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L.A. Catches a Touch of Auction Fever

June 21, 1989|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Times Art Writer

As nearly everyone knows, art auctions are eye-popping, budget-busting media events most likely to occur in New York and London. But as some people have discovered this week, Los Angeles has a piece of the action.

That was particularly evident Monday, when Christie's kicked off its annual, weeklong Los Angeles "blitz" (to find consignments for future auctions) with a free estimate day at the Beverly Pavilion Hotel. The same evening, Butterfield & Butterfield auctioned a private collection of prints and paintings by Andy Warhol. Anyone with a case of auction fever could have made a day of it, starting with an evaluation of family treasures and ending with the purchase of flashy Pop art.

"It's fun," said one observer, "but it isn't Park Avenue."

The Warhol auction didn't command Park Avenue prices, nor did it offer record-setting material. The entire 116-lot sale yielded $1.4 million--less than top auction prices for single Warhol paintings--but it was successful in its own way. While the most expensive items--four paintings--did not meet expectations, the lower-priced prints often soared to surprising heights.

"Blackglama (Judy Garland)," a 1985 painting inspired by a mink coat ad (valued at $130,000 to $150,000) didn't sell. Neither did "Endangered Species: Bald Eagle" ($225,000 to $275,000). An unidentified Japanese dealer bought the remaining two paintings--portraits of Michael Jackson valued at $300,000 to $500,000 apiece--for the bargain price of $220,000 apiece including the standard 10% buyer's premium.

The paintings' dismal performance prevented the sale from reaching its total estimate of $1.6 million, but the prints saved the evening. All but a few prints reached or exceeded their estimates, and many of the 112 lots (which included one pair, one group of four and a 10-print suite) doubled the auction house's pre-sale valuations.

"I'm very pleased," said Laura Horn, head of Butterfield & Butterfield's print department. "Many collectors have discovered that they can't touch a painting, but they can buy a print." The prints offered in the sale are "multiples," produced in editions of 25 to 1,000.

The sale's most expensive print was a 1981 silk-screen of Mickey Mouse that sold for $38,500, twice its estimate of $18,000 to $20,000. The record for a Warhol print is $88,000, paid in 1988 at Sotheby's New York for an image of Marilyn Monroe. One "Marilyn" print sold Monday night at Butterfield for $27,500 and another commanded $29,700, just above their most optimistic estimates.

"Myths: Superman," a 1981 silk-screen, had been expected to sell for $10,000 to $12,000, but it brought $30,800. A 1984 image of Grace Kelly estimated at $11,000 to $13,000 commanded $19,800, while "Ads: Chanel No. 5" ($8,000 to $10,000) brought $17,600.

Nicky Isen, a wholesaler from Philadelphia whose I. Brewster & Co. Gallery specializes in contemporary prints, bought the Chanel print and 13 others. "I took the Red Eye to Los Angeles and it was worth it," said Isen who spiced up the evening by calling out bids from the back of the room instead of raising his numbered card. On several occasions he upped the ante considerably or made a starting bid that was far above the expected figure.

Asked if his tactics cost him money, Isen said, "I know the going rate for these things. I know what I can get for them."

The sale attracted a young crowd of about 400 to Butterfield & Butterfield's Los Angeles salesroom. Lily Tomlin was among the throng, which was dominated by private collectors. Additional clients watched the auction on video and made bids from San Francisco, the home of the 124-year-old auction house. The firm has been holding sales in Los Angeles since November, when it opened a facility at 7601 Sunset Blvd., but the Monday night auction was the first single-owner sale of work by one artist, Horn said. The collector reportedly is Long Island dentist Dr. Harold Sobel. Butterfield & Butterfield billed him as a private collector and later identified him only as a New York dentist.

Earlier in the day, Christie's free estimate session didn't duplicate a Park Avenue scene either. The casually dressed people who appeared for their 15-minute appointments with Christie's experts carried paintings in plain brown wrappers, prints and photographs in shopping bags, sculptures bundled up in bedspreads and towels. Parking their cars on side streets or depositing their vans with valets, they passed quietly through the posh hotel lobby, up the elevator to the mezzanine and into the Wilshire Room, where eight specialists were stationed.

Unlike Christie's appraisal days of bygone days, when long lines of people would show up with everything from tin whistles to Old Master paintings, Monday's appointment-only event admitted 75 clients who could benefit from the specialists' knowledge and had artworks that might be suitable for Christie's auctions.

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