Strong, Strange Auction Season in Store for 2004: Record Sales of Works by Women Artists Indicate New Market Trends

Article excerpt

NEW YORK -- So, if you had $2 million to spare, would you buy a 7-inch-long bronze lifeboat? Well, last November, somebody did just that at Christie's--and that's just one of the surprising results from the fall contemporary auctions.

In fact, Christie's sold no fewer than 18 works for prices in excess of $1 million at its evening sale of post-war and contemporary art last fall. Each year, Christie's offers its very top pieces in a night auction which, to ensure its exclusivity, requires a ticket for entrance. This season, the prices were as glamorous as the clientele. The 57 works that sold grossed $62 million, and all but five of those works sold within or above their estimates, indicating that the market is healthy. According to the sale's auctioneer, Christopher Burge, "We saw wonderful results across the board, for works from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, right up until today."

Eleven records were set, and and two patterns emerged. First, this was a record-breaking season for female artists. For example, making a rare appearance on the top-10 list for the evening sale was Lee Krasner, whose 1960 monumental oil titled "Celebration" sold for a record $1.9 million--more than six times its low estimate of $300,000.

Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchel's oil, titled "No. 3," sold for a record $903,500 (est.: $400,000 to $600,000). And, finally, Marlene Dumas's "Wet Dreams" outstripped its $120,000 to 160,000 estimate to bring in an auction high of $332,300.

Another trend this season was that large-scale sculptures fared remarkably well. Someone, it seems, has the room and wherewithal to buy them. In the words of Mary Peck, vice president of Christie's post-war and contemporary art department, "The demand for monumental sculpture continues," and this certainly became evident at the evening sale. For example, the lifeboat sculpture mentioned above, by bad-boy artist Jeff Koons, sold for $2 million. Also, an 8-by-8-by-8-inch Cor-Ten steel outdoor piece by Bruce Nauman flew past its estimate of $350,000 to $450,000 to bring in almost $1 million. Most monumental, though, both in size and price, was Alexander Calder's 16-by-20-by- 11-foot untitled stabile from 1968. It sold to a private institution for a record price of $5.8 million.

Following the evening sale, Christie's held its morning and afternoon contemporary art auctions, during which the second-and third-tier pieces were offered. Those terms, of course, are relative since these are still quite expensive works that typically fetch prices in the $50,000 to $500,000 range. Ten more records were set during these sales, which posted a total of $23 million. …