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'Warm-ups' jump start auctions.

NEW YORK -- The stars of the rock world have warm-up bands, so why can't the stars of the art world have warm-up auctions? In the print realm, the headline autumn auctions are generally held in November and December. Traditionally, the stages are dark for most of the season until then. This year, though, two up-and-coming sales burst onto the scene. Christie's in New York held a sale from Sept. 28-29, which included almost 650 lots, and, just days before, Sotheby's in London held a sale, which included 416 lots.

The experts at Christie's, perhaps fearing an opening-night debacle, tread the boards rather cautiously. Although they offered a staggering number of pieces, the lion's share were, (by their standards, at least), inexpensive. Almost all had been expected to fetch $2,500 or less, and some even bore low estimates in the mid hundreds of dollars. The tactic seemed to have paid off. The average piece fetched $3,570, and 82 percent of the works on offer found buyers. Two pieces, one by Warhol and another by Chagall, even sold for four to five times their low estimates.

Why was it a success? By offering a massive quantity of relatively affordable works, they may have appealed to two key market segments. First, young collectors must have been drawn to the vast array of affordable works by big-name artists. There were early prints by Rembrandt and Durer, modern pieces by Picasso and Chagall and contemporary works by Hockney and Warhol, among others. The 175 artists whose prints appeared in the sale represented a who's who of the art world; it was an amazing opportunity to "jump start" a collection.

Second, savvy gallery owners also must have leapt at the chance to safely and inexpensively add household names to their inventories. When buying from lesser auction houses or privates, dealers generally receive few guarantees as regards to authenticity, provenance, etc. When buying from Christie's, however, they receive a five-year warranty.

As for the London "performance," did it meet with similar rave reviews?

Even though Sotheby's, London, offered 230 fewer lots than Christie's, New York, most were much more valuable than those offered at Christie's. Eight lots fetched prices in excess of $100,000 each, and the average price exceeded $15,000. Still, though, by offering prohibitively pricey works, they may not have generated the same enthusiasm as Christie's. In fact, only 74 percent found buyers and six of the top 10 lots only sold within or below estimate, implying that collectors were not clamoring to outbid each other. Even some important works by Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec and Henry Moore went unsold.

One possible reason for the relatively tepid market response might have been the prohibitive exchange rate of $1.77 per British pound; one dollar spent abroad bought far less than $1 spent here. Alternatively, buyers may just have been loath to make major purchases early in the season. Dealers and collectors, just returning from their summer vacations, may simply have needed more time to settle in and assess which way the market wind was blowing. Ultimately, this might explain why almost no major art auctions are ever scheduled for September.

All in all, it would seem that Christie's walked away the victor in this particular battle of the bands. They are moving into the peak auction season with momentum, whereas Sotheby's really is not. In fact, one has to wonder if Sotheby's will be able to gather enough quality works for their traditional top-tier autumn prints sale. What will happen if they are a no-show? The fans would clearly not be amused.


ABN Contributing Editor
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Title Annotation:SPECIAL REPORT; Christie's International PLC
Author:Prisant, Barden
Publication:Art Business News
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2005
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