New York Sales Preview

Global disasters and political strife notwithstanding, the art market appears on track for another solid auction season, on the heels of last year’s combined $8.7 billion in global sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Desire for top-tier works continues to outstrip supply in all categories.

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Buyers "still seem to be clamoring for great property," says Simon Shaw, head of the Impressionist and modern department at Sotheby’s. "The trouble is, there are just not enough sellers around to meet the demand." Despite general confidence that the recessionary slump has passed, art owners — apart from estates with fiduciary responsibilities to fulfill — have little incentive to consign while prices continue to tick upwards. And, notes Christie’s Imp/mod head Conor Jordan, active collectors are hanging on to their art "because they worry about what they’ll be able to afford next."

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As a result, there’s no $100 million Brody Picasso or Giacometti sculpture to spike results in the Impressionist and modern arena this season. Nevertheless the Sotheby’s May 3 evening sale in the category does boast a fresh-to-market 1934 Picasso oil, "Deux personnages" (est. $25-35 million). Unusual in its depiction of Marie-Thérèse Walter, the artist’s muse and mistress, together with one of her sisters instead of alone, as in the 1932 "La lecture," the picture was inherited by Picasso’s son Bernard and sold to the current owner through the Pace Gallery in 1981. "La lecture," which brought £25.2 million ($40.7 million) in the house’s London salesroom in February, was guaranteed by the Taipei-based computer-chip tycoon Pierre T.M. Chen; "Deux personnages" also bears an irrevocable bid agreement with a third party.

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Another highlight is Paul Gauguin’s "Jeune tahitienne." The exceptional, nearly 10-inch-high painted tamanu-wood sculpture, says Shaw, "is one of the greatest wood carvings from Gauguin’s Tahitian years," completed circa 1893, during his first stay on the island. The artist gave the bust, complete with pasted paper, red coral, and shell necklaces, to Jeanne Fournier, the daughter of the French critic and collector Jean Dolent, around 1894, having promised her a gift from the tropics. Fournier entrusted it to a Dominican order in Toulouse, and there it slumbered for decades before surfacing in a 1961 sale in London, where it went for £11,500. If "Jeune tahitienne" achieves even its $10 million low estimate, it will shatter the auction record for a Gauguin sculpture, $1,485,000, set in May 1990 at Sotheby’s New York by "Hina," a tamanu-wood moon goddess from the same period.

The auctioneer is also offering Alexej von Jawlensky’s color-charged "Frau mit grünem Fächer" ("Woman with a Green Fan"), from 1912, when the artist was in Munich and working closely with the Neue Künstlervereinigung, which also included Wassily Kandinsky. The painting last appeared at auction in 1975, at Christie’s London, making £46,200 ($93,300); this time it is estimated at between $8 million and $12 million. Other notable lots include "Couple à la guitare," 1970 (est. $10- 15 million), one of three Picassos in the sale from the estate of San Francisco/Paris patron Dodie Rosekrans, and Paul Delvaux’s "Les cariatides", a large oil on Masonite of two reclining nudes from 1946, his prime period (est. $3-5 million).

In the Christie’s Impressionist and modern session the following evening, the star lot is the light-bathed plein air landscape "Les peupliers," which Claude Monet painted in his floating studio at Giverny in the summer of 1891. The largest of 24 depictions of a sweep of slender trees along the Epte riverbank, the oil is notable for its pristine condition, having never been varnished or lined. Last sold at auction in November 2000 at the same house, from the collection of philanthropist Else Sackler, to the Taiwanese consignor, who paid $7,046,000, it is estimated at $20 million to $30million. A second Monet, the floral-themed "Iris mauves," 1914-17, is estimated at $15 million to $20 million; it last fetched $3,852,500 at Christie’s New York in 1997.

In addition, the house will offer a trio of Picassos, including the spectacular and rare-to-market "Les femmes d’Alger, Version L," 1955 (est. $20-30 million). The 51¼-by-38¼-inch picture previously belonged to Victor and Sally Ganz along with the other 14 works in the series inspired by the Eugène Delacroix masterpiece of that name; the final iteration, "Version O," brought $31.9 million at the house in a single-owner sale of the couple’s estate in November 1997. Lower on the price spectrum are the early "Les enfants et les jouets," 1901 (est. $5.5-7.5 million), and "Homme au mouton," a unique 1961 steel-cutout sculpture of a bearded shepherd with a sheep on his shoulders (est. $4-6million).

The contemporary season kicks off the following week at Sotheby’s with a two-part single-owner sale, on May 9, of 25 postwar lots from the legendary collection of Allan Stone. A Christie’s auction of the New York dealer’s estate in November 2007 earned $52.4 million, but those 71 works constituted only a fraction of his holdings. Among the treasures going up at Sotheby’s are Willem de Kooning’s 1947 "Event in a Barn" (est. $5-7 million), painted a few years before his famous "Women" series; Franz Kline’s 1953-54 oil "Herald" ($2.5-3.5 million); John Chamberlain’s painted-steel "Nutcracker," 1958 (est. $1.2-1.8 million); and two Joseph Cornell boxes, including "Untitled (Dovecote)," 1950-54 (est. $800,000-1.2 million). The second segment features 20 works by Wayne Thiebaud, a painter Stone championed, among them the oil on canvas "Pies," 1961 (est. $2.5-3.5 million), and "Girl in Striped Blouse," 1973-75 (est. $1-1.5 million).

