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Newer art shows it has legs

Auction heroes in New York, Contemporary works seem destined to overtake the market's leaders.

May 19, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

New York — New York

Business was even less predictable than usual in this spring's two-week marathon of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art auctions. The sales were organized in a climate of war and economic gloom, and the roller-coaster results reflected a bad case of art market jitters. As collectors moved from Sotheby's tony establishment on the Upper East Side to Christie's luxurious quarters at Rockefeller Center to Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg's austere, industrial plant in Chelsea, some sales sizzled; others sputtered. A few artworks brought enormous prices; others went begging.

But when the last auctioneer cracked the last gavel Friday afternoon at Phillips, it was clear that the sales were more successful than might have been expected. It was also evident that the market for Contemporary art -- made from about 1945 to the present -- continues to rise. It seems to be only a matter of time until Contemporary art auctions routinely outshine those of the longtime market leader, Impressionist and Modern art.

That didn't appear to be the case at the first big Contemporary art auction, Tuesday night and the following day at Sotheby's. The auction house sold $42.5 million worth of Contemporary art, roughly half the $81.1 million grossed for Impressionist and Modern art the previous week.

But the picture changed dramatically Wednesday night and Thursday at Christie's, which had its biggest sale ever of Contemporary art, bringing in a total of $88.9 million. Auctioneer Christopher Burge was in his element as he wheedled and charmed another $100,000 -- or even $1 million -- out of bidders, besting the Impressionist and Modern total of $72.5 million for the first time in the auction house's history.

Phillips, which pulled out of the Impressionist and Modern art market altogether last year as part of a drastic cost-cutting operation, organized a relatively modest sale of Contemporary art this season. The firm sold $14.1 million worth Thursday night and Friday.

The three companies' Contemporary sales added up to $145.5 million, less than the $153.6 million worth of Impressionist and Modern art sold at Sotheby's and Christie's. And star artworks in Impressionist and Modern sales still commanded bigger sums than their Contemporary counterparts. Las Vegas casino mogul Stephen A. Wynn captured the limelight during the Impressionist and Modern art sales with his purchase of a $23.5-million Renoir and a $17.3-million Cezanne.

But such highly publicized sales tend to obscure the continuing shift in the balance of power. Contemporary art's rise on the auction market was evident in last fall's sales; the spring auctions only make the trend more apparent.

"It's a sea change," said Amy Cappellazzo, a Contemporary art specialist at Christie's. And the primary cause is supply.

"There's an inherent scarcity of great Impressionist material and the price point has become very high for strong examples," she says. At the same time, well-known living artists have continued to produce new work, new artists have emerged and public acceptance of adventurous art has grown. "What was considered radical a few years ago seems less radical now," Cappellazzo said.

In this spring's auctions, works made four or five decades ago brought the highest prices: $16.3 million for a classic 1958 painting by Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, followed by $5.2 million apiece for a 1949 drip painting by Jackson Pollock and a 1958 signature blue abstraction by Yves Klein. But "Miss ko2," a 6-foot-tall painted fiberglass sculpture of a sexy, miniskirted secret agent inspired by a popular Japanese cartoon -- made a mere seven years ago by Takashi Murakami -- sparked furious competition and was sold for $567,500.

Phillips did a brisk business in works priced at $500,000 or less -- many of them by artists who are relatively new to the auction market -- at its primary sale Thursday night. The roster included five works from Enron Corp., which was forced to liquidate its art collection. The Enron items captured attention because of the corporation's infamous financial scandal but didn't command particularly high prices. The most expensive Enron piece was a giant red vinyl light switch by Claes Oldenburg, which fetched $405,500. Four additional Enron consignments were sold on Friday at prices ranging from $10,755 to $113,525.

The Contemporary art auctions were far from a runaway success. Works bearing the highest pre-sale estimates at all three of the big-ticket evening sales -- a mixed-media stage set by Robert Rauschenberg at Sotheby's, a painting by Arshile Gorky at Christie's and a painting by Klein at Phillips -- failed to find buyers.

But observers tied that more to general market malaise than to the intrinsic value of the artworks. The art market has been "tricky" during the last eight months, said Lucy Mitchell-Innes, the former head of Contemporary art at Sotheby's, who now runs a high-profile gallery on Madison Avenue with her husband, David Nash.

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