Contemporary Art


May 18, 1999

"Perfidious Albion" by David Smith

Lot 16, "Perfidious Albion," by David Smith, 1945-6,

bronze and cast iron, green patina made with acid, 14 3/8 inches high

By Carter B. Horsley

The important Contemporary Art auctions in New York this spring are rather short on quality and long on nervous valuations in a market confused by earlier Impressionist sales that were mixed despite a very strong national economy.

Sotheby's has the opening round with a night sale, May 18, that was successful but not without some disappointments. More than three-quarters of the 50 offered lots sold and the $25,244,650 total of the sale slightly exceeded Sotheby's comparable sale last fall and was nicely above its pre-sale low estimate of about $22 million.

Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer, characterized the auction results as strong, noting that it was "a collector's sale" that put a high value of "freshness" to the market with "spirited bidding" in the room, in contrast with Sotheby's Impressionist sale that was dominated by telephone bidding.

Lucian Freud (b. 1922) scored the highest price with Lot 19, a large, impressive but not exciting portrait of his reclining mother that was estimated at $3 million to $4 million and sold on the telephone for $3,302,500 (including the buyer's premium). According to Mr. Meyer, this work was acquired by the Dover Street Gallery in London.

The star of the auction, however, was Andy Warhol (1928-1987). His large sepia-toned acrylic and silkscreen 1966 portrait of Marlon Brando in a scene from "The Wild One," Lot 12, sold well over its high estimate of $2 million to a private collector for $2,642,500 (including the buyer's premium), but a small 1962 casein and pencil on canvas of a Campbell's Chicken With Rice Soup Can painting, Lot 13, that had been estimated at $600,000 to $800,000 soared to $1,652,500 (including the buyer's premium, much to the consternation of the determined underbidder, a woman in a black suit, high heels and wearing large earrings, who immediately got up from her seat and left with her companion after the lot was knocked down. A third Warhol, "Suicide," Lot 8, attracted a great deal of interest from many different bidders and sold for $717,500 (including the buyer's premium, more than seven times its low estimate). It is one of four extant monocopies of five he did of this image in 1964, two years after he created the image originally.

Among the works that did well were Lot 16, a charming small sculpture, one of three examples down in 1945-6, by David Smith, shown above, that sold for $220,000 (not including the buyer's premium) and had had a high estimate of $150,000; Lot 5, "Atantolone," a gloss household paint on canvas of colored dots on a white field that sold for $170,000 (not including the buyer's premium), well over its high estimate of $120,000; Lot 14, a large 1943 painted wood and wire sculpture, "Constellation," by Alexander Calder (1898-1976) that sold for $1,982,500 (including the buyer's premium), more than double its high estimate, and Lot 24, a larger Calder sculpture,"Trepied," that sold near its low estimate for $1,542,500 (including the buyer's premium); Lot 20, a large and very interesting and abstract but not very colorful 1953 Francis Bacon (1909-1992), "Two Figures at a Window," that sold above its $1.2 million high estimate for $1,542,500 (including the buyer's premium); Lot 27, "Tour III" by Brice Marden (b. 1938) that sold within its estimates for $1,487,500 (including the buyer's premium), tying the artist's record; Lot 41, "Grillo," by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) that sold for $1,102,500 (including the buyer's premium), also within its pre-sale estimates; and Lot 31, "Vierwaldstätte See," a large black and white 1969 landscape by Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) that sold for $1,047,500 near its low estimate of $1 million.

Records, which include the buyer's premiums, were set for three artists, $79,000 for Mike Kelley's "Number One and Number Two," Lot 2; $134,500 for Robert Irwin's "Disc," Lot 29; and $28,750 for Wim Delvoye's "Mosaic," Lot 38.

There were passes of several big names including the following: Lot 22, "Landscape with Smoke," by Richard Diebenkorn that was bought in at $750,000, way short of its low estimate of $1.2 million; Lot 44, "Jaeger (The Hunter)," by Georg Baselitz that was bought in at $75,000, not close to its low estimate of $125,000; Lot 45, "Untitled," a nice, fairly legible work by Willem de Kooning that was bought in for $240,000 and had had a low estimate of $300,000; and Lot 51, "Paysan Sautant Sur Son Petit Arpent," by Jean Dubuffet (1901-1985) that was bought in for $420,000 and had had a low estimate of $500,000; Lot 53, "Summertime in Italy #10," a quite large and dramatic 1963 Robert Motherwell (1915-1991), that was bought in at $180,000 and had had a low estimate of $250,000; and Lot 54, "Untitled," a geometric painting by Frank Stella that was bought in for $160,000 and had had a low estimate of $200,000. Two works by Matthew Barney, Lots 4 and 6 also went unsold.

At one point, three different women were bidding on Lot 36, "Untitled," a very pleasant 1991 bronze sculpture by Juan Muñoz (b. 1953), that was hammered down within its estimate for $48,000 (not including the buyer's premium).

Mr. Meyer gave bidders plenty of time to make up them minds, but asserted rather strong control on Lot 29, "Disc," a large 1966-7 acrylic on aluminum by Robert Irwin (b. 1928), which had been estimated at $90,000 to $120,000. After a bid of $120,000, a bidder on the telephone tried to bid $125,000, a small increment but one that is often acceptable. Mr. Meyer declined to accept it, indicating the next bid he would accept was $130,000. No further bids came and he sold it to the $120,000 bidder.


See The City Review article on Part 2 of this auction which was held May 19, 1999

See The City Review article on the Christie's, May 19, 1999 Contemporary Art auction

See The City Review article on the Christie's, May 20, 1999 Contemporary Art Part 2 auction


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