For its May 10 various-owners sale the house is banking on Pop art and its descendants, represented by such works as Roy Lichtenstein’s large, late "Interior with Bathroom Painting," 1992 (est. $2.5-3.5 million), and Takashi Murakami’s mural-size painting "Bokan, Camoflage Pink," 2009 (est. $1.5-2 million). The trophies are Andy Warhol’s "Sixteen Jackies," a grid of portrait prints in silkscreen ink and acrylic paint on canvas from 1964, sourced from the Warhol estate and assembled after the artist’s death, which the house has estimated at more than $20 million, and the cover lot, Jeff Koons’s 41-inch-high porcelain sculpture "Pink Panther,"1988, from the artist’s "Banality" series. Consigned by publishing magnate Benedikt Taschen, the lot carries a third-party guarantee and is estimated at $20 million to $30 million.

Two Koons sculptures have topped $20 million at auction, including the record-setting "Balloon Flower (Magenta)," 1995-2000, which went for £12,921,250 ($25.8 million) at Christie’s London in June 2008. Alexander Rotter, head of contemporary at Sotheby’s, acknowledges that the artist’s market has suffered since, but he notes that the Sotheby’s sculpture, the sole artist proof from an edition of three, is also the only one still available, the others having been secured by the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Brant Foundation, in Greenwich, Connecticut; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. "It’s the epitome of what Jeff is all about," says Rotter.

The postwar and contemporary sale at Christie’s on May 11 is rife with rare material, including "Untitled #17," 1961, a previously unrecorded Mark Rothko in gorgeous sunset shades of red, pink, and orange expected to fetch between $18 million and $22 million. The work, consigned by the original owner, will be added to the supplement to the artist’s catalogue raisonné being written by the art historian David Anfam.

The Rothko has excellent company in Richard Diebenkorn’s dazzling 78¼-by-78¼-inch "Ocean Park #121," 1980 (est. $7-9 million), and Sam Francis’s "Reefs," 1955 (est. $1.8-2.5 million), which evokes its subject with transparent layers of luminous blue. Not to be counted out either is Lichtenstein’s sexy six-inch-square drawing in crayon and graphite for "Kiss V," 1964 (est. $800,000-1.2 million), consigned by a retired social worker who won it the year it was made via a $10 lottery "happening" at the Chelsea Hotel that gave her a key to a locker at Pennsylvania Station, from which she retrieved her prize. The sculptural standout is the Alexander Calder standing mobile "Universe," circa 1934 (est. $1.5-2 million), whose painted-wood suspensions are attached with tiny knots of string.

Among the contemporary lots, Christie’s has great expectations for "Untitled (Lamp/Bear)," 2005-06 (est. $600-800,000), by Urs Fischer, a hulking bronze, acrylic glass, and steel sculpture numbered one in an edition of two plus one artist proof, that postwar and contemporary department head Robert Manley predicts will "make a big impact." Owing to its more than 20-foot height, the piece will be previewed in the pedestrian plaza in front of the Seagram Building.

Closing out the season on May 12, Phillips de Pury & Company is hoping to replicate the success of Andy Warhol’s "Men in Her Life, "1962 — depicting Elizabeth Taylor’s romantic leads — which took in $63,362,500 at the house last fall, with the artist’s 1963 Pop portrait of the late screen siren herself, "Liz #5," estimated to fetch between $20 million and $30 million. The seller, hedge fund magnate Steven A. Cohen, acquired the 40-by-40-inch silkscreen ink and acrylic on linen for an undisclosed price in the massive $600 million private sale of the estate of the dealer Ileana Sonnabend in spring 2008 involving dealers Franck Giraud, Joachim Pissarro, and Philippe Ségalot with Larry Gagosian. This is the first work from that megadeal to surface at auction and carries a guarantee by an undisclosed third party; a portrait from the same series sold at Christie’s New York in November 2007 for $23,561,000.

"Liz #5" embodies everything that a major collector of 20th- and 21st-century art desires," says Michael McGinnis, the firm’s senior director and worldwide head of contemporary art.

For collectors desiring Warhols in particular, there are also the artist’s 26-by-22-inch "Mao (Mao 10)," 1973 (est. $3.5-4.5 million), and "Third Eye," a massive Warhol/Jean-Michel Basquiat acrylic on canvas (est. $2-3 million) from 1985. Those with deeper pockets might spring for Richard Prince’s faux-blood-smeared painting "Crashed (Wayward Nurse)," 2006-10, estimated at $4 million to $6 million, while connoisseurs with plenty of wall space may jump on Ellsworth Kelly’s giant double-panel oil on canvas "Green White," 1968, estimated at $3 million to $4 million.

"We have concrete reasons to be bullish this season," says Manley of Christie’s. Unlike his Imp/mod counterparts, he says, "In our arena, it’s not as hard to convince people to sell good things." Still, Rotter of Sotheby’s sounded a note of restraint. "The expectations of the sellers have grown very fast," he says, "even beyond what the market will bear." It’s a gamble many seem willing to take.

"Sales Preview" originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's May 2011 Table of Contents.