The lasting image of the art market in the contemporary auctions in New York this season was Andy Warhol's 1962 200 One Dollar Bills. The silk screen ink and pencil on canvas picture sold at Sotheby's last week for $43,762,500 (Dh161m), underlining the feeling evoked at Sotheby's Impressionist and Modern sale a week earlier that the art market is crawling out of the past year's doldrums. Warhol was leading that crawl. His 1962 drawing of a roll of dollar banknotes, Untitled (Roll of Dollar Bills), and a 1965 self-portrait contributed to Sotheby's total of $134,438,000. Warhol was indeed desirable, accounting for more than a third of the sale.
Sotheby's tally was a bright sign for the auction house, amounting to almost three times the total of last season's weak evening contemporary sale. Yet it was more than $200 million short of the auction house's record contemporary sale in the spring of 2008. Across town at Christie's, signs were also positive for a market beset with the scepticism of sellers reluctant to consign works of art at a moment when the signs of economic recovery are mixed.
Christie's took in $74,151,500, selling 39 of 46 lots offered on the evening of November 10. It was an upbeat sale, compared with a lacklustre auction of Impressionist and Modern works the week before, when only 28 of 40 lots sold. Leading the way for Christie's was Reflections (What Does Your Soul Look Like), a 1996 dreamily contemplative landscape by the Scottish painter Peter Doig. Bidders leapt past the picture's $4 million - $6 million estimate to a final price of $10,162,500 with buyer's premium. If the price was good news for Christie's, it was even better news for the picture's seller, an entrepreneur from Puerto Rico, who had bought it the year it was painted for $11,000.
He wasn't the only seller for whom the time was right. Other offerings brought their own windfalls. At Christie's, Jeff Koons's 1991 Large Vase of FlowersFsausage, a sculpture in polychromed wood, sold for $5,682,500. The price was within the lot's estimate of $4m-$6m, but it realised a huge profit for its consignor, the publisher Benedikt Taschen, who paid $998,362 for it in 2000 at Christie's London. The 1965 Warhol self-portrait in red, blue and purple that sold at Sotheby's for $6,130,500 had been held by the consignor, Cathy Naso, since she bought it from the artist in 1967. "Andy has made me famous for 15 minutes and I've come to realise that 15 minutes of fame is more than enough," Naso said in a statement.
Both auction houses found strong interest from bidders for familiar names such as Warhol, Koons, Jasper Johns and Willem de Kooning. Americans who comprised the bulk of buyers on both nights were responding to the weakness of the dollar, said the collector Larry Warsh. "With the dollar falling, they're buying into something that can hold its value," he noted. Yet insiders looking for market logic saw mixed signals. Whereas Koons's work fared well at Christie's, a Koons comic/erotic portrait of himself and his former wife was one of two lots that failed to sell at Sotheby's. "In 2006, the same sale did $490 million. Everything's down 70 or 80 per cent," said Paul Judelson of I-20 Gallery, which sells contemporary art. "Nobody understands that, and they think it's great. But it's good - for now."
Amid the guarded optimism, both contemporary sales offered reality checks. At Christie's, two of the major lots failed to find buyers: Jean Michel Basquiat's Brother Sausage, a six-hinged set of graffiti panels from 1983 that is nearly five metres wide, and Andy Warhol's Tunafish Disaster, a grotesque silkscreen and silver paint-on-canvas work from 1963, commemorating a tainted tin of fish that poisoned consumers. Both pictures were consigned by the collector Peter Brant, an owner of magazines and a newsprint firm whose recent costly divorce from the model Stephanie Seymour has been tabloid fodder.
Brant's reserves (minimum sale prices) and the two pictures' estimates were shown to be too high for today's market, Christie's specialists explained. Another version of Warhol's Tunafish Disaster at the Sotheby's sale had a price that buyers found more appetising. It sold for $1m. "That's a reasonable price, compared to what they were asking at our competitor down the street," said the Sotheby's specialist Anthony Grant.
Caution made the contemporary sales seem more classic than cutting edge. Works from the past few years by Anish Kapoor and Kara Walker were clustered toward the end of both sales, and brought prices that set off no alarms. We can expect to see newer works next season in a rising market, barring any new economic setback.