Even star turns in London - Magrittes, Braques, Legers, Picassos - are almost all pitched resolutely under pounds 1m. Bacon's Study for a Portrait is est only pounds 400,000-pounds 600,000 at Christie's. At Sotheby's a Kandinsky study looks bold at pounds 2.5m, a Van Gogh gleaner timid at pounds 1.25m-pounds 1.75m. All are small beer compared with the pounds 70m-pounds 80m top prices of five years ago.
Such hard-headed commercial realism masks the underlying lunacy. There is a Beuys Silent Gramophone - a gramophone record caked in brown paint - at pounds 250,000-pounds 350,000 at Sotheby's. And there is an Yves Klein blue splodge made in 1961 by two women who bathed in blue paint, then rolled around on paper as an orchestra played. Its pounds 600,000-pounds 800,000 est is based on the auctioneer's evaluation of the splodge as the biggest and "most important" of Klein's body paintings, just as Sotheby's justifies its estimate of pounds 700,000 for an Alberto Burri of 1954 - sewn-together sacking arranged round a white patch - by pointing out that it is his biggest such work and "never before has such an important work by Burri appeared at auction". Burri, who died this year, titled it Grande Sacco.
In mitigation is the fact that Burri was a forerunner of Arte Povera in Italy and Junk Art in America. Scattered through the lower price range of the week's contemporary art sales are works by artists who, like Burri, have been ground-breakers in avant-garde movements. For example, prices for the Cobra expressionists (Paris, 1948) have firmed up in the past few years: there are plenty of Appels, Jorns and Corneilles. ELT Mesens, organiser of Surrealist exhibitions, is seldom seen at auction: one of his collages is pounds 1,000-pounds 1,500 at Sotheby's.
My favourite is David Hockney's ceramic cat, one of three: pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000 at Sotheby's. Impressionist and moderns: Sotheby's part I, Tuesday (7pm), part II, Wednesday (10.30am). Christie's part I Monday (7pm), part II Tuesday (10.30am), Sriber Collection Tuesday (10.30am). Contemporary art: Christie's, Thursday (2.30pm), Sotheby's part I Wednesday (7pm), part II, Thursday (10am). Christie's South Kensington has combined Impressionist and contemporary sale, Monday (2pm). Phillips: Impressionists Monday (12 noon), prints Monday (2pm).
Curios of the week: the Marjorie Moon collection of children's books, Christie's, Wednesday (2.30pm). Irish parents in the 18th century had robust ideas about reading material for children. A book published in 1785 gives the answer to the riddle, left, as "A Fart". Est: pounds 500-pounds 600.
From the attic of Knebworth Hall: the dressing-up clothes of Pamela, Countess of Lytton; all designer stuff - Fortuny, Poiret - plus 18th- century embroidered silk waistcoats est pounds 150 each: Christie's South Kensington, Tuesday (2pm).
Nationwide auctions and fairs, page 15Reuse content