The Art Market: Abstract expressions of value

Rothko’s 'No.1 (Royal Red and Blue)'

“A perfect storm between supply and demand” is how Nicholas Maclean of London and New York dealership Eykyn Maclean described the roof-raising sales of postwar and contemporary art in New York this week. The action started at Sotheby’s on Tuesday with a rollicking $375m, the highest total the firm has ever racked up.

Leading the pack of winners was Rothko’s “No.1 (Royal Red and Blue)” (1954), which made $75.1m, well over its upper estimate of $50m (pre-sale estimates don’t include commission; results do). A perfect little Pollock “drip” painting, “Number 4, 1951” (1951), set a new world record for the painter at $40.4m. The major winners were Warhol, pop art and abstract expressionist works, with names such as Kline, De Kooning and Bacon being hotly contested.

Then at Christie’s the following night, the roof was raised even further when the firm turned in another record sale, this time soaring to $412.2m, with a punchy 92 per cent sold by value and topping its high estimate of $411.8m. It was the firm’s highest result ever in the postwar and contemporary category, and the second highest in its history (an impressionist and modern sale from 2006 still holds the record, at $491m).

Warhol, Kline, Basquiat and Lichtenstein again dominated the upper reaches of the sale, with new records established for Kline ($40.4m) and Basquiat ($26.4m); the top lot was Warhol’s 1961 “Statue of Liberty”, which made $43.7m. The catalogue featured red-and-green 3D glasses to view it with.

“The market has expanded massively, there are far more people in the higher income brackets and the number of international buyers has increased dramatically,” said Maclean, shortly after bagging Warhol’s “Cagney” (1964), for $6.6m (est $4.5m-$6.5m) at Sotheby’s sale.

“And new buyers are tending to favour postwar and contemporary over the modern field, as primary works are also returning to the market more quickly. Artists such as Warhol, De Kooning and Rothko are seen as safe bets and have consistently commanded yet higher prices.”

Koons was another winner at Christie’s, with his colourful sculpture “Tulips” (1995-2004) making a new record at $33.7m, which also propelled him into being the world’s second most expensive living artist at auction, after Gerhard Richter.

Andy Warhol’s ‘Bighorn Ram’

While on the subject of Warhol, fears that the sell-off of hundreds of his lower-value works would sink the market proved unfounded in New York. On Monday Christie’s put 342 works on the block in a three-part sale of photographs, prints and paintings from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which is divesting itself of all its Warhol artworks. There are no great masterpieces in the group but this did not deter buyers. Many of the lots went at prices under $20,000; among the pricier offerings “Bighorn Ram” made $842,500 (est $700,000-$1m). The sale totalled $17m, and was 91 per cent sold by lot. There is plenty more to come from the same source, much of which will be sold by Christie’s online.

Indian modern artists have been widely faked, particularly when prices went up strongly during the 2005-07 art boom; FN Souza, SH Raza and MF Husain have all been targeted. “We are regularly offered fake works but most are obviously counterfeits,” says Conor Macklin, a specialist of modern and contemporary Indian art at London’s Grosvenor Gallery.

Now a French man, identified only as Sofiane B by the French police, has been arrested over allegedly fake Husains; a Paris art dealer claimed he had bought two suspect works for over €100,000, and Sofiane B is suspected of having persuaded the ageing Husain to sign works, done by others, before the artist’s death last year. The French police fear that he has been selling such fakes since 2004.

No such problems will affect an auction to be held in Mumbai in January next year, at Pundole’s. The 400 works on offer all come from the family of one of Husain’s early patrons, the late Badrivishal Pitti, who even gave Husain a hut in his garden to paint in. “The group includes works from the 1940s through to the mid-1970s,” says Rob Dean of Pundole auction house. Dadiba Pundole of the firm had a long association with Husain so, according to Dean, “There is no doubt about them, and they have a fantastic provenance as well.” Estimates range from one lakh of rupees (about £1,200) to 70 lakhs (about £80,000).

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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