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A Contemporary Look

Buying Contemporary Art Means Searching Beyond the Obvious
Judd Tully
Posted: June 1, 2000

Published May/June 2000

AUCTIONS A Contemporary Look Buying Contemporary Art Means Searching Beyond the Obvious

By Judd Tully

With one successful contemporary art auction under his belt and cutting-edge property streaming in for consignment, Phillips Auctioneers specialist Michael McGinnis appeared upbeat about the prospects for a repeat performance at Phillips's contemporary art sale on May 18 and 19 in New York City.

McGinnis is eager to entice a wider collecting audience into the contemporary art world, which can often be compared to the cutthroat climate of Hollywood filmmaking, where you're only as good as your latest box office figures. Typically defined as works produced after the Second World War, contemporary art is now a hot commodity, whether you're talking about the incredibly rare Abstract Expressionist paintings by Jackson Pollock or the more recently minted work produced by wannabe stars of the new millennium.

Tracking down first-rate paintings by the likes of Pollock, Willem de Kooning or Mark Rothko (three departed Abstract Expressionist superstars) is not only difficult, but wildly expensive as well. Back in November 1989, for example, a Japanese art dealer bought de Kooning's 1955 work Interchange at Sotheby's New York for a staggering $20.6 million. Luckily, supply is not much of a problem for collectors of '90s artists.

"For someone who wants to start buying contemporary art, auctions are a great place to begin, because it sort of identifies what already has been accepted by the mainstream so you're already limiting what you're looking at," says McGinnis, who began his art-world career in Chicago in 1993, working for blue-chip contemporary art dealer Richard Gray.

"There are literally hundreds of galleries in Manhattan and it can be very confusing for the prospective collector to know which ones will have longevity or credibility from the standpoint of the market," McGinnis cautions. "Walking into galleries willy-nilly is kind of a crapshoot. So if you subsequently tried to turn around [the artwork you bought] in a couple of years and you find out there's no resale value whatsoever, I always find that to be a disappointing scenario."

McGinnis says it's essential for budding collectors to seek out and identify those contemporary galleries that exhibit the best of the new breed in order to view their work firsthand and also learn about their retail prices. If the artist's most recent show sold out, for example, or if the artist has been selected for a major museum survey show of new talent such as the current Whitney Biennial, that artist has an excellent shot at developing a resale market. Once a track record is established and market demand proven, an auction debut is sure to follow. "To see artists in museum environments," ventures McGinnis, "that's justification enough to most buyers to warrant a bit of an investment."

Literally hundreds of living (and dead) contemporary artists' works are traded every six months in the big auction sales in New York and London. Christie's and Sotheby's rule that roost in market-crunching splendor, but Phillips is making an ambitious effort at least to harass these giants. This time around, for example, it has rented the American Crafts Museum on West 53rd Street to preview its contemporary treasures. (In terms of competing with the big boys, it doesn't hurt that French multibillionaire Bernard Arnault and his luxury brand empire LVMH acquired Phillips late last year.)

Last November, Phillips caused a bit of a stir with its $1.8 million sale. Top lots included an edgy, straw-festooned canvas by the esteemed German artist Anselm Kiefer that sold for $442,500, and Ass Killer, a toughly titled but mostly decorative painting by the late, already legendary Jean-Michel Basquiat that brought $167,500. But equally important to McGinnis, "Many of the people were first-time buyers in the $5,000 range and felt very comfortable doing it. A lot of young collectors," observes McGinnis, who just turned 29, "are just jumping into it."

This season, McGinnis, who was poached from Christie's last May, has assembled a cast heavily weighted toward '90s artists, led by painter John Currin, a current art-world darling. Untitled, dated 1990, a riotous yet painterly caricature of a seated female student posing for her high school yearbook photo, is estimated at $35,000­$45,000. "We expect to generate an enormous amount of interest with this one," says McGinnis, who noted another Currin fictionalized portrait, The Magnificent Bosom, had sold at Christie's London last December for $131,460. This represents the artist's third appearance at auction.

