"We don't know where the market is. We hope in the next months to find out what real prices are," Sotheby's President Diana D. Brooks recently told the audience at the "1991 Artnews World Art Market Conference" in New York.
The art world will be looking for answers to that question tonight, when Sotheby's New York kicks off a two-week round of auctions featuring about $200 million worth of works by such major artists as Henri Matisse, Edgar Degas, Pablo Picasso, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. Contemporary art goes on the block this week in big-ticket auctions tonight at Sotheby's and Wednesday night at Christie's, and in daytime sales of lower-priced works. Next week's auctions will follow the same pattern, but the subject will shift to Impressionist and modern art.
"What we need is fresh pictures--very, very conservatively estimated . . . to establish new price levels. That will give an injection of confidence into the market," Brooks said at the conference. The majority of items in the upcoming sales are indeed fresh to the market, and estimated prices are notably lower than a year ago, when a bubble of speculative buying burst and left the auction houses with a load of unsold artworks.
But the most closely watched item in tonight's auction is an all-too-familiar sign of hard times: "Rebus," by Robert Rauschenberg. The mixed-media painting (measuring roughly 8x11 feet) made auction news in 1988, when Swedish real estate investor Hans Thulin bought it for $6.3 million, almost eight times the artist's record.
Thulin was little known in art circles at the time, but he introduced himself in a press release, stating that he planned to build a major collection of postwar art including "at least two works by each of the 10 most distinguished artists from the period 1950 to 1980." After buying a $7-million Jasper Johns the previous day, he said the purchase "reflects my belief that you can never pay too much for outstanding quality." Now Thulin is bankrupt, and the massive Rauschenberg is being sold by one of his creditors. Sotheby's has estimated the painting's value at $4 million to $6 million.
Tonight's sale of 74 artworks is expected to net between $23.7 million and $32.2 million. That's less than half the $78.6-million record for a contemporary art auction, set in 1989, but more than the $19.8 million toted up in Sotheby's comparable auction last November, when fewer than half of the items offered were actually sold.
Apart from the Rauschenberg, the only pieces estimated at $1 million or more in tonight's sale are two paintings by Cy Twombly: an untitled 1959 work ($2.5 million to $3.5 million) and "Untitled Grey Painting (Bolsena)" from 1969 ($1 million to $1.5 million).
Christie's major contemporary art auction, on Wednesday night, includes 54 works valued at a total of $14.9 million to $20.4 million. The most expensive pieces are Franz Kline's 1960 black-and-white abstraction "West Brand" ($2 million to $3 million); Rauschenberg's "Bait," a 1963 oil and silk screen on canvas ($1.8 million to $2.5 million); Philip Guston's 1975 "Studio Landscape" ($850,000 to $1.2 million), and Roy Lichtenstein's 1978 painting "Razzmatazz" ($800,000 to $1.2 million).
Sotheby's will launch the Impressionist and modern art sales next Tuesday with an auction of 49 works valued at a total of $31.4 million to $42.7 million. Included are seven artworks from the estate of Irene Mayer Selznick, widow of film producer David Selznick.
The prime piece is "La Robe Persane," a 1948 painting by Matisse, valued at $5 million to$7 million. The summery indoor scene, painted in a spacious room at the Hotel Regina in Nice, depicts a woman in a striped robe, seated by a table that holds several pieces of fruit and a vase of anemones. Small works by Degas, Henri Fantin-Latour, Mary Cassatt, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georges Seurat and Edouard Vuillard complete the Selznick group.
On May 8, Christie's will offer 58 works of Impressionist and modern art valued at a total of $34.4 million to $46.6 million. The top-priced lot is Marc Chagall's 1949 painting "La Nuit d'Orgeval," a fanciful depiction of eternal love valued at $4 million to $5 million. In the painting, two lovers embrace at midnight while an angel floats near a cow that plays a violin.
Among other pieces scheduled to go on the block are Degas' 1897 pastel "Woman Bathing" ($2 million to $3 million), Claude Monet's 1888 landscape "Antibes" ($2 million to $3 million) and Rene Magritte's "The Mysterious Barricades," a surreal view of a house at night ($1.2 million to $1.6 million).
During the art market boom in the late '80s, May and November auctions of contemporary, modern and Impressionist art were hot-ticket media events. This time around, collectors and dealers will be watching to see if the market has finally bottomed out and if prices have stabilized.