined and merged. The sculpture is nightmarish and grotesque," the catalogue said, adding that Gober (b. 1954) has said he choses his subjects by "nursing an image that haunts me."

In addition to the special Gober entry, the catalogue also included very nice brief biographies of each artist in the auction at the back of the catalogue, a new and welcome addition, though one that is probably going to be limited to small major auctions.

Auction catalogues have long been wonderful reference resources, but this season the auction houses seem to be offering more color pictures than in the past. Given the volume that the heads of auction departments must handle, it would be naive to assume that all catalogues will be as lavish as this one, but with both Christie's and Sotheby's settling into expanded facilities it is nice to see that they have had time also to rethink other important aspects of their business. Whether or not an individual lot gets a special write-up in a catalogue usually impacts its sale value somewhat and it is a difficult task for the auction houses to shy away from hype or hyperbole while still offering interesting and pertinent information about the individual work of art. It is difficult enough to quote low and high estimates but any added, reasonable commentary is most welcome.

Another aspect of the auctions that seemed to be a bit different in this round of major sales was the occasional willingness of the auctioneers to indicate when they were finished with their "ordered" bids on specific lots and also to indicate, again occasionally, when they were planning to sell a lot below its low estimate. Sometimes, the auctioneers would preface the announcement of the current bid by saying "selling," an indication that the lot was not about to be passed or bought in.

On Lot 4, an untilted double portrait photograph, one of an edition of ten, by Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) and Richard Prince (b. 1949), for example, Mr. Burge announced from his podium "I'm out now" with a bid of $105,000 and the lot, which had a high estimate of only $40,000, went out to be knocked down for $120,000, not including the buyer's premium.

A new world auction record for Cindy Sherman was broken twice at this auction with Lot 7, "Untitled Film Still #48," 1979, a gelatin silver print, one of an edition of three, setting the new record of $200,500 (including the buyer's premium, as do all the following records). World auction records were also set for Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978), Lot 21, "Bronx Floors: Threshole," 1972, $222,500; Matthew Barney (b. 1967), Lot 5, "Cremaster 4," 1994-5, $387,500, more than double its high estimate; Mariko Mori (b. 1967), Lot 6, "Red Light," 1994, one of an edition of three, $101,500, well over its high estimate of $60,000; Christopher Wool (b. 1955), Lot 35, "Untitled (Fool)," 1990, $420,500, seven times its high estimate; John Currin (b. 1962), Lot 2, "Untitled," 1990, $46,000; Jeff Koons (b. 1955), Lot 14, "Buster Keaton," 1988, a large polychrome wood sculpture, one of an edition of three, $409,500; Andreas Gursky (b. 1955), Lot 11, "Atlanta," 1996, a large Cibachrome print from an edition of six, $90,500; and Richard Serra (b. 1939), Lot 22, "Sign Board," 1969, $431,500.

Bidding on the Koons lot was probably the highlight of the sale. While telephone bidding, assisted by the Christie's staff, met with considerable competition from the handsome auction room, some bidders in the room were bidding using their cell phones to communicate with buyers elsewhere. While most of Christie's telephone bidding staff lined up against one side of the room, a few were on podiums in front of the audience. Philippe Ségalot of Christie's Contemporary Art Department, was one of the most active, and at one point Mr. Burge asked him if he was bidding on Lot 14, the amusing Jeff Koons sculpture. The suave Mr. Ségalot nodded Mr. Burge off while furiously punching numbers into a phone, which bought a collective laugh from the audience, which included several men without ties. A few seconds later, Mr. Ségalot signaled Mr. Burge that in fact he was now bidding on the lot, eliciting more laughter and smiles and a wide-armed shrug and smile from the debonair Mr. Ségalot.

While he might have been in the nick of time with his digital finesse, his bidder apparently did not have enough heart to carry through to victory as the Koons lot was "won" by someone in the room.

It might not have been high drama, but it was one of the more delightful highlights of the auction season, in which Christie's seems to be on a good roll.

Other standout lots were the very strong "Self Portait as a Heel - Part Two," by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988), Lot 16, shown at the top of this article, an acyrilic and oil paintstick on canvas, 1982, that sold for $772,500, well above its high estimate of $600,000; two sculptures by Agnes Martin (b. 1912), Lots 17 and 18, which sold for $217,000 and $233,500, respectively, both considerably over their respective high estimates of $45,000 and $120,000; "Broadway and 64th Street," a very good, large oil by Richard Estes (b. 1932), that sold above its $300,000 high estimate for $354,500; Lot 31, a large canvas from his Rorschach series by Andy Warhol (1928-1987) that more than doubled its high estimate and sold for $684,500; Lot 13, "Alkaline Phosphatase - Polyethelene Glycol," by Damien Hirst (b. 1965), 1992, sold for $140,000 and had a high estimate of $80,000; and Lot 37, "a delightful large acrylic on vinyl tarpaulin by Keith Haring (1958-1990) that sold for $200,500 and had a high estimate of $150,000.

Lot 25, "Artaud: Zwei kleine Zeichnungen," by Sigmar Polke,

hand colored gelatin silver print, 50 by 94 inches, 1980-2

A very large hand colored gelatin silver print by Sigmar Polke (b. 1941), Lot 25, shown above, sold for $145,500 and had a high estimate of $120,000.

"Untitled" by Francesco Clemente

Lot 32, "Untitled," by Francesco Clemente,

oil on canvas, 78 by 93 inches, 1983

One of the few lots to sell below its low estimate was Lot 32, "Untitled," the large and very powerful oil shown above, by Francesco Clemente (b. 1952). It sold for $74,000 and had a low estimate of $80,000.

In addition to the Ryman, works by Donald Judd (Lot 23), Polke (Lot 30), Ross Bleckner (b. 1949), Lot 44, and Warhol, Lot 46, failed to sell.

See The City Review article on Part 2 of this auction

See The City Review article on Sotheby's May 18, 1999 Contemporary Art auction

See The City Review article on Sotheby's May 19, 1999 Contemporary Art Part 2 auction

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