Like a select roster of other au courant contemporary stars with a somewhat limited output, Currin is virtually untouchable in the so-called primary market (the term is applied to works being offered by galleries for the first time, and before resale at other galleries or auction houses), especially for emerging collectors. So rather than trying your luck at galleries, you'd probably have a better chance of nabbing one at auction.

"If you have to wait two years to get one [from a waiting list]," advises McGinnis, "it may be worth it to compete for it at auction." In this heated scenario, however, prospective bidders should be prepared to go over the high estimate and perhaps even double it. "It depends how rich you are," McGinnis jokes, but he then grows serious. "If I were bidding at auction, I'd definitely set a price for myself that I wouldn't go over or, if I really wanted it, go one or two bids over my limit. That way you can catch yourself before you really go crazy." That expensive predicament is often called "auction fever."

Another contender in Phillips's May sale is Vanessa Beecroft's VB34 (Moderna Museet, Stockholm), a large-scale color print from 1998 (est. $8,000­$10,000). Not yet a household name outside the trendy precinct of the contemporary art market, Beecroft recently became famous for her staged performance-art pieces featuring a cast of gorgeous, mostly nude young female models parading around--on this occasion in cowboy hats--against the dignified backdrop of a museum setting. The choreography suggests a half-time parade at a college football game, yet Beecroft offers a sizzling critique of society's obsession with youth and beauty. She takes still photographs to document the performances. Both Currin and Beecroft are featured in the Whitney "2000 Biennial Exhibition" (on view through June 4 at 945 Madison Avenue, New York).

"Many people can walk into a gallery and see something 'minimalist' or 'off-the-wall' and disregard it immediately," McGinnis says. "But if you understand what the artist was trying to say and do, you can further appreciate it. You have to do some homework."

It doesn't take much preparation to "get" Kara Walker's chilling Conference Under the Moon, featuring a group of cutout paper silhouette figures mounted on Masonite (est. $7,000­$10,000). One silhouette resembles Rodin's famous sculpture The Thinker, except this distinguished-looking figure is African-American. Walker's African-American roots play out in this controversial story line from the slave-era South.

William Kentridge's charcoal, gouache and colored pencil on paper drawing, Landscape with Red Poles from 1994 (est. $10,000­$15,000) is initially harder to grasp, since it represents the opening scene from the artist's 1994 animation film Felix in Exile. Kentridge is South African, and much of his subject matter revolves around the era of apartheid in his homeland. The landscape depicted, it turns out, resembles the mining and industrial wasteland outside of Johannesburg, once the site of bloody labor strife. As McGinnis stresses, "If there's a story or concept behind the work of art, that's what makes it interesting. Buying something strictly for investment is never a good idea. We all know that from the fallout of the 1980s art boom."

If cutting-edge work isn't appealing, high-quality paintings from the 1950s by the lesser-known second tier of Abstract Expressionist painters is another avenue to explore. A sharp-eyed collector, for example, acquired Michael Goldberg's untitled abstraction from 1959 for a modest $3,680 at Christie's East on February 15 (est. $4,000­$6,000). "That work of the second-tier Abstract Expressionists is important and underpriced," says McGinnis.

Contemporary art auctions are taking place in New York City at Phillips, 406 West 79th Street on May 18 at 7 p.m. and May 19 at 10 a.m.; contact: Michael McGinnis, specialist, at (212) 570-4830. Preview exhibition at the American Craft Museum, 40 West 53nd Street, May 12­18 at noon. Christie's New York is hosting its spring contemporary art auction at 20 Rockefeller Plaza on May 16 at 7 p.m. (Part I) and May 17 at 10 a.m. (Part II); contact: Philippe Segalot, specialist, at (212) 636-2100. Preview: May 12 to 16 at noon. A sale will be held at Sotheby's New York at 1334 York Avenue on May 17 at 7 p.m. (Part I) and May 18 at 10:30 a.m.; contact: Laura Paulson, specialist, at (212) 606-7254. Preview May 13 to 17, 9 a.m.­5 p.m.

