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Strong, strange auction season in store for 2004: record sales of works by women artists indicate new market trends.

NEW YORK -- So, if you had $2 million to spare, would you buy a 7-inch-long bronze lifeboat? Well, last November, somebody did just that at Christie's--and that's just one of the surprising results from the fall contemporary auctions.

In fact, Christie's sold no fewer than 18 works for prices in excess of $1 million at its evening sale of post-war and contemporary art last fall. Each year, Christie's offers its very top pieces in a night auction which, to ensure its exclusivity, requires a ticket for entrance. This season, the prices were as glamorous as the clientele. The 57 works that sold grossed $62 million, and all but five of those works sold within or above their estimates, indicating that the market is healthy. According to the sale's auctioneer, Christopher Burge, "We saw wonderful results across the board, for works from the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, right up until today."

Eleven records were set, and and two patterns emerged. First, this was a record-breaking season for female artists. For example, making a rare appearance on the top-10 list for the evening sale was Lee Krasner, whose 1960 monumental oil titled "Celebration" sold for a record $1.9 million--more than six times its low estimate of $300,000.

Abstract Expressionist Joan Mitchel's oil, titled "No. 3," sold for a record $903,500 (est.: $400,000 to $600,000). And, finally, Marlene Dumas's "Wet Dreams" outstripped its $120,000 to 160,000 estimate to bring in an auction high of $332,300.

Another trend this season was that large-scale sculptures fared remarkably well. Someone, it seems, has the room and wherewithal to buy them. In the words of Mary Peck, vice president of Christie's post-war and contemporary art department, "The demand for monumental sculpture continues," and this certainly became evident at the evening sale. For example, the lifeboat sculpture mentioned above, by bad-boy artist Jeff Koons, sold for $2 million. Also, an 8-by-8-by-8-inch Cor-Ten steel outdoor piece by Bruce Nauman flew past its estimate of $350,000 to $450,000 to bring in almost $1 million. Most monumental, though, both in size and price, was Alexander Calder's 16-by-20-by- 11-foot untitled stabile from 1968. It sold to a private institution for a record price of $5.8 million.

Following the evening sale, Christie's held its morning and afternoon contemporary art auctions, during which the second-and third-tier pieces were offered. Those terms, of course, are relative since these are still quite expensive works that typically fetch prices in the $50,000 to $500,000 range. Ten more records were set during these sales, which posted a total of $23 million.

As impressive as the results may seem, Sotheby's did manage to edge out Christie's in this season's contest.

First, and most significantly, the grand total for its contemporary sales was almost $100 million, 15 percent more than Christie's grand total. The evening sale at Sotheby's grossed $74.5 million, which was $12.5 million more than the Christie's evening tally. Sotheby's proudly announced that the $74.5-million figure was its second-highest total for a sale of contemporary art since 1989. Sweetening the Sotheby's victory was the fact that the top lot at its evening sale was the most expensive contemporary piece sold at either gallery this season: Willem de Kooning's "Spike's Folly I," which sold for $11.2 million.

Furthermore, in the category of "anything you can do I can do better," Sotheby's actually robbed Christie's of a record price. After its evening sale, Christie's announced it had set the record for the artist Lee Bontecou when an untitled work from 1960 sold for $298,700 (almost six times its low estimate). It was a short-lived record, however. Just 24 hours later, Sotheby's thumbed its nose at Christie's and sold another piece by the artist for $456,000.

In total, seven records were set, and two of them were for women, namely Agnes Martin and Susan Rothenberg. The Martin, a classic minimalist composition featuring horizontal lines across a canvas, sold for a record $2.6 million, easily trouncing her previous record of $1.4 million. The Rothenberg, a far more approachable composition depicting horses, surpassed its estimate of $600,000 to $800,000 and hit the magic $1 million mark.

The Sotheby's morning and afternoon sales also fared quite well. Eighty-four percent of the works sold for a total of $23.5 million, well above the aggregate high estimate. The top piece was a Roy Lichtenstein oil, "Modern Painting with Yellow, Interweave," which sold for $590,400. Second in line was, unsurprisingly, a Lee Krasner work. Piggybacking on the record success of "Celebration," Krasner's 1953 oil and collage, titled "The City," trounced its estimate of $120,000 to $180,000 and sold to an American collector for $579,200.

With results like these, it's conceivable that those who have been waiting for a clear indication of the direction of the market may decide to jump into the fray next season. In the meantime, it might be a good time for those who have paintings by female artists rotting away in their basements to dust them off and put them up for sale.
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Author:Prisant, Barden
Publication:Art Business News
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Feb 1, 2004
Words:858
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