Looking Back: Five Top Lots

Phillip GustonThe Master, Judd Tully, offers the five outstanding auction lots of 2008. It’s a verions of his overvalued/undervalued feature and mostly covers the record-setting Bacon, Monet and Munch trio. It also looks at the Koons balloon flower and this Guston masterwork:

Sotheby’s bet that a top-rate Guston could fetch the price of a middle-of-the road Rothko failed miserably as this guaranteed lot sold for millions below its estimate. It seems the house overlooked the fact that Guston is virtually unknown in Europe, at least in comparison to the pantheon of expired Ab-Ex colleagues such as de Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko. The work set a record for the under-appreciated American artist nevertheless, easily hurdling the previous record, set at Christie’s New York in May 2005 when “The Street” from 1956 made $7,296,000. Plus, the savvy buyer got a relative bargain, and the seller, the collector and insurance magnate Donald Bryant, made a killing, given that he bought the luminous and beautifully executed 1954–55 canvas at Christie’s New York in November 1996 for a then-record $1.7 million. The work sold in the salesroom to San Francisco art adviser Mary Zlot, who is known to counsel Bay Area billionaires Charles Schwab and George Roberts.

2008 in Review: Five Memorable Auction Lots (ArtInfo)


Willoughby Sharp

The New York Times’s Margalit Fox describes the life and career of the conceptual artist who died at 72:

Mr. Sharp, the Ivy League-educated scion of one of New York’s most socially prominent families, who in the 1960s and afterward was on the cutting edge of the American avant-garde as a performer, producer, writer, publisher, curator, video artist and much else, died on Dec. 17 in Manhattan. He was 72 and lived in Brooklyn.

The cause was cancer, his wife, Pamela Seymour Smith Sharp, said.

A central figure in conceptual and performance art back when those forms were new and daring, Mr. Sharp was concerned with making art that was as much for the mind as it was for the eye. Along with artists like Chris Burden and Nam June Paik, Mr. Sharp helped expand the very idea of what constituted a work of art.

Mr. Sharp was also known as the publisher of Avalanche, a widely respected, handsomely produced art magazine he founded with the writer and filmmaker Liza Béar. Published for just 13 issues between 1970 and 1976, Avalanche featured in-depth interviews with many rising contemporary artists of the day, among them Mr. Burden, William Wegman and Joseph Beuys, the charismatic German artist of whom Mr. Sharp was an early champion.

As a curator, Mr. Sharp attracted international attention with “Earth Art,” a 1969 exhibition at Cornell University. Groundbreaking in every sense of the term, the exhibition featured site-specific installations — by Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, Hans Haacke and others — that were hewn, molded or otherwise created from the land itself. Mr. Sharp also ran the Willoughby Sharp Gallery, on Spring Street in SoHo, from 1988 to 2004.

Mr. Sharp’s film and video works are in the collections of major museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. In 1976 he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale.

Willoughby Sharp, 72, Versatile Avant-Gardist, Is Dead (The New York Times)

Robert Graham

The Associated Press reported the sculptor’s death at 70 earlier this week. Here’s a brief description of his work:

In Washington, Mr. Graham’s bronze sculptures mark the Roosevelt memorial, where bronze panels symbolize 54 social programs initiated during the New Deal. Mr. Graham also created the life-size bronze figure of Roosevelt in his wheelchair at the entrance to the memorial.

At the northeast corner of Central Park in Harlem, his Duke Ellington Memorial stands 30 feet high, with three columns topped by the Muses holding up an 8-foot figure of the musician next to a piano.

Mr. Graham’s 18-foot monument to Charlie Parker, depicting Parker’s head above the words “Bird Lives,” is in Kansas City, Mo. And in Detroit, his Joe Louis Memorial honors the boxer with a 24-foot bronze monument in the shape of a massive fist and forearm suspended from a pyramid structure.

Mr. Graham also designed a number of prominent works in Los Angeles, including the Great Bronze Doors on the southeast side of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, an intricate imagery-filled project that took almost five years to complete. Another work in Los Angeles, “Olympic Gateway,” consists of the headless figures of a musclebound man and a woman. It stands at entry to the Memorial Coliseum, where the 1984 Olympics were held.

Robert Graham, a Sculptor of Monuments in Bronze, Dies at 70 (Associated Press)

Manjit Bawa

After three years in a coma, Manjit Bawa died at the age of 67 in Delhi, India. He was a member of India’s pioneering generation of modern artists:

Bawa studied at the School of Art in New Delhi and worked as a silkscreen painter in Britain, where he also studied between 1964 and 1971.

Often using animal imagery — tigers and lambs sharing the same space — Bawa sought to convey the message that people could coexist with animals in nature, said art critic Ena Puri, who wrote a biography of Bawa.

His canvases were distinguished by their colors — the ochre of sunflowers, the green of paddy fields, the red of the sun and the blue of the mountain sky, she said.

“He was an icon, a person who was completely head and shoulders above his contemporaries,” Puri said.