Judd Tully covers the New York art and auction scene for a variety of publications, including the London Antiques Trade Gazette.

AUCTION REPORT

The Old Master market is red hot. While some skeptics see it as dreary or tending too much toward the religious, this refined field (loosely defined as paintings, drawings and sculpture created by European artists up to around 1800) has surged, thanks to the growing perception that prices for undisputed masters are undervalued, especially when compared to Impressionist or Modernist works.

In late January in New York, Christie's and Sotheby's auctioned off $101 million worth of Old Master paintings and drawings. That rich haul included a rare and regal Peter Paul Rubens painting, Portrait of a Man as the God Mars, that fetched a record $8.25 million at Sotheby's. Another top draw was a prized view by Il Canaletto (a.k.a. Giovanni Antonio Canal), The Grand Canal, Venice, Looking East, that sold to London dealer Richard Green for $6.6 million (prices include the buyer's premium calculated at 15 percent of the first $50,000 and 10 percent thereafter).

But there were also handsome trophies to be had below those astronomical numbers. At Christie's, Louis-Leopold Boilly's small-scale oil painting, L'Escamoteur sur les Boulevards, from 1806, depicting a lively Parisian street scene dominated by a cardsharp showing off his sleight-of-hand skills to a captivated crowd, pulled in a higher-than-expected $662,500 (est. $400,000­$600,000).

At rival Sotheby's, a dazzling oil by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, A Reversible Anthropomorphic Portrait of a Man Composed of Fruit, dating from the 1580s, drove the newly discovered work to a record $1,432,500 (est. $200,000­$300,000). During the presale exhibition, the painting was cleverly displayed so that viewers could spin it around and see the image change from a towering still life of fruit into a portrait of a fat-cheeked gentleman. The seller must have been pleased, since he bought the painting less than a year ago for under $100,000 at a Swedish auction house. At the time it was attributed in a lesser category as being "from the school or circle of Arcimboldo."

Old master drawings also set high marks, as an exquisite pair of late Rembrandt drawings capturing panoramic views of Amsterdam proper rocketed to $3,742,500 and $2,532,500 at Christie's.

A less pricey but definitely world-class contender at Christie's was Hubert Robert's fascinating architectural fantasy A Great Colonnaded Building, the Roof Partly Open to the Sky, with Girls Washing Clothes at a Fountain Below a Statue of a Seated Man, circa 1770s, (titles in this scholar-heavy field tend to be exhaustively detailed). It made a record $156,500 (est. $60,000­$80,000).

Sotheby's overachieving sleeper was Hendrick Goltzius's masterfully drawn work in pen and brown ink, Portrait of Gillis van Breen, drawing, circa 1600, which climbed to $486,500 (est. $80,000­$120,000). New scholarship attributing the drawing as a full-fledged Goltzius drove the price skyward.

In the expanding world of photograph collecting, a single-owner photography sale of more than 170 black-and-white images taken by tabloid photographer extraordinaire Weegee (a.k.a. Arthur Fellig) realized $308,927 at Phillips on January 31, including buyer's premiums. Famed for his grisly yet humorously captioned shots of mob executions, fatal accidents and burlesque hall arrests, Weegee became a New York City institution during the 1940s. Legions of tabloid readers knew him as "Weegee the Famous."

"Hat on Stretcher," circa 1940, featuring several of New York's finest, including a fedora-wearing detective carrying the strangely outfitted stretcher, made $2,588 (est. $1,500­$2,500). "Apes, Men and Morons," a posed composition of a busty burlesque queen studiously reading a book of that title, sold for $3,163 (est. $2,5000­$3,500). The cover lot, "Mayor La Guardia in Police Station," another gem from circa 1940, garnered the top price for a single photograph in this auction, selling for $16,675 (est. $3,000­$5,000). This image of an old-fashioned precinct's grimy interior, in which the hard-charging mayor gabs with police brass, ignited a bidding war. Surprisingly, a more candid shot of the storied mayor heartily smoking a cigar failed to find a buyer (est.$3,000­$5,000).

