It is not uncommon for auction houses, sensing movement in an artist’s market, to have rival works in the same sales cycles. But next month we will see very different strategies from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in the first sales of Mike Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats works since the artist’s death in 2012.
Although the artist’s estate has gone to Hauser + Wirth where curator Paul Schimmel is now a partner, Per Skarstedt was the first to organize a show around the Memory Ware Flats body of work. Kelley died in January of 2012. In October, Skarstedt displayed a number of the works in his Upper East Side gallery.
Kelley’s work often involves non-traditional objects like stuffed animals. The Memory Ware Flats are also composed of objects but they’re mounted on conventional two-dimensional rectangles thus solving one of the inherent problems with Kelley’s work (in market terms, if not aesthetically.)
Kenny Schachter, who is a collector and holder of Kelley’s Memory Ware Flats, describes the appeal:
“The small in number series is eminently significant to the artist’s work and unlike a lot of contemporary art: the series is rare in the limited output. There were only ever a total of just above 60. Of Kelley’s work, they happen to be among the most aesthetically appealing not to mention hangable; but much rather that than just easily storable.”
Another holder ticks off the attributes that make the works appealing in market terms:
They pass the Park Ave test. Two dimensional, prewar elevator sized, not terribly visually embarrassing or challenging and instantly recognizable.
The Memory Ware Flats have an interesting auction history according to Artnet’s database. In 2003, the first work appeared at auction making almost six figures. from there nine of the works traded hands publicly up until the Winter of 2010 with prices peaking in May 2008 as Memory Ware Flats No. 2 sold for $713k. That work is the only one to have traded twice publicly. It was bought fewer than three years prior for $452k.
With a five-year gap in the auction record and the presence of a successful dealer actively managing the market, it is not really a surprise that the works are beginning to make their way to auction. What is interesting is the different tacks the two houses are taking. Christie’s has put their work, Memory Ware Flats # 24 on the cover of its Afternoon sale in November with an estimate of $1 to 1.5m.
But Sotheby’s, which has a bit more experience in the market having sold the last three works that had public sales, has put Memory Ware Flat #29 as the second lot in its Evening sale with an estimate $1.5 to 2m.
Both works will be sold on November 11th. The question comes down to whether Sotheby’s momentum builder positioning in the more prestigious Evening sale will draw more interest than Christie’s Afternoon sale cover lot positioning.