Art Market: Sink sold while Turners fail to excite bidders

EVEN in the recession, a grey canvas covered with loopy lines in white chalk by Cy Twombly should easily have made the dollars 2.2m (pounds 1.5m) that Christie's expected of it.

Mr Twombly is revered in contemporary art circles for his cryptic scrawls and doodles; two of his works sold in 1990 for dollars 5.5m (pounds 3.3m) and dollars 4.8m (pounds 2.4m). But collectors at Tuesday's sale in New York turned down the chance to buy a typical Twombly, Untitled, 1969, a 9ft-wide 'blackboard painting'.

However, this potentially high-priced work was the only major disappointment in an otherwise strong auction. The record for Arshile Gorky (1904-48), the Turkish-Armenian American inspired by Kandinsky, was quadrupled, though his work rarely appears on the market: Year After Year, a busy abstract from the 1940s, sold for dollars 3.85m (pounds 2.62m) to a private American collector.

With an auction that saw 81 per cent of its lots sell, Christie's was in celebratory mood. Christopher Burge, its president in the US, said: 'This was the most heady sale since the days of the late 1980s. The excitement in the room . . . signalled a return of confidence to the market, with people keen to buy works of art again, whether expensive or reasonably priced.'

Among other high prices, Bacon's Study for Portrait of Lucian Freud, 1964, went for dollars 1.76m (pounds 1.19m), well over its dollars 900,000 top estimate. Jackson Pollock's Number 26, 1951, though considered an important work, was only just over its lower estimate at dollars 827,500 (pounds 563,000): the canvas, on to which black paint was splashed and dripped, went to the American trade. The artist wrote of these pictures at the time: '. . . the non-objectivists will find them disturbing - and the kids who think it simple to splash a Pollock out'.

As the Christie's catalogue entry points out, the response to the pictures was 'as strong and confused as those that would later greet Picasso's last paintings . . . history has proven that great artists are often ahead of even their most informed audiences'.

Younger artists also attracted keen bidding. Small Bathroom Sink - just that, in enamel on plaster, wire and wood - by Robert Gober, the artist who is making his name with Duchampian bathroom fixtures and cat litter bags, sold for dollars 112,500 (pounds 75,000), within estimate.

Scholars and dealers had a host of reasons to explain why buyers at Christie's in London on Monday seemed unimpressed by a couple of Turner watercolour landscapes expected to raise pounds 500,000 or so. Bidding failed to reach the reserves.

One source described the impressionistic view of Ludlow Castle as 'superficially in a marvellous state', but said that on closer inspection the tones seemed slightly less brilliant than one expected of Turner. Of the other image, a view of Hastings, he said: 'It has had an injudicious amount of cleaning'.

The experts were divided. One scholar described the Hastings picture as 'a wonderful watercolour, in its use of light and atmosphere'. But he was among several who said it had been on the market, with various dealers, too recently.

Andrew Wyld, the director of the watercolour department at Agnew's, was not alone in suggesting that the Turners were 'rather ambitiously estimated'.

(Photograph omitted)