Collectors were out in force on Valentine's Day at Swann Gallery's $824,675 sale of "Important 19th and 20th Century Photographs" in Manhattan. The top lot went to Edward S. Curtis's "The North American Indian," a bound volume of 99 large-format photogravures containing such famed images as "Geronimo, Apache" and "Mosquito Hawk, Assiniboin" from 1903­1908. The volume fetched $178,500 (est. $40,000­$50,000). Intense competition also drove Herbert Ponting's archive of 125 original contact prints of the ill-fated Robert Scott expedition to the Antarctic (1910­12) to $123,500 (est. $50,000­$60,000).

Strong prices were realized for both vintage and "printed later" photographs (the latter term is used when the photographer or an authorized assistant prints the image from the original negative generally five years or more after the original print was made). Diane Arbus's vintage 1963 image "Waitress, nudist camp, New Jersey," bearing the photographer's lengthy inscription and signature on the verso of the petite, 2-inch-square silver print, sold for $10,350 (est. $10,000­$15,000). André Kertész's classic photograph of artist Piet Mondrian's home, "Chez Mondrian," printed later from the 1926 original, made $8,625, well above its original $5,000­$7,000 estimate. --JT

AUCTION GIANTS UNDER SCRUTINY

While it's business as usual at auction giants Christie's and Sotheby's, both houses are the subjects of an ongoing antitrust investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice over alleged collusion in fixing seller's commissions and buyer's premiums. Christie's has already been granted a conditional leniency from the Justice department in return for its cooperation in the high-stakes probe of the fine-art auction industry. So far, the two top executives of Sotheby's (chairman and largest private shareholder A. Alfred Taubman and president and CEO Diana D. Brooks) have resigned in the wake of this burgeoning scandal, as has Christopher M. Davidge, Christie's CEO. Their legal headaches have also spilled into the civil arena, with at least 40 class-action suits filed in U.S. District Court by past clients of the two houses and by Sotheby's shareholders, claiming the two market leaders entered into an illegal price-fixing agreement. If the allegations are proven in court or settled outside of it, damages could reach tens of millions of dollars. --JT

AUCTION PREVIEWS

Eager to better its record-setting $1.9 million poster sale last November, which included Toulouse-Lautrec's stunning image "Moulin Rouge/La Goulue," which made $241,500, Poster Auctions International is offering more than 700 vintage posters on May 7 at Manhattan's Armenian Diocese Auditorium at Second Avenue and 34th Street.

Highlights include "Absinthe Robette," an Art Nouveau­inspired poster from 1896 by legendary graphic artist Privat Livemont, illustrating the hallucinatory charms of the outlawed drink. A diaphanously clad beauty raises a goblet skyward, as if it were a heavenly libation (est. $6,000­$7,000). Last May at PAI, another Livemont of the same title made $8,050.

E.Thelem's circa 1897 poster "Cycles Peugeot" features a well-dressed dandy leaning against his motorized bicycle and flirting with a racquet-wielding lawn tennis player (est. $2,500­$3,000). Thelem is not a brand name in the vintage poster world, but the image is certainly striking and accomplished.

Bursting into the twentieth century, the Cubist-inspired and downright modern A. M. Cassandre's hulking smokestacks in "New Statendam," an ocean-liner advertisement dating from 1928, is a brilliant contender (est. $10,000­$12,000).

For the haberdashery enthusiast, a photograph-like rendering by Otto Baumberger (1889­1961) of a gentleman's overcoat, cleverly exposing the Swiss maker's label, PKZ, is another Roaring Twenties entry (est. $3,500­$4,000).

