The Spring auction season kicks off tomorrow with the sale of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby’s, followed by Christie’s on Wednesday. By Friday, the stage will be struck and the works of Postwar and Contemporary artists will be starring in this weekend’s shows — with the bidding to begin next week. Art buyers will be perusing the goods on display; and the nonbuying public can enjoy an embarrassment of riches.
Andy Warhol is likely to make the headlines next week. Two of his works are for sale at Christie’s, and they should easily set new auction records for the artist. “Green Car Crash (Green Burning Car 1)” (1963) is estimated between $25 million and $35 million, a range that is well above the previous auction record set in November when “Mao II” was sold for more than $17 million. “Lemon Marilyn” (1962), from the famous “flavored” Marilyn series, is estimated at slightly less because of its smaller size. It, too, should clear the record-setting bar.
It is somehow fitting that Jackson Pollock, the first artist to receive a photo spread in Life magazine, should be overshadowed by Warhol, the artist who took fame as his subject. But Sotheby’s might not enjoy the irony. Their three Pollocks are a significant event taking place somewhat in the shadows. Led by “Number 16, 1949” (1949), estimated between $18 million and $25 million, the Pollocks come after private sale prices that have ranged between $25 million and $40 million.
Crowding Pollock out of the spotlight are two paintings that make for status symbols. The first is Francis Bacon’s “Study From Innocent X” (1962), estimated at $30 million. The canvas may not be the strongest of Bacon’s Pope paintings but it is the first of that series, a fact that gives it art historical significance above its aesthetic power. And it comes to the market with impeccable timing. Several Bacons have recently sold well, including the record-setting $15 million painting at Sotheby’s last November.
The showstopper for Sotheby’s will be Mark Rothko’s “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)” (1950), estimated at $40 million, which comes from the collection of David Rockefeller. The estimate is considerably higher than the two big, powerful “Untitled” paintings at Christie’s: One from 1954 is estimated between $20 million and $25 million, and one from 1961 is estimated between $14 million and $18 million. “White Center” earns its estimate due to its size, color, and moment during the artist’s career in which it was painted. But it is also a matter of provenance: The buyer will get a Rothko that hasn’t been on the market since Mr. Rockefeller bought it for $10,000 in 1960.
Another museum-quality picture likely to be sold to a private buyer is Willem de Kooning’s “Untitled 1” (1981), estimated by Christie’s at $20 million. Though it hardly seems like it will be an issue, there is a pedantic point that will determine the painting’s price. The work has all the power of the 1970s landscapes that have captured the de Kooning market recently, but it comes from the early 1980s, a period when the artist was changing his style. This canvas should appeal to the type of collector who buys for wall power and personal taste, redefining the market away from art historical categories and setting new price levels in the process.
Price, the whole reason for the auction process, will play a significant role in several other works for sale. Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled No. 92” (1981), estimated between $700,000 and $1,000,000, should be a record price at Christie’s. It is the artist’s opportunity to cross the million-dollar threshold.
After the recent dramatic sale in London of a Peter Doig painting for over $10 million — a price that unsettles many in the art world — to a mysterious figure with a Russian accent, his next sale will be closely watched. Sotheby’s has Mr. Doig’s “The Architect’s Home in the Ravine” (1991), estimated between $1.2 million and $1.8 million, an estimate level similar to that of the London picture.
Other noteworthy works are Jasper Johns’s “Figure 4” (1959); it was acquired from Leo Castelli Gallery in 1959 and has not changed hands since. Gerhard Richter’s “Zwei Spanische Akte (Osterakte)” (1967), estimated between $9 million and $12 million, will be a record price for the artist, but a Richter recently sold privately for $15 million, underscoring the artist’s popularity.
With many, many other significant artists represented in the sales, it is hard not to over look something good. But John Baldessari’s “Quality Material—……” (1967–68), estimated between $1.5 million and $2 million, is worth singling out. Baldessari’s prices are rising rapidly as collectors take note of his important role in art history. The prices are also a sign of the larger market’s continued upward trend. “Baldessari,” an expert on Contemporary art at Christie’s, Brett Gorvy, said, “is the Richard Prince of two years ago.”