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A pallid start for a week of New York art auctions

May 15, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — A week of contemporary art auctions here got off to a tepid start Tuesday night at Sotheby's with a $27.3-million sale that brought $5.2 million for a Jackson Pollock drip painting but toted up less than the predicted sales total of $33.7 million to $46.7 million.

The biggest blow to the auction house was its failure to sell the most expensive item, "Minutiae," a mixed-media stage set by Robert Rauschenberg. A colorful, collage-like piece with a 7-foot vertical panel standing in front of a horizontal component supported by wooden legs, it was valued at $6 million to $8 million.

After the sale, Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's head of contemporary art, said the piece belongs in a museum and expressed confidence that it will "find a good home" when the economy improves and institutions have more money for acquisitions.

The auction offered seven paintings by Andy Warhol, a staple of big-ticket contemporary art auctions. One of the Warhols, "Four Foot Flowers," fetched $2.1 million, the sale's second-highest price. But three others, "Colored Campbell's Soup Can," "Little Electric Chair" and "Self-Portrait," failed to find buyers.

Among successes, records were set for Vija Celmins and Bradley Walker Tomlin. Celmins' untitled painting of the ocean's surface commanded $545,000, well above the high estimate of $300,000. Tomlin's abstraction, "Number 15," was sold for $904,000, twice the top estimate of $450,000.

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