Collectors arrived prepared for Sotheby's and Christie's important fine art auctions in Manhattan, which ended on Wednesday night.
Throughout the sales this week and last, they showed up with their dealers and advisers in tow. And everyone seemed to have done the necessary homework. The high prices and record sales that accumulated during the auctions reflected a new breed of informed buyer."It's an intelligent, savvy market," said Christopher Burge, president of Christie's in America. "Buyers know what they're doing. They're not speculators and that's healthy."
Burge added that this fall's auctions proved that quality works, or those that the market perceives to be extraordinary, are once again strong sellers, often topping prices from the boom years of the late 1980s because, as he said, "there's tons of money out there."
On several nights many bidders vied for a multimillion-dollar work, a welcome change from several years ago when often only one or two collectors showed an interest in making a big-ticket purchase.
But when the auction houses tried to push their luck by including property in a sale that either had a high pre-sale estimate or had been offered around the market recently, they got caught. No matter how much hype was used, buyers knew the score. Those were frequently the works that went unsold, without even a bottom-fisher's bid.
On Wednesday night at Christie's, four bidders tried to buy Willem de Kooning's 1949 "Woman," a powerful portrait of a woman seated like a Renaissance Madonna, which sold for $15.6 million to an unidentified telephone bidder. It was the highest price paid for an artwork at auction this year. The painting also broke the $10 million barrier for contemporary art for the first time since the art market nosedived in 1990. "Woman," from the estate of Boris Leavitt, who founded America's first successful direct-mail marketing company, was bought for $2,500 in 1955 at the Sidney Janis Gallery in Manhattan.
Before the sale, Christie's had estimated the de Kooning would bring only $8 million to $10 million. Its $15.6 million final price was more than the total figure for Sotheby's entire contemporary art sale on Tuesday night, which was only $11.1 million.
Contemporary art has been the last segment of the market to pull itself out of the doldrums of the early '90s, and Wednesday night's sale proved that if the auction houses are able to get the goods, they can sell them successfully.
But that's easier said than done.
What's hot right now are works from the 1960s, especially Abstract Expressionist paintings and good examples of Pop Art. But these are the hardest to come by since many of the great '60s works are either in contemporary art museums or in the hands of collectors who have no intention of parting with them. This explains many of the big prices on Wednesday night, like that fetched by Philip Guston's "Beggar's Joys" (1954-1955). The canvas of reds, pinks and steely grays is considered a seminal example of the artist's work. The painting was bought by Susan Dunne of the PaceWildenstein Gallery for $1.7 million, above its $1.2 million high estimate. It was a record price for the artist.
The de Kooning and the Guston were 2 of 12 works being auctioned from the estate of Leavitt, who died in June. His works were the centerpiece of Christie's contemporary art sale, which totaled $34 million, above its $29 million high estimate.
(Final prices include the auction house's commission, 15 percent of the first $50,000 plus 10 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
Identifying the biggest buyers is difficult or often impossible because most guard their privacy by bidding through dealers or auction house experts.
"There were a lot of people from the financial markets buying this fall," said Diana D. Brooks, chief executive of Sotheby's worldwide. "They're a very focused group." Mrs. Brooks said that while some of the buyers were old faces, there were also many newcomers bidding, too.
One new face who enjoyed the attention of being a big player at both Sotheby's and Christie's Impressionist and modern art sales was Stephen A. Wynn, chairman of Mirage Resorts.
At Sotheby's, Wynn bought a Manet pastel for $2.9 million from the Shelburne Museum in Vermont and said he intended to put it on view at the Bellagio, a casino and resort now being built in Las Vegas. Wynn also paid $3.4 million for Picasso's "Gosol," a 1906 landscape that was sold at Christie's by Jane Engelhard, a philanthropist and a longtime trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Works sold by important art-world names like the Shelburne or Mrs. Engelhard were heavily promoted before the sales. Aside from the advertising and brochures, collections like Mrs. Engelhard's traveled to the big art capitals in Europe and Asia. The results paid off.
Sotheby's sale of five works that the Shelburne Museum was offering to dig its way out of a financial hole all sold for respectable prices. Besides Wynn's purchase, a Degas bronze "Young Dancer at 14" (1879-81) sold to an unidentified telephone bidder for $11.9 million, above its $10 million estimate. Eight years ago at the height of the market, the sculpture sold for $10.1 million at Christie's in New York.
The other works being sold by the Shelburne Museum were pastels, two by Manet and two by Degas, and all brought prices around their estimates. Degas' "Dancer in Yellow" (circa 1885), which depicts a dancer taking a bow with her troupe behind her, sold for $8.6 million to an unidentified telephone bidder. Sotheby's had estimated it would bring $7 million to $9 million.
Nearly all the works on paper being offered did well. The Metropolitan Museum bought Gauguin's "Tahitian Woman" (circa 1891-93) for $992,500, well above its $800,000 high estimate. Jill Newhouse, a Manhattan dealer, bid for the museum. "It's very hard to find a really good drawing by Gauguin," said George Goldner, who heads the drawings department at the Metropolitan. "It relates to one of the great paintings by the artist in our collection."
No museums could afford to buy any of the Impressionist paintings from Mrs. Engelhard's collection. Two Monets each sold to unidentified telephone bidders for $13.2 million. They had been estimated to bring $9 million to $12 million. Ten bidders fought to buy a 1905 painting from the artist's "Waterlilies" series. And four tried to buy "The Artist's Garden at Vetheuil" (1881), a view of Monet's garden with children standing on a staircase surrounded by blooming flowers.
Christie's sale total was $82.3 million, and Sotheby's was $92.5 million.
Each season, dealers and collectors try to predict collecting trends and fashions. While over the past few years, modern works by artists like Braque and Leger have been strongly represented, bringing high prices, the spotlight this season has been on classic Impressionist paintings, drawings and sculpture. This only proves that the market reacts to quality, no matter what the period.