Christie's Paris people held this week their December 2008 sale of Post WW2 and Contemporary artists under the aegis of the current economic crisis and the results are not far from being catastrophic.
Some 275 works of art from European artists, mainly paintings, were offered among them 8 Sam Szafran's pictures, 6 Jean Fautrier, 4 Georges Mathieu, 3 Jean Paul Riopelle, 4 Jean Dubuffet, 3 Jesus Rafael Soto, 5 Jean Degottex , 2 Victor Vasarely and 5 sculptures by Vassiliakis Takis.
The main disappointment came from the high number of unsold or bought-in lots, a staggering 56%. Note that the biggest unsold number of lots on record is a scary 55% of the contemporary art on offer at Sotheby's, including pieces by Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Dubuffet, in a dreadful evening of November, 6th, 1990. The December sale at Christie's in Paris then beat this chilling figure.
Worse only 14% of the lots exceeded their higher estimate while a meager 22% reached their lower estimate without exceeding the higher estimate and 8% did not even reach the lower estimate but found a buyer above the reserve price.
Some artists however striked an amazing high price in spite of pessimistic estimates. It is the case of Sam Szafran, François-Xavier Lalanne, Jean Dubuffet, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Paul Rebeyrolle, Gerard Schneider, Georges Mathieu, Hans Hartung, Jesus Rafael Soto, Robert Combas and Gerard Schlosser.
Among the latter, Szafran is doubless the one who did the best : his Modele dans l'Atelier fetched 139,000 Euros vs. a higher estimate of €70,000, but on average the price fetched by his works overpassed the higher estimate by a stunning 127%. His Untitled (lot #109, see picture at left) shot to €16,250 vs. a higher estimate of 3,500. His Autoportrait fetched €6,875 vs. an estimate of 3,000.
If Szafran was the king of the Feast, François Xavier Lalanne - who died some days before the sale- was the prince-consort with his Mouton (Lamb), a boring although amusing work measuring (35 x 38¼ x 20 1/8 in.) , that fetched €133,000 vs. a maximum estimate of 90,000. Art dealers would tell you that cows and lambs do not sell well but this Lamb must have a specific appeal that avoided him to become a sacrificial one (see picture above) under the hammer of Christie's auctioneer : it is made of wood, wool, aluminium and copper, was executed in 1983 and measures 89 x 97 x 51 cm. A second Lalanne, an unexpected "Brochet" sculpture reached a staggering 46,600 Euros vs. a best estimate of 30,000.
Another record was set by Jean Dubuffet's rather disconcertingly ugly "Papa la Cravate" (picture at right) that fetched the honorable level of €367,000 whereas it was anticipated for a more reasonable 200,000. Many of Dubuffet's works are painted in oil paint using an impasto thickened by materials such as sand, tar and straw, giving the work an unusually textured surface. From 1962 he produced a series of works in which he limited himself to the colours red, white, black, and blue as it is the case in this Papa la Cravate (Daddy the Tie) which explains the high price reached by this unforgettable tie.
Hans Hartung, the German-French painter, known for his gestural abstract style, and Jesus Rafael Soto, the debonaire Venezuelan sculptor and painter famous for his op art and kinetic art works, surprised the crowd with prices going well beyond estimates :
Hartung's T1971 -R14 acrylic yellow and blue picture found an acquirer at Euro 27,000 above his higher estimate of 70,000 while the kind South-American, dead in 2005, should have been thrilled in his grave to know that his "Trou dans l'Espace" (picture at left) estimated at 60,000 (higher) went for an impressive €98,200. Another work by Soto, Virtual Negro, fetched 111,400 Euro vs, a higher estimate of 60,000.
Another artist whose work did quite well is the only French painter deserving at the moment some interest i.e. Robert Combas : one of his Sans Titre fetched 26,200 Euro vs. an estimate of 18,000. Nothing to break three legs to a duck as they say in France but still noticeable considering the scarcity of valuable French painters of our XXIst century.
A Sans titre by Italian Pier Paolo Calzolari (born in 1944), who is not very well known outside Europe, was offered at 18,000 Euro and went up to €41,800 way beyond its best estimate of €35,000.
Among the biggest drops vis à vis the lower estimate, one must mention Nagame Seshimani by Japanese Kazuo Shiraga, founder of the Zero Group in Japan, a rather ugly red oil on canvas that went for €43,000 instead of the 80,000 expected. Or the really stupid fiber glass, wood and pigment Healing of St Thomas by Indian born Anish Kapoor, often described as the one of the most influential sculptors of his generation, that went for a far cry from its most anticipated 120,000 Euros at €73,000.
Other works that failed to arouse the passion and went way under their lower estimate are a Sans Titre (and sans intérêt) by Henri Michaux, the idiosyncratic Belgian who painted and wrote under the influence of drugs, that went for 8,750 Euros vs. an estimate of 15,000 ; an André Leskoy's Lumière Blanche ; a Jean Degottex's Metagraphie ; a Matta's Studio per no songe ; a Jacques Mahe de la Villegle's 45 Rue Lafayette ; a Jean Tinguely's Salutations Distinguées and a Réfléchir avant d'agir (picture at right) by Cheri Samba that literally makes the beholder want to sleep and certainly not to dance.