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Christie's Contemporary auction report: Basquiat as a pricing phenomenon

His record price may bolster the market, but not all artists surpassed expectations

Basquiat’s self-portrait was the star of the Christie’s contemporary art auction, which opened the November sales of Impressionism, Modern and Contemporary art in New York. It fetched $3.3 million (almost £2 million), a record price for the artist and almost six times the estimate of $400,000-600,000.

The evening of November 12 proved a similar event to the sale in May 1998, when Warhol’s “Orange Marilyn” sold for $15.75 million (almost four times the estimate of $4-6 million) to Si Newhouse (The Art Newspaper, No.82, June 1998, p.39). It has become a commonplace that Warhol is considered the “Picasso” of the second half of the twentieth century and his most important works have become priceless. The new record price for a Basquiat was much less expected, but for those seeking an important work by the star of the 1980s New York graffiti art scene, who died aged twenty-seven from a heroine overdose, the 1982 self-portrait was a top work in terms of period, quality, expressive force and rarity; it was the one not to miss.

Auctioneer Christopher Burge opened the bidding at $300,000 and in a matter of seconds bids were flying both in the room and on the telephone, rising to $1 million; it then ascended by $200,000-300,000 at a time, leaving Christopher Burge pleasantly surprised in between only two contenders for the work, until the hammer finally knocked the painting down at over $3 million.

It is obvious that this is a country where there is so much “fresh” money in the hands of buyers that when they find something they consider to be the best, price is no object. In the wake of the record price paid for “Orange Marilyn”, we have seen that nearly any Warhol, no matter how modest or irrelevant, has doubled in price since last season.

Thanks to Basquiat, the total turnover of the Christie’s contemporary art sales was $9.3 million for forty-two works sold (against forty-nine offered) with the percentage of sales, 85% by dollar and 86% by lot.

It was a very active sale, fought more in the saleroom than on the telephone and with an ample participation from Europeans, both dealers and collectors; they made up 40% of the buyers, while the Americans made up 50%.

Thanks to the auctions of contemporary art over the last thirty years, a market has developed, that is international both in terms of the artists and the buyers, similar to that for the Impressionists and twentieth-century masters.

Here lies the novelty of this new sector of the market, especially in America, where for the art of the 1950s and 60s attention was instead focused on American artists? Today, for example, if “Brigit Polk”, the 1971 work by Gerhard Richter was bought by an American collector ($750,000), “Hot foods” by Richard Estes went to a European ($244,500).

The younger generation of artists such as Matthew Barney, Walter de Maria, Robert Gober, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Mona Hatoum, Peter Halley, Damien Hirst, Mike Kelley, Jeff Koons, Charles Ray, Cindy Sherman, etc., some of them “launched” by Tobias Meyer at the Sotheby’s sale of May 1997 of the collection of the Boston Children’s Heart Hospital (purchased by the cardiologist Bernard Nadal-Ginard who embezzled hospital funds) have gained in fame and price. Last month many of them sold for more than the estimate to both new and old collectors and dealers.

“Envelopa drawing restraint 7 (guillotine)” by Matthew Barney doubled the expectation, fetching $123,500; the same was the case for “A couple (of swings)” by Mona Hatoum, sold for $46,000 (estimate $20,000-30,000). The works of Robert Gober were all fought over in the saleroom and “Untitled (man in drain)” made a record price for the artist of $552,500.

Other artists whose prices are on the rise are Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman, whose “Untitled film still No.39”, a silver print of 1979 from an edition of ten sold for $51,750, and “Untitled 216” a colour print from an edition of six made in 1989 was sold for $96,000.

More predictable and perhaps less dramatic were the results of the sales of the “fathers” of Minimalism. The large wood sculpture by Carl Andre “Sphinges” (1985), perhaps not in the best condition for a passionate collector of Minimalist art but extremely fascinating precisely because it showed the wear due to having lived out of doors, fetched $96,000, while “Back to back” by Richard Serra was sold at $123,500.

Not all of the results surpassed the estimate; in some cases the hammer fell well below the minimum estimate, a sign that while, Christie’s is prepared to post a high estimate, it is not ready to impose a price for contemporary work on buyers, demonstrating its wise policy of encouraging the market. For example, “Untitled” by Charles Ray (estimate $20,000-30,000) was sold at $16,100; “Dialogue No.5 (one hand clapping)” by Mike Kelley (estimate $50,000-70,000) was sold for $43,700; “Untitled (join)” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Michael Jenkins (estimate $50,000-70,000) fetched $44,850.

Because of the amount of work which sold below estimate, the result of the contemporary art sale on the following day, despite being well-attended and seeing heavy bidding, was a turnover of $2,652,085, with 80% sold by dollar and 75% by lot. As on the preceding evening, there was bidding by both Europeans and Americans, who were able to buy under the estimate, but sometimes made the prices soar, as was the case for works by Richter and Polke, Carl Andre, Robert Mangold and Sean Scully.

Ideal form

Art critic Robert Hughes commented, with an enviable pun, “The effort to promote Basquiat into. . .the little black Rimbaud of American painting remains unconvincing”. The prestige-building history of this 193x239 polymer and oilstick painting on linen is, however, outstanding, so the buyer can feel well supported in his/her acquisition:

• Basel, Galerie Beyeler, 1983

• New York, Museum of Modern Art, “An international survey of recent painting and sculpture” 1984

• Malmo , Rooseum, “Jean Michel Basquiat/Julian Schnabel” 1989

• New York, Whitney Museum; Houston, the Menil Collection; Iowa, Des Moines Collection; Alabama, Montgomery Museum of Fine Art, “Jean-Michel Basquiat” 1992-94

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Basquiat as the new Warhol: a pricing phenomenon'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 87 December 1998