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Waiting for the Gavel to Fall : As New York awaits its autumn art auctions, dealers are anxiously wondering if themarket's recovered

October 29, 1994|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | TIMES ART WRITER

In the market for a flashy portrait of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol? It could be yours for a mere $2.5 million to $3 million, at Christie's big sale of contemporary art on Wednesday in New York. And that isn't bad, considering that Los Angeles collector Max Palevsky sold the same painting to a Japanese dealer for $4.07 million in 1989, when the market was overheated.

If melancholy images are more to your taste, there's a 1919 painting of Amedeo Modigliani's mistress Jeanne Hebuterne, who ended her misery after the artist's death in 1920 by throwing herself out of a window. Sotheby's expects to sell the portrait for more than $5 million in its Nov. 8 sale of Impressionist and modern art.

If, on the other hand, you prefer the patina of Renaissance treasures, you might consider a 72-page illustrated scientific manuscript by Leonardo da Vinci, which is expected to fetch more than $10 million on Nov. 11 at Christie's. Called the "Codex Hammer" after the late oil magnate Armand Hammer, who purchased the manuscript in 1980 for $5.1 million, the rare document is being sold by the UCLA/Armand Hammer Museum of Art and Cultural Center. (The Leonardo was consigned to Christie's as a hedge against a potentially devastating lawsuit, which was subsequently dismissed, but the museum now plans to use auction proceeds to establish a reserve fund for other legal expenses and--if money is left over--to purchase other artworks.)

And so it goes as the art world prepares for New York's traditional fall art auction season. Contemporary art sales on Tuesday through Thursday, followed by Impressionist and modern art auctions on Nov. 8-10 and the Nov. 11 Leonardo sale are expected to draw crowds of dealers, curators and collectors to Manhattan. Meanwhile, a much larger audience will follow the sales at a distance in an attempt to determine the health of the market.

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The Warhol, Modigliani and Leonardo works are among items that will be closely watched in the upcoming parade of auctions. But their multimillion-dollar valuations are the exception. While pre-sale estimates of $1 million or more were commonplace during the late 1980s, Sotheby's and Christie's priciest sale catalogues are now full of artworks valued at a few hundred thousand dollars. One reason is that prices fell when speculators and Japanese collectors bailed out; another is that potential sellers are holding onto prime pieces until a more opportune moment.

The Warhol--called "Shot Red Marilyn" because it was pierced by a bullet fired by a disgruntled Warhol associate in the artist's studio--will undergo particularly intense scrutiny since the value of Warhol's work has been questioned in an acrimonious legal battle between the artist's foundation and Edward Hayes, the estate's former attorney.

Palevsky cashed in on the painting when he sold it at auction for a record $4.07 million to Tokyo dealer Kazuo Fujii, on behalf of an unidentified client. Now--five years later--the portrait is being sold by an anonymous private collector, reportedly Tokyo collector Masao Wanibuchi, who is apparently willing to take a big loss. Instead of making excuses for the artwork's drop in value, Christie's is advertising its confidence in the picture--and promoting a shopping opportunity for bargain hunters--by putting "Shot Red Marilyn" on the cover of its auction catalogue.

In next week's sales of contemporary art, Sotheby's will offer 404 works, valued at a total of $22.4 million to $29.9 million. Among objects of special interest, two-dozen pieces by such major figures as Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston and Hans Hofmann have been consigned by the estate of art critic Harold Rosenberg. De Kooning's 1953 charcoal drawing, "Monumental Woman," valued at $400,000 to $600,000, is expected to bring the top price in the Rosenberg collection.

Christie's will put 234 contemporary pieces on the block, at an estimated total value of $15.9 million to $20 million. Among the highlights are 32 works by artists such as Francesco Clemente, Eric Fischl and Susan Rothenberg from the estate of Chicago attorney and collector Gerald S. Elliott. The most expensive item ($400,000 to $600,000) is Frank Stella's trapezoid-shaped purple painting, "Ileana Sonnabend," named for the New York art dealer.

The following round of sales, on Nov. 8-10, will feature Impressionist and modern art. Sotheby's will offer 355 works valued at $48.2 million to $65.1 million, including a Vincent Van Gogh drawing, "Wheat Field With Sheaves" ($2 million to $3 million), and a half-dozen minor works by Pablo Picasso.

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