NEW YORK — Confidence in the market for American art was shaken on Friday at a Christie's auction. Though the prestigious Park Avenue institution racked up $15.4 million in sales of American paintings, drawings and sculpture, a major work by Georgia O'Keeffe--expected to bring more than $1 million--failed to find a buyer and the sale as a whole fell short of its estimated total of $17 million-$24 million.
Sotheby's $37-million auction of American art on Thursday had indicated strength in a market that depends almost entirely on American buyers. That sale set records for about 40 artists, including O'Keeffe, and doubled the previous record for a sale of American art.
But by noon Friday, some observers at Christie's were grumbling that the Sotheby's sale--which featured an unusually fine group of 69 works consigned from the Andrew Crispo Gallery and 11 O'Keeffes, including 10 from her sister's collection--was an aberration.
"Forget what happened yesterday. These are rough times," said one woman, referring to the decline of the stock market.
"The top of the (art) market is strong, and the bottom is strong, but the middle is soft," said Robin Riley, a Christie's spokeswoman. "We have been saying that all along, but the situation seems more grave now."
When Christie's daylong sale ended, results were disappointing but certainly not disastrous. While 25% of the 400 lots failed to sell (compared to 15% at the earlier Sotheby's sale), three works fetched more than $1 million each and many lower-priced pieces outstripped expectations.
The sale's stunning success was Elie Nadelman's "Tango," a charming wood sculpture of a dancing couple that sold for $2.86 million (including the 10% buyer's commission) to Berry-Hill Galleries. The work by the Polish-born artist who moved to the United States in 1914 under the patronage of Helena Rubenstein set auction records for Nadelman and for an American sculpture.
Another Nadelman, "Chef d'Orchestre," depicting a dapper conductor, brought $1.43 million from Hirschl & Adler Galleries.
But while these two prime pieces exceeded their pre-sale estimates, three other Nadelmans (a bronze head, a marble head and a bronze relief of a horse) did not sell. The group of five works was given to the School of American Ballet by its founding director, Lincoln Kirstein, and put up for sale to raise money for new dormitories, studios and offices for the school.
The unsold O'Keeffe, a 1943 oil called "Pelvis With Shadow and Moon," also went on the block as a benefit. The painting was a gift from the artist to architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1945. Proceeds from its sale were meant to increase endowment funds for the preservation of two Wright homes: Taliesin in Spring Green, Wis., and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Bidding on "Pelvis" started at $500,000 and promptly rose to $800,000 but stopped there, apparently short of the reserve. Since 11 O'Keeffes had sold for as much as $1.98 million the preceding day, the failure of "Pelvis" was a surprise.
Christie's Riley speculated that Sotheby's group of "sensual" flower paintings owned by the artist's sister appealed to a different audience than the "more cerebral" abstraction of sun-bleached bones in a desert landscape.
Despite such disappointments, some other properties performed splendidly. Mary Cassatt's "Mother Bertha Holding Her Nude Baby" sold for $1.05 million, setting a record for a pastel by the American Impressionist.
A Winslow Homer watercolor, "The Flock of Sheep, Houghton Farm," hit the high end of its estimate when it sold for $660,000 to Berry-Hill Galleries. An unidentified Japanese dealer paid $616,000 for a still life by Japanese-born Yasuo Kuniyoshi, setting a record for the artist and tripling the work's low pre-sale estimate.
John Singleton Copley's "Portrait of Robert Hooper" brought $330,000 instead of the estimated $100,000 to $150,000. "Summer Reading," a painting by Impressionist Frederick Carl Frieseke, also sailed past its predicted price. Expected to sell in the range of $125,000-$175,000, it brought $264,000 from a New York dealer.
A small (8-inch-by-10-inch) \o7 trompe l'oeil\f7 still life by William Michael Harnett astonished the audience by rising from its low estimate of $70,000 to a selling price of $264,000, paid by a Chicago dealer.