Bidding at art auctions is brisk enough to boost dealers' morale


New York -- The sales of contemporary art Wednesday night at Sotheby's and Tuesday night at Christie's that opened the spring auction season were tailored to raise the morale of a troubled art market. Both houses offered important works with relatively low price estimates in the hope of stimulating a sluggish market.

The strategy worked well at Christie's, where 51 of the 70 works up for sale found buyers. Sales totaled $11,261,032, near the auction house's high estimate of $11.7 million, with private collectors dominating the buying.

The highest price at Christie's sale was fetched by a well-known pop painting by Andy Warhol, "210 Coca-Cola Bottles," purchased by the Swiss dealer Thomas Ammann for $2.09 million. The work was sold by Martin S. Blinder, whose company, Martin Lawrence Ltd. of Van Nuys, Calif., sells art in shopping malls and recently reported a 50 percent decline in revenues. Mr. Blinder bought the Warhol for $1.43 million at Sotheby's four years ago.

"During the height of the Warhol market, this would have been perceived as a good price," said Diane Upright, head of Christie's department of contemporary art.

Cy Twombly's work also did well at Christie's. An untitled 1969 blackboard painting was sold to a European collector for $660,000, the second-highest price of the evening.

The total of Christie's sale wasn't much of an improvement over last May's sales of $11.03 million, but dealers fearing the market might tumble further were greatly relieved.

"The sale put the market into perspective," said Richard Gray, a Chicago dealer. "Everything of quality sold. It did far better than I expected."

Irving Blum, a New York dealer, said he found the evening encouraging. "It was a bit of light in a dismal moment," Mr. Blum said.

What set the evening's high spirits was the brisk bidding during the first part of the sale, the 26 works from the estate of Fredrik Roos, a Swedish businessman and founder of the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Malmo, Sweden.

Roos died last May at age 40, leaving about 2,000 works of art and debts totaling around $20 million. Works offered Wednesday night included many from the '80s.

Georg Baselitz's "Franz in Bed" from 1982, estimated to bring $300,000 to $400,000 went to a private American collector for $440,000.

Anselm Kiefer's "Columns," expected to bring $300,000 to $400,000, was bought by another American collector for $638,000, a record for the artist.

Records were set by five artists on Tuesday night.

Mark Tansey's "Myth of Depth" sold for $242,000. It features the likeness of Jackson Pollock walking on water as his disciples observe from a nearby rowboat.

Robert Gober's "Untitled (Bed)" also set a record for the artist, selling for $198,000 to Mr. Ammann.

Works that fared poorly on Tuesday night were ones that had recently been on the market. Roy Lichtenstein's "Laughing Cat" was once owned by Andy Warhol, whose estate sold it at Sotheby's in 1988 for $319,000. It had been expected to bring $350,000 to $450,000, but bidding stopped at $190,000 and it failed to sell.

Sotheby's sale on Wednesday night was dominated by works belonging to the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi. Mr. Saatchi, who sold a major chunk of his holdings last fall, is thought to be selling much of his collection to raise money. His London-based company, Saatchi & Saatchi, reported losses of $103.3 million last year.

While Mr. Saatchi refuses to say why he is selling his collection, Lucy Mitchell-Innes, head of contemporary art for Sotheby's said: "Mr. Saatchi is changing the nature of his collection. He is concentrating on more young British artists and blue-chip Americans."

Mr. Saatchi's bulk-buying habit a decade ago was widely regarded as a factor in the soaring prices of contemporary art in the 1980s, and his vast unloading when the market peaked was thought to have made the value of many contemporary artists' works plummet.

Twenty-one out of the evening's 56 works were from his collection.

Absent from both evening sales were major works from the 1950s and '60s by artists like Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella, whose work took a beating in last fall's sales. Clearly sellers were not confident enough to test the waters this time around.

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