x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Warhol sets sale record in still-jittery New York art market

Uncertainty still rules the salerooms if recent New York auctions are any guide.

Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Self-Portraitacrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, in four parts.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987), Self-Portraitacrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas, in four parts.

Andy Warhol confirmed once again that his tenure as the strongest-selling artist on the market is lasting much more than the 15-minute ration of fame he once identified for everybody.

On May 11, a Warhol ensemble of four self-portraits in a blue tint established an auction record for a Warhol portrait at US$38,442,500 (Dh141.2m), setting the tone for the contemporary evening sale at Christie's, which brought in more than $301m. Warhol accounted for almost a third of the total at Christie's that night.

The previous evening, at Sotheby's, a sale of contemporary works had accounted for less than half of the dollar amount at Christie's, despite several Warhols on the block.

With signs pointing upward for the economy, the art market is still sending messages that could be described as confusing.

In the first week of the season's major New York auctions, bidding on May 3 and May 4 was uneven. So were results at Impressionist and Modern sales at Sotheby's and Christie's. Not even the market's biggest names could produce breakthrough prices.

At Sotheby's, a Picasso from the 1930s depicting the painter's friend Marie-Therese Walter and her sister Genevieve, Deux Personnages (Femmes Lisant), led the way at a mere $22.6m in a sale that inspired no dramatic records. (Sale prices are given to reflect the addition of the buyer's premium - 25 per cent of the first $50,000, 20 per cent of the next $950,000, and 12 per cent of the remaining amount.)

The following night at Christie's, an auction record was set for a work by the painter Maurice de Vlaminck (1876-1958). According to the auction house, Aquavella Galleries of New York was the buyer of Vlaminck's vivid 1905 fauvist picture, Paysage de Banlieue (Suburban Landscape). Vlaminck tends to be an also-ran in Impressionist and Modern auctions. The price paid for the painting, consigned at Christie's by the hedge fund tycoon Steve Cohen, reflects the rarity of desirable paintings by the artist, and the rarity of top-quality work available in the entire field.

Yet while Impressionist and Modern sales were underperforming, an obscure auction of19th-century paintings in New York produced an unexpected coup for the values of Lawrence Alma-Tadema, a Victorian artist of sentimental subjects whom cognoscenti consider to be out of place anywhere but the Liberace Museum in Las Vegas. Alma-Tadema's 1905 painting, The Finding of Moses, brought $35.9m in November at Sotheby's. On May 9, lightning struck again at Sotheby's, as The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra (1880-83) achieved the second highest price ever paid for an Alma-Tadema: $29m with buyer's premium.

The 19th-century critic John Ruskin called Alma-Tadema "the worst painter of all time". (No doubt Ruskin would have frowned on Sotheby's marketing strategy - the non-stop screening at gallery viewings of Cecil B DeMille's Cleopatra (1934).

Critics have made similar pronouncements about Andy Warhol, and said far worse things about Jeff Koons. Both those artists remain stalwarts of the contemporary market, where their values have risen steadily.

A creature that resembled a creation by Koons stood on the pavement in front of Sotheby's entrance on May 10, as well-dressed crowds packed into the building. It was a huge, inflatable black rat, placed there by members of the painters' union who stood in a silent protest, claiming to have been turned away by the auction house in favour of non-union painters. A Koons creation was also on the cover of Sotheby's catalogue for its contemporary evening sale. Pink Panther, a porcelain sculpture of the cartoon character embracing an effigy of Koons's ex-wife, the former Italian parliamentarian Ilona Staller, was estimated to fetch $20m to $30m. As bidding lagged, the lot sold for $16,882,500, with buyer's premium. Ten lots later, Warhol's Sixteen Jackies (1964), with a similar blue tint and the same range of estimates, brought $20,242,500, rising above the auction house's pre-sale low estimate of the work only when the buyer's premium was added. As the sale approached, Sotheby's had lowered the reserve on the Koons and the Warhol, reducing the minimum price at which the consigner permitted the work to be sold.

After the sale, Sotheby's specialists claimed victory, although the mood of the room never felt that way. "We've made baby steps to take ourselves out of the recession," said the specialist Anthony Grant, who noted strong bidding for Warhol's uncharacteristically abstract 1978 Shadow (Red), albeit at a low final price of $4,842,500.

If there was a victory, it was across town at Christie's, where a saleroom battle for the Warhol blue self-portraits raged for 16 minutes, an eternity for bidding on a single lot at any art auction. A telephone buyer won the picture against the art adviser Philippe Segalot, who was bidding in the room.

Before the Warhol sold, a record had already been set by a Cindy Sherman photograph from 1981 (of Sherman herself, as usual) which brought a price of $3,890,500. The sale was a record for a Sherman work at auction. It was also a record for a photograph at auction, eclipsing the previous mark set by a picture by Andreas Gursky at Sotheby's London more than four years ago.

Christie's set yet another record with the sale of a work that was never inside the building. Untitled (Lamp/Bear), by the satirical Swiss artist Urs Fischer, is a huge yellow teddy bear in bronze with a bright lamp on its head. For the past month, it has sat on the plaza in front of the Seagram Building, a classic of early 1960s modernism designed by the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

The bear, which required reinforcement of the plaza floor beneath it, sold for $6.8m - less than the $10m that Christie's expected, but 10 times Fischer's previous record at auction. Fischer is a relatively new arrival to the ranks of such sculptors of gigantic animals as Koons, Maurizio Cattelan and Yoshitomo Nara. (Christie's sale also included Fischer's Airports Are Like Nightclubs, a mechanical head and shoulders of a woman, with an arm that moved robotically and which sold for $602,500.)

When Untitled (Lamp/Bear) was installed on Park Avenue a month ago, Christie's Contemporary head Brett Gorvy predicted that it might have a broad enough global appeal to interest bidders from the Arabian Gulf or China. After the sale, Gorvy said: "I am confident that this object will transform the cultural landscape of where it's going to go." Without being any more specific about who had bought the sculpture, he noted that the bear wouldn't be leaving its Park Avenue site for another four months.

A few blocks up Park Avenue, at Phillips de Pury & Company, the third auction house in New York's contemporary mix (controlled by the Moscow-based Mercury Group), an enlarged image of Elizabeth Taylor, as painted by Andy Warhol in 1963, gazed eerily down on to the street, less than two months after the actress's death. Liz #5, with a red lipstick smile and turquoise eyeshadow against a turquoise background, sold for $27m. Consigned by Cohen again, Liz #5 was the top lot of a night for Phillips that brought a total of $98m, confirming the aspiring firm's third-place position.

Proof that Warhol sustained all players in New York's contemporary auctions, the second highest price achieved at Phillips de Pury was $8,146,500, for Warhol's serene 1964 painting, Flowers.