As explained in the handsome and fully illustrated hardcover catalogue ($50), each entry is rated by condition, ranging from "A" (very fine), "B" (good condition) to "C" (fair condition). Each category can also be rated on the plus or minus side. (For example, a "B+," according to PAI, designates a poster in very good condition and a "B-" is in fairly good condition, although "very" and "fairly" are not defined.) Prices are often driven by the poster's condition, so interested buyers should always keep a sharp eye out for blemishes, stains and tears appearing anywhere on the image.

Since posters were never manufactured to last and are inherently fragile, they're usually linen-backed or placed on some type of support. At PAI and Swann Galleries, all of the posters are linen-backed unless otherwise indicated. Butterfields, on the other hand, states the type of backing in the catalogue descriptions. Sometimes unmounted vintage posters can be more valuable since they're considered more pristine, and closer to the original state.

PAI charges a 15 percent buyer's premium on every lot sold, regardless of the hammer price.

Following the encyclopedic marathon of vintage posters at PAI, Swann Galleries debuts its Modernist Posters auction on May 8 at the firm's snappy salesroom at 104 East 25th Street in Manhattan. Auction specialists in works on paper, photography, cameras, books and historic documents, Swann will offer approximately 200 posters dating from 1906 to 1976 and ranging in price from $500 to $25,000. "I can't give you a dictionary definition of 'modern posters,'" says Nicholas Lowry, Swann's poster specialist, "so you can just say that it covers anything that's modern."

High on Lowry's list is Parisian Charles Loupot's striking shampoo ad "O Cap" from 1928 (est. $15,000­$20,000). The famed graphic artist created a genielike image with an Art Deco edge, as the opened shampoo bottle emits a foaming likeness of a woman's luxuriant tresses. Elegantly rendered letters emblazoned across the bottom of the poster proclaim the obvious: "POUR LES CHEVEUX."

Also in the beauty department, Niklaus Stoecklin's "Binaca," from 1941, features a precisely rendered still life of the once-famous toothpaste brand (or pâte dentifrice) standing upright in a glass, as a toothbrush leans in the opposite direction. This advertising image exudes a strong Pop art flavor (est. $3,000­$4,000).

On the travel side, Otto Morach's scenic view of a charming Swiss resort town, "Davos," from 1927, makes you want to check to make sure your passport is still valid (est. $2,000­$4,000). Even for those viewers who don't harbor a shoe fetish, "Unic," Cassandre's sleekly cropped close-up of a pair of men's cap-toed and highly polished oxfords from 1932, taps a very modern beat (est. $6,000­$9,000).

Swann's fully illustrated color catalogue is available for $25 and can also be viewed (for free) on-line at www.swanngalleries.com. Swann charges a buyer's premium of 15 percent on the first $50,000 and 10 percent thereafter.

The poster caravan travels to the West Coast on June 28 with Butterfields' sale of "20th Century Decorative Arts" in Los Angeles, which includes a choice sampler of vintage French advertising posters and travel posters from exotic climes.

Georges de Feure's striking 1894 lithograph "Paris Almanac" features a young woman, elegantly costumed in a fur-trimmed cape and elaborate hat, holding a fresh copy of the popular city guide. The image is set outdoors, and the background is busy with strolling Parisians, mostly men in top hats (est. $2,000­$3,000).

Poster Auctions International's previews are May 5 and 6 from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The show is May 7 at 11 a.m. at The Church of the Armenian Diocese auditorium, 2nd Avenue at 34th Street; contact: Jack Rennert at (212) 787-4000. Swann Galleries's preview takes place May 5 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and May 6 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the auction is set for May 8 at 10:30 a.m., at 104 East 25th Street; contact: Nicholas Lowery at (212) 254-4710. Butterfields' preview will be held from June 23 to 25, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and the auction will take place June 28 at 6 p.m., at 7601 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles; contact: Morisa Rosenberg, 323-436-5435. --JT

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