Newspaper article International New York Times

'Strange' Sale Underlines an Uncertain Market ; Calder Mobiles Soared While Some Warhols Went Unsold at Christie's

Newspaper article International New York Times

'Strange' Sale Underlines an Uncertain Market ; Calder Mobiles Soared While Some Warhols Went Unsold at Christie's

Article excerpt

Patterns were hard to detect on a night when some works failed to sale and others exceeded their estimates.


With Calder mobiles selling for three times their estimates and a Warhol "Flowers" painting left unsold, Tuesday night's auction of postwar and contemporary art at Christie's New York only deepened uncertainty about the art market.

"It was a strange sale," said Eli Broad, the Los Angeles philanthropist and collector. "Very mixed."

The auction came on the heels of Christie's $491.4 million "Artist's Muse" sale of works from the past 100 years. The total for Tuesday was $331.8 million from 66 lots, of which 13 went unsold and 14 were guaranteed by the auction house or a third party.

Christie's equivalent sale in May did significantly better, netting $658.5 million from 82 lots, 49 of which were guaranteed. It was bound to be tough to match the excitement generated on Monday by Christie's $170.4 million sale of the sultry Modigliani nude, "Nu Couche," to the Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian.

But some pieces exceeded expectations, like a Louise Bourgeois 1997 bronze spider, stretching almost 13 feet high, which sold for $28.2 million, a new high price for the artist at auction.

Lucio Fontana's yellow "Concetto Spaziale, La Fine di Dio" canvas sold for $29.2 million with fees, exemplifying why certain wealthy individuals continue to take contemporary art seriously as an "asset class."

These punctured, egg-shaped canvases are deemed by collectors the most desirable of the Italian conceptual artist's works and this example sold to a telephone bidder, against a minimum estimate of $25 million.

The seller of the Fontana was the billionaire hedge fund manager, Steven A. Cohen, who acquired the work privately in 2012 for about $16 million.

Given that presale guarantees are based on price with fees, Mr. Cohen would have made about $10 million on the painting in three years. The price was a new auction high for the artist.

While Tuesday night showed that big-ticket items continue to garner the biggest prices, it also showed that the material comprising the bulk of auction sales is proving increasingly unpredictable. Four of six Warhols failed to sell, as did a Jean Dubuffet owned in part by Christie's estimated at $9 million to $12 million. And a Jeff Koons "Balloon Swan" fell short of the low estimate of $15 million, at $14.7 million with fees.

"There's plenty of money around at the very top of the market, and these people all want the same things," said Heinrich zu Hohenlohe, director of the Berlin branch of the art dealership, Dickinson. "The middle range is softer -- if you can call $10 million the middle range. The market is a bit more nervous than it was. You can't overestimate things that aren't top quality. …

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