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Spring Is Here, So Are N.Y. Art Auctions


No one is predicting that New York's spring auction season, which begins next week, will deliver the art market from its painful slump. But unreconstructed optimists always dare to hope, and even the most confirmed pessimists have their eyes on stars of the upcoming sales of contemporary, modern, Impressionist, Latin American and American art.

If artworks tagged with the highest estimated prices are keys to success, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Childe Hassam, Rufino Tamayo and Frida Kahlo are among the names to watch. Sotheby's and Christie's are hoping to sell works by these renowned masters at prices ranging from $1 million to more than $10 million.

If, on the other hand, volume is the thing, Andy Warhol is the artist of the moment. The two auction houses are offering a total of 29 works by the late Pop artist, including a group of 10 works from the collection of Frederick W. Hughes, Warhol's longtime agent and business manager who has multiple sclerosis and reportedly needs the money.

New York's traditional semi-annual round of big-ticket auctions begins Monday night with Sotheby's $18.4-million to $24.7-million sale of contemporary art, featuring Hughes' collection. All but one of the 10 Warhols--a 1982 "Portrait of Princess Diana"--are from the early '60s, the artist's most prized period, but the sale is generally viewed as a risky affair. Warhol's market skyrocketed after his death in 1987 but it has plummeted since Los Angeles collector Max Palevsky sold "Shot Red Marilyn" in 1989 for a record $4 million.

The most expensive of the Warhols consigned by Hughes is "Double Elvis," a roughly 7-foot-square double portrait valued at $700,000 to $900,000. The painting contains two full-length images of the singer as a gun-toting cowboy, based on a photographic still from the 1960 Western movie "Flaming Star." Another work, "Old Telephone," a 1961 painting similar to Warhol's "Telephone" in the Museum of Contemporary Art's collection in Los Angeles, is valued at $600,000 to $800,000.

Franz Kline's "Sabro," a black-and-white abstraction, bears the auction's top estimate of $1.5 million to $2 million. Among other items of interest is Carl Andre's "Equivalent VI," consisting of 120 fire bricks. Similar bricks probably could be purchased for a few dollars, but as components of a pivotal work by a Minimalist sculptor they are valued at $300,000 to $350,000.

The most highly valued item in Christie's $13.4-million to $18-million contemporary art sale on Tuesday night is "Number 19, 1948," a classic drip painting by Jackson Pollock, expected to bring $1.5 million to $2 million. That's a far cry from the record $11.5-million price paid for the Abstract Expressionist's "Number 8, 1950" in 1989, but a notable sum in today's market. Christie's also is offering Roy Lichtenstein's 1965 Pop painting "White Brushstroke I," at an estimated price of $750,000 to $950,000.

The following week, aficionados of Impressionist and modern art will gather in New York when the two houses try to restore luster to the highest end of the market. Sotheby's will lead on May 11 with a $38.6-million to $52.1-million sale of 56 artworks, 13 of which are valued at $1 million or more. Getting top billing are two French Impressionist pictures, expected to sell for more than $10 million apiece. One is Matisse's "Fatma, La Mulatresse," a 5-by-2-foot portrait of a Moroccan woman wearing an aquamarine costume; the other is Cezanne's "Still Life With Apples," richly painted in an earthy palette.

Both works come from European collections, and both are "fresh" to the market. Since 1916 the Matisse has been in a collection formed by Josef Muller of Solothrun, Switzerland. The 1912 painting was not part of the recent Matisse retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but it was in "Matisse in Morocco," a 1990 show seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow and the Hermitage in Leningrad.

The Cezanne, whose consignor is unidentified, was originally owned by French industrialist Auguste Pellerin, Cezanne's premier collector, and it last came up for auction in a 1958 landmark sale of Berlin banker Jakob Goldschmidt's collection.

Christie's big Impressionist and modern art auction on May 12 features 60 works estimated to bring a total of $36.8 million to $49.2 million in sales. The star is Monet's moody seascape "La Jetee du Havre," valued at about $9 million. The large, roughly 5-by-7-foot picture depicts a group of figures in black capes and top hats hurrying along a jetty that cuts a sharp path through a roiling sea.

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