Fall print sales post healthy results: estimates were exceeded, most prints found buyers but few records were set at the major autumn print auctions in New York

Fall print sales post healthy results: estimates were exceeded, most prints found buyers but few records were set at the major autumn print auctions in New York – news

Barden Prisant

This season, Sotheby’s put more troops in the field and vanquished Christie’s by sheer force of numbers.

On Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, 2003, Sotheby’s offered no fewer than 837 lots–a bold move in light of the political and economic uncertainties of recent months. Yet, confounding all skeptics, the auction house sold 90 percent of the lots on offer. This is a very strong result, even in the best of times, and it pushed its gross for the sale to a healthy $7.8 million. Eight of the top 10 lots sold at or beyond the high end of their estimates, implying that there was definite enthusiasm among the bidders. In the words of Mary Bartow, director of Sotheby’s prints department, “We are extremely pleased with the results of our sale, which reflect the overall strength and depth of the print market.”

The success of Sotheby’s sale may have been partially due to the lavishness of its catalog. In a number of instances, half- and full-page entries were granted to prints only expected to bring $5,000 or so. Usually, this is an honor reserved for pieces expected to bring five- or six-figure prices. By comparison, the Christie’s catalogue routinely crammed three or more images onto each page, making it appear far less opulent.

The Sotheby’s sale got off to a roaring start when 127 of its first 129 lots found buyers. This group consisted of prints by James Abbott McNeill Whistler from the collection of the late Louis B. Dailey. Dailey, an attorney and champion tennis player, had concentrated on purchasing high-quality impressions in very good condition. Ultimately, he amassed what Sotheby’s described as “one of the largest collections of Whistlers in private hands.” Thus, this sale represented a rare opportunity for collectors, and they spent no less than $860,000 on his prints.

Another noteworthy, though less lucrative, single-owner consignment was that of Rosemary Primont Okun. Okun was a night student at the Cooper Union art school in New York from 1949 to 1951, and, years later, she decided to donate several prints–one Jasper Johns, two Robert Rauschenbergs and one Joan Miro–to her alma mater. The four fetched more than $130,000, generating much-needed funds for an institution which has been pleading poverty in recent years.

The Christie’s prints auction lost the numbers game this season. Its one-day sale held on Nov. 4 offered only 379 lots, grossing a total of $4.8 million. Eighty-five percent of the items on offer sold, but the auction house’s problem was not having more items to sell.

Of course, as Christie’s has been quick to point out, it trounced Sothehy’s last spring, when it sold prints worth more than $10 million. Therefore, Christie’s has been trumpeting that it bested Sotheby’s for the year 2003. Nevertheless, it finished the year with a whimper, not a bang.

American participation in the Christies sale proved to be a double-edged sword. While nine of the top 10 lots at the sale were purchased by American dealers and collectors, a number of pieces made by American printmakers fell flat. In particular, two major drypoints by Mary Cassatt, which had been expected to fetch as much as $220,000 total, failed to find buyers. Furthermore, one of Winslow Homer’s few original prints, “Eight Bells,” (est.: $50,000 to $70,000) also failed to find a buyer.

Like Sotheby’s, Christie’s also boasted a significant single-owner consignment. The St. Louis Art Museum had consigned 50 prints by the artist Max Beckmann, the proceeds of which were to benefit the museum’s acquisitions fired. Although the artist is best known for his early European work, in the last years before he died, he moved to St. Louis where he taught at the Washington University School of Fine Arts. In the end, it seemed that the pieces the museum had consigned to Christie’s were not quite as desirable as the Whistler prints, which Dailey had consigned to Sotheby’s; 88 percent of the Beckmann’s found buyers versus 98 percent of the Whistler’s. Still, the more than $400,000 they grossed accounted for almost 10 percent of the Christie’s sale total.

There is one last notable addendum to Christie’s print season. On Nov. 11 and 12, Christie’s sold the collection of Dorothy C. Miller, one of the first curators of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Although the headlines focused on her Jasper Johns painting “Gray Numbers,” which fetched more than $5 million, another Jasper Johns print in her collection, “False Start I,” fetched $65,725. In all, the prints from her collection garnered just more than $250,000, which should be added to the Christie’s season total.