Indian Painter Manjit Bawa Dies at Age 67 (Associated Press)

For Russia, With Love

With so many Russians living in London, one estimate puts the number as high as 400,000, dealer Peter London thinks there’s room for a semi-annual Russian art fair that coincides with the Russian auctions, so says This Is London.

Mr London said of Russian art: “It is the biggest explosion in terms of price and desirability and collectors. Art fairs in general were suffering dramatically, but specialist events – such as Frieze for contemporary art – were bucking the trend, he said. “Contemporary art is pretty well covered but there was nothing for Russian art apart from the regular auctions. We also want it to be a social occasion because there are not a huge number of social events for the Russians in London.”

But, wait, didn’t the Russians just go broke? What sense is there in a Russian art fair when the Russian money machine has sand in the gears? London has an explanation for that too:

“These people have been affected badly by what’s happening in the Moscow Stock Exchange – about 75 per cent has been wiped off the value – but many still have a few million in the bank. The top end art has bottomed out and is not finding the stratospheric prices it was, but pieces from £10,000 to £60,000 are still selling well.”

Finally, the site gives us a little context on the growth:

The Russian market has grown rapidly in recent years. The total global sales eight years ago were £7.6million. That figure rose to £85million in 2005 and £128million in 2006. Last year Sotheby’s and Christie’s alone sold art worth £180million.

Art Dealer Sets Up Fair to Draw Wealthy Russians (This Is London)

Bloomberg's Nonsensical Art Market Story

Bloomberg has a history of running stories that don’t quite live up to the headlines but today’s first part of a two-part story stretches the limits of logic. Under the headline, “How Monet, Freud, Hirst Records Led Art Market Bubble to Burst” Scott Reyburn lists a bunch of prices from 2008 with no causative link. The story simply never offers any connection between the record prices and the fall in the market. That’s because both the record prices and the market correction are epiphenomena of something else: global financial liquidity.

But let’s not stop there. When discussing Chinese Contemporary Art, the story tries to put the successful Estella sale of the Spring in contrast to the weak Estella sale of the Fall. Yet, anyone who was following that market knows that the Chinese Contemporary Art market had softened significantly before the Spring Estella sale. The New York Times sent a reporter to Hong Kong specifically to cover a sale that they expected to be a spectacular bust. When the sale did exceptionally well, most market watchers were left in a quandary. The second Estella sale took place in the midst of the worst of the worldwide market shocks. Many works failed to sell but those that did held to strong prices. Again, another confusing set of data points.

Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

How Monet, Freud, Hirst Records Led Art-Market Bubble to Burst (Bloomberg)

A Nation of Loaners

The Guardian asks the haunting question: What happens if the rich need to realize the value of their art on loan to Britain’s national collections. They come up with 2% as the figure for how much of the art is privately owned:

Conservative estimates suggest that one in 50 of all works in the national art collections is a loan – and as even the super-rich face a tough 2009, private owners may be moved to sell.

If all the art on private loan were assembled under one roof, its value would run into billions. As well as the Titians, the loans include the rest of the Bridgewater collection – wonderful paintings by Poussin, Rubens, Raphael, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Monet, Manet, and Gauguin, bronzes and jades, tapestries and marble sculptures. No museum in the land, no possible combination of lottery funds, charity awards and government grants could pay for them all.

The National Gallery in London alone has almost 250 loans, the oldest dating to 1927. Most are from other museums or institutions, or collectors who will never sell, like the Queen’s loan to the V&A of seven enormous tapestry designs by Raphael.

Fatal flaw: why masterpieces on loan could be lost to the nation (The Guardian)

"All Those Phones, No Bids?"

Carlo MollinoThe design sales in New York gave further evidence of a market in wait-and-see mode. The New York Times covers the sales noting pockets of strength within those broader bands of market weakness:

The strongest-performing objects last week — that is, the few that caused bidding flurries and reached six-figure prices — came in three broad categories that have well-established collector bases and track records in the market: Tiffany lamps, early-1900s American metalwork and French and Italian furniture from the 1930s through the 1950s.

At a Sotheby’s design sale that totaled $3.6 million, nearly one-quarter of the proceeds came from two century-old chunks of American iron: hammered andirons by Gustav Stickley and an elevator cage studded with spheres that the architects Louis Sullivan and Dankmar Adler had installed at the Chicago Stock Exchange. The purchaser of the cage, said James Zemaitis, the director of the 20th-century design department for Sotheby’s in New York, “is a major West Coast institution making a commitment to 20th-century design, and renovating a wing for that purpose.”

At Christie’s, more than 40 percent of the $2.99 million realized at the 20th-century decorative art and design sale came from one lot: a 1949 side table by the Italian designer Carlo Mollino. The piece, which has two irregular sheets of glass mounted on an S-curve of maple plywood, was a custom design for the apartment of a nobleman in Turin, Italy.

