Half of works in New York auction unsold: Geraldine Norman reports on a surprise setback for the contemporary art market

Geraldine Norman
Wednesday 04 May 1994 23:02

THE contemporary art market suffered a serious setback when half of the works on offer at Christie's major spring sale in New York were left unsold.

The disaster was quite unexpected. The results of last year's big sales, in May and November, suggested that the market was recovering from the 1990 crash and art lovers from America, Europe and Asia had gathered for the sale on Tuesday night.

It started with Lot 1, a small black calligraphic abstract in oil on paper made by Franz Kline circa 1955-56, which sold for dollars 85,000 ( pounds 56,000); when it was last on the market in November 1988 it made dollars 198,000 ( pounds 126,000). The price was disappointing but Christie's could count this among the sale's successes as there was a buyer. Out of the 76 lots on offer, 32 failed to sell. The auctioneers' pre-sale estimates valued the sale at dollars 19m- dollars 25m ( pounds 12.5m- pounds 16.5m); it made dollars 12.5m ( pounds 8.3m).

Plenty of bidders were prepared to raise their hands on the better pictures, however. That, in itself, is a major improvement on the early 1990s when there was often no bidding from the floor. There had been plenty of enthusiasm during the pre-view exhibition, Christie's said, but it evaporated on the night.

Several paintings which had made huge prices during the 1980s boom were back on offer. A Francis Bacon painting of a crouching naked figure, Study for a Figure in a Room, which had sold for dollars 2.09m ( pounds 1.4m) in a 1989 auction attracted a top bid of dollars 700,000 ( pounds 466,000) and was left unsold. A six-foot Franz Kline of 1950-51 which made dollars 1.7m ( pounds 1.1) in 1990 was left unsold at dollars 1.2m ( pounds 800,000). Mark Rothko was more successful; a seven-foot canvas painted with four hazy bars of red, Four Reds, had made dollars 1.2m ( pounds 800,000) in 1989 and now found a buyer at dollars 1,047,500 ( pounds 700,000).

Christie's salvation was having the collection of the retailing magnate Meshulam Riklis for sale. The three standard reasons for selling art are death, divorce and debt - the three Ds - and Riklis, as the New York Times put it, is undergoing a double whammy. He is getting divorced while his company, the McCrory corporation, has filed for bankruptcy. Christie's had works from his personal collection and the McCrory corporate collection and were allowed to sell at almost any price.

The star turn came from Riklis's personal collection, a small, characteristic drip painting by Jackson Pollock, Number 22, painted in 1949; Christie's had forecast a price between dollars 2m and dollars 3m ( pounds 1.3m- pounds 2m) but let it go at dollars 1,762,500 ( pounds 1.2m).

A Riklis Lichtenstein estimated at dollars 600,000-dollars 800,000 ( pounds 400,000- pounds 533,000) sold for dollars 464,500 ( pounds 309,000) and a McCrory Stella estimated at dollars 200,000-dollars 250,000 ( pounds 133,000- pounds 166,000) sold for dollars 189,500 ( pounds 126,000).

Christie's explained the failure of the sale by saying that sellers had expected an improvement in the market and upped their reserves, while buyers were still expecting to pick up bargains.

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