When Sotheby's auctioneer John Marion struck his gavel for the 77th and last time on the evening of Nov. 6, 1990, the art market appeared to be in big trouble. The consummate salesman had opened a two-week round of New York auctions with a disastrous sale of contemporary art. If this was a bellwether of the fall season, the weather promised to be rotten.

Only 34 of the 77 items offered attracted buyers in this initial auction of contemporary art. Sales totaled a mere $19.8 million - exactly half the low estimate of $39.6 million that had been forecast by the auction house. To make matters worse, the paltry total for the 34 pieces that did sell was less than the price of Willem de Kooning's Abstract Expressionist painting, "Interchange," which brought $20.68 million in a $98.3 million sale held only a year ago in the very same salesroom.Could the situation get worse? Yes, but it did not. Big-ticket auctions on subsequent days simply leveled off a precipitous downturn that began last spring and plunged further during the summer and early fall. When November's marathon of contemporary, modern and Impressionist art sales ended - with an auction of Greta Garbo's collection - the art market hadn't crashed but it had been severely chastened.

"Sanity has returned to the market," said Los Angeles collector Eli Broad, who attended the contemporary sales in New York but did not buy anything. "Real collectors who want to buy art and keep it are still involved, but the so-called speculative collectors have disappeared."

Collectors and dealers agree that the weakness of the dollar and America's recessionary mood were important factors in the art market's downturn. As in real estate, the stock market, oil or just about anything else, art prices can follow cyclical patterns, say art market players, and prices that went up too fast in the 1980s had to come down.

Christie's star item, Vincent van Gogh's "Vase With Cornflowers and Poppies," was valued at $12 million to $16 million, but bidding stopped at $9.5 million and the colorful still life went back to the seller.

Was it all over for van Gogh, whose prices have gone as high the $82.5 million paid in May for "Portrait of Dr. Gachet"? Well, no. A few minutes after "Vase With Cornflowers and Poppies" was whisked off stage, a van Gogh drawing, "Garden of Flowers," commanded $8.4 million and broke the six-year-old auction record for a drawing. The former record-holder, a chalk depiction of a man's head and hand by Raphael, was sold for $4.8 million in 1984.

Garbo's name apparently was all that was needed to sell every artwork, candlestick, ceramic clown and enamel snuff box that the film star owned. Sotheby's sold $16 million worth of works from her estate, which had been valued at $14.5 million to $20 million. The most expensive piece was Renoir's 1889 portrait of his nephew Edmond, which brought $7 million. An additional $4.7 million worth of artworks and decorative items was sold on Wednesday and Thursday. People who wanted a piece of Garbo turned out in droves to bid on relatively low-priced furnishings and collectibles. The auction brought a total of $2.5 million - more than twice the high estimate of $994,050.

Famous names aside, even the most optimistic spin doctors could not deny certain troubling facts about the November sales:

- Despite last-minute efforts to lower reserve prices - the lowest a seller will accept - about half the works in the two most important contemporary art sales went begging.

- The top item in Sotheby's contemporary art sale was Robert Rauschenberg's "Third Time Painting," which was sold for $3 million - but only after the original estimate was reduced to the range of $3 million to $4 million. The mixed-media "combine" painting was originally valued at $4 million to $5 million.

- Impressionist and modern works fared slightly better than contemporary art, probably because the market is more international and less subject to American jitters about a recession, but roughly one third of the works in the prime Impressionist and modern art sales failed to find buyers.

View Comments

- A controversial practice of guaranteeing sales was called into question by a disappointing sale of 36 high quality works from the estate of Henry Ford II. Sotheby's won the right to sell the Ford pictures by guaranteeing an undisclosed sum to the family. But when 13 pieces didn't sell, Sotheby's was left holding a bag of artworks valued at a total of $23.4 million to $30.8 million. The 23 works that did sell brought a total of $48.6 million - far below the $66 million to $88 million that Sotheby's had expected to get for the 36 pieces.

Some sources have speculated that the guarantee was between $50 million to $58 million and that the auction house owes the Ford family $20 million or more. In a statement to the press, Sotheby's acknowledged a loss but pegged it at less than $5 million. The final figure will depend upon Sotheby's success at selling the pictures privately.

November auction news was not all bad, however. In light of Sotheby's dismal opener, Christie's contemporary art sale was relatively successful. Only 30 of the 58 contemporary artworks offered were sold, but the Christie's toted up $36.7 million in sales, just $5 million under the low estimate of $41.7 million. Eight works brought more than $1 million apiece. Top among them was De Kooning's 1956 painting, "July," which was valued at up to $7 million but sold for $8.8 million.

Christie's also set five contemporary art records: Philip Guston ($1 million for "Summer," a 1954 abstract painting), Agnes Martin ($495,000 for "The Peach," a white canvas divided with pencil lines, from 1964), Sigmar Polke ($374,000 for a 1964 painting, "Tennis Player"), Eva Hess ($297,000 for "Tori," a group of fiberglass sculptures constructed in 1969) and Jannis Kounellis ($242,000 for an untitled quartet of mixed-media panels made in 1986).

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.