In conclusion, when the two big houses do battle next, it will be interesting to see if Christie’s brings more troops.

RELATED ARTICLE: Bonhams goes global.

A shared passion for classic motor cars has driven two entrepreneurs to create what has become the world’s third-largest and fastest-growing auction company.

Since acquiring Butterfields in 2002 and Australia’s Goodmans Auctioneers four months ago, The Bonhams Group has catapulted into the top ranks of global auction sales, with more than 665 employees and annual sales turnover in 2002 (before the Goodmans acquisition) of $304 million.

Today, with 820 annual sales globally, Bonhams conducts more sales than rival Sotheby’s worldwide, and has edged to the same rank as Christie’s, which reported to hold about 1,000 sales last year. Its worldwide network of sales rooms now include two major venues in London, nine additional U.K. locations and sales rooms in Switzerland, Monaco and Germany plus Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sydney.

And that’s just the beginning of the story. “We intend to make the Bonhams name truly global, “said Bonhams Group Chairman Robert Brooks. The company is looking for additional opportunities in the United States, particularly in the New York marketplace. Industry insiders are reporting that Bonhams is seeking a high-profile Big Apple space.

Onetime rivals Brooks, former head of Christies Car Department, and Malcolm Barber, former head of Sotheby’s Car Department, joined forces in 1995 to open London-based Brooks Auctioneers. Five years later, the pair expanded their grasp with the merger of Brooks with Bonhams, a venerable Georgian-era auction house founded by antiques dealers Thomas Dodd and Walter Bonham. Renamed Bonhams & Brooks, with Brooks as chairman and Nicholas Bonham (the sixth generation to be associated with the company) as deputy chairman, the company then merged with another old-line London auctioneer, Philips Son and Neale UK, in August 2002.

In July 2002, Bonhams & Brooks gained an important foothold in the U.S. marketplace with the acquisition of Butterfields from e-Bay, which had paid $260 million in stock for the West Coast auction company in 1999.

Butterfields and e-Bay had a troubled business marriage from the start. Butterfields, which was founded at the height of California’s Gold Rush in 1865 and was becoming one of the top U.S. auction companies, saw its revenues dive under e-Bay’s stewardship. Scores of staff members were laid off, and Butterfields’ entertainment memorabilia, photography and Art Deco departments were jettisoned. For its part, e-Bay was not able to integrate Butterfields’ traditional “offline” auction activities into its online business model. The combined company launched Great Collections online, but the venture fizzled. At the time, e-Bay spokesman Kevin Pursglove explained, “We anticipated a much greater acceptance on the part of the consumers who buy high-end art and collectibles. Perhaps we had not entirely gauged how much of a change in behavior would be required to make customers comfortable with purchasing high-end art and collectibles online.”

Where e-Bay saw problems, Brooks and company saw opportunity. E-Bay sold Butterfields for $21.8 million in cash, a fraction of the price it had paid three years earlier. Car enthusiast Barber was installed in San Francisco as Bonhams & Butterfields’ chief executive officer, while retaining his role as managing director of Bonhams worldwide. He soon brought his expertise to bear. In May, 2003, Bonhams & Butterfields conducted its first East Coast sale, with an auction in Brookline, Mass., of the Edwin C. Jameson collection of classic cars and antiques. “We’re trying to expand our representation around the [United] States,” noted Barber. “We’re gearing up to expand out of California.”

Along with the automotive sector, Bonhams & Butterfields has a strong presence in the arms and armor, American, Western and California paintings, natural history, Modern furniture and decorative arts markets. On the global level, Bonhams has stepped up its presence in fine jewelry (Bonhams sold more jewelry in London in 2002 than Sotheby’s or Christie’s) and Asian art and is quickly becoming the world leader in ethnographic art. The auction company recently set world records for sales of British marine paintings, by the artists Robert Dodd and Thomas Buttersworth, and for an American painting, “Snowy Morning,” by Aldro T. Hibbard. It also fetched top prices for works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

To build more visibility for its Bonhams & Butterfields brand, Bonhams Group UK has severed its longtime collaboration with New York-based Doyles on its famed annual “Dogs in Art” sale, and will instead hold the high-profile auction, tentatively set for March 30 in San Francisco,.

Bonhams’ biggest battlefield, according to London Telegraph arts writer Will Bennