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Early Warning Signs

Do I hear a million? Or nowhere near it? All eyes are on the London auctions.


Every auction season seems to bring new record-breaking sales ($72.8 million for a Rothko!), and next month, art valued at roughly half a billion dollars will go on the block in New York. Till then, the city to watch is London, as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Phillips de Pury host multimillion-dollar sales of contemporary art starting October 12. These are the first such auctions to take place since the economy turned queasy—and they’re more than double the size of the usual London auctions. The total estimates for all three houses are in excess of $300 million. Will the bubble finally burst at these sales? Probably not. (Given how strong the pound and euro are against the dollar, they could even look unrealistically robust. In particular, Russian buyers, and Russian art, will be out in force.) But there will be more disappointments than usual, and probably a higher percentage of works unsold than collectors have come to expect during this long boom. And so the real speculation concerns which artists might be most vulnerable in a potential downturn. Will the obsession with young contemporary artists finally simmer down? Is the climb in Chinese art prices going to continue? Is there such a thing as too many Warhols?

The auctioneers’ hope: That Lisa Yuskavage, with her deft, unsettling caricatures of women, will continue to sell well. Her record at auction, in May 2007, was $1.384 million. Her painting Lupe & Lola II has a suggested starting bid of $300,000 at Sotheby’s.
The problem: Contemporary artists are the most susceptible in a downturn, and one of the biggest worries in the art world is that if the market softens, only the most prominent painters in any given school or style may hold their value. One dealer put it bluntly: “Wouldn’t you rather have a John Currin?”
The prediction: The painting won’t sell much above its low bid, dulling some of the frenzy for recent painting.

The auctioneers’ hope: That Warhols—any Warhols—will keep wowing buyers. Last May saw the record sale of Green Car Crash, for $71.7 million, in New York. Nearly two dozen Warhols are up for bid.
The problem: Some of the offerings aren’t considered as important as work from his sixties Pop period. This 1984 Meryl Streep is one of the artist’s late celebrity portraits, which even Christie’s concedes in its catalogue were once deemed “cheesy” and “album-cover-like.” Its estimate: $1.1 million to $1.4 million.
The prediction: The work may well fetch seven figures, suggesting that the market still wants Warhols regardless of period.

The auctioneers’ hope: That Damien Hirst, who sold a work for $19.1 million last June, the highest price yet at auction for a living artist, will continue to outdo everyone—and the buzzy recent sale of his diamond-encrusted skull to a group of investors (including himself) has brought a lot of Hirsts onto the market, including Gorgeous Concentric 60 Watt Painting, at Christie’s.
The problem: Dealers agree that he’s done better circular work than this (its estimate is around $700,000), including many of his spin paintings.
The prediction: Bidders will be hard-pressed to exceed this estimate—and if they don’t, it could mean that the artist’s overproduction has backfired for now.

The auctioneers’ hope: That prices for Chinese art will continue to skyrocket.
The problem: Some people feel that this market has risen too fast. But expect records in Chinese contemporary art at the London sales nonetheless. One big seller, New Yorker Howard Farber, is parting with a painting by political Pop artist Wang Guangyi for which he paid $25,000 a decade ago: Great Criticism: Coca-Cola, which features Communist workers stabbing the Coke logo with a pen.
The prediction: The bidding will soar above the top estimate of $1.2 million.

The auctioneers’ hope: That Marlene Dumas, a figurative painter who has lately seen her auction prices zoom (in 2005, a painting of hers went for $3.34 million), will enjoy a corresponding uptick with this minor work, Child With Big-Nosed Shadow, estimated at $70,000.
The problem: It’s another question of which artists within a given set will retain value if the market sours. Dumas is older than such figurative painters as Elizabeth Peyton, Barnaby Furnas, and Cecily Brown, but she came later to this particular price-frenzy party.
The prediction: Child With Big-Nosed Shadow might not sell at all.


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