The article does point out the frustration many of the auctioneers expressed at the lack of bidding, including Brook Hazelton who surveyed the room at Phillips and asked at one point, “All those phones, and no bids?” Still, several dealers were in the room showing the flag. There was Brian Kish who bought the Mollino table and

The architect Lee Mindel was also happy to raise paddles publicly last week. He sat in the back rows for hours at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s, occasionally looking up from his computer or cellphone to nod at the auctioneers. He spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on behalf of “many, many clients,” he said.

“There’s wonderful stuff available now for the brave,” he continued. “You’ve got to grin and bear it, and go for those great values out there.”

Design Auction Season thats Fit for the Brave (The New York Times)

Looking Back: Scotland

The Scotsman reflects on a year of gifts that were no gifts. Duncan MacMillan points out that the £50 million for the Duke of Sutherland’s Titians has almost been raised. (No word on whether the people of Scotland and England will get a break based on the market correction of the last four months.) But that wasn’t the only big ticket gift Scotland received. Anthony d’Offay also gave and received in the form of a £26 million collection:

Reflect, however, that with the d’Offay collection and the Sutherland Titians we have been faced with two emergency purchases on this scale this year and they follow the similar emergency over Dumfries House last year and the John Murray archive the year before that. Surely there is something wrong with the system when an owner can hold us to ransom like this? It wrecks any systematic acquisition policy and leaves serial crisis management in its place. Export of a work of art can be delayed for up to six months if a committee of the Office of Arts and Libraries so decides. The delay is to allow a public institution time to match the price. Based on unquestioning acceptance of the priority of private property rights, it works for lesser items, but is wholly inadequate to deal with modern values. Nor is there any suggestion in it that ownership of a work brings with it some obligation to the wider community of whose heritage it is part. No institution is funded to cope with prices like these. Public appeals are a diminishing resource. The Heritage Memorial Fund designed to meet such emergencies is not a bottomless purse and so the government has to step in. Some years ago, it was suggested to Ian Laing, then Secretary of State for Scotland, that it would be prudent to start putting money aside against the likelihood that the Sutherland pictures would be sold. It was not done. It would surely be sensible to follow that plan now and to start a Scottish equivalent to the Heritage Memorial Fund. Then, assuming that the two Titians are safely acquired, when in 21 years time the Sutherland family are released from their vow of restraint, we might just be ready for it.

The Year in Visual Art (The Scotsman)

Banking on Holbein

Hans HolbeinA stately French family with connections to Holbein’s The Ambassadors sells off the last of their heirlooms in 2000 when this picture was considered the work of an imitator:

Marco Grassi, a New York conservator who was at the auction, said he advised the Swiss collector to make the purchase, which cost 2,000 euros.

When the crude background had been removed a painting created by Holbein emerged. The hands, book and fur had been painted in the style of the artist and infrared photography showed that the underdrawing for the hands also resembled Holbein’s methods.

The Telegraph story doesn’t say whether the Swiss collector who bought it has any plans to sell but the last Holbein portrait to come to market was sold for more than $10 million. However, the real excitement comes not from the dollar value but from the knowledge that Holbein had indeed painted Erasmus, who had been instrumental in introducing the painter to the English aristocracy, and that the thinker and painter remained friends until late in life.

Rare Holbein work bought for a few thousand could fetch millions (Telegraph)

Hirst Hysterics

Damien Hirst bashing is turning into a silly sport. First, we had Hirst as peevish scrooge because he was suing an adolescent for using an image of the diamond-encrusted skull. Now, it’s Hirst being unfair to documentary film makers for refusing permission to have his work filmed, which is with his right.

The film’s maker, Ben Lewis, feels Hirst is only trying to avoid critical judgment. But the abstract of the film provided in this clip makes us wonder about the quality of Lewis’s reasoning:

“My programme is an inquiry into the unprecedented prices of contemporary art in the last five years,” he says. “I argue that this is because of an artificially created commercial and marketing buzz around them. This has been done by placing such works of art next to some of the greatest works of art ever created by the human imagination in the British Museum and elsewhere.”

Damien Hirst Bans Documentary Filmmaker (Telegraph)

Elusive Cupid

John HaylsThe Tate acquired a painting in 1995 that they knew little about, according to the Telegraph:

But a stencilled lot number on the canvas was found to refer to a Christie’s sale in 1929, when the artwork – dated 1655-9 – had been described as “Portrait of Mrs Dobson, of West Peckham, Kent, and her son, Thomas Dobson, in a landscape with Satyr and Cupids”.

Yet there was nothing cherub-like visible on the canvas. The mystery was resolved when an infrared photograph was taken, which revealed two Cupids holding a wreath, together with a rose being thrown into the lady’s lap and a theorbo – a long necked lute – at the right of the painting.

Careful cleaning and restoration by Helen Brett, the Tate Paintings Conservator, uncovered the original composition, which is thought to have been overpainted around 70 years ago.

Angels Uncovered in 350-year-old Painting (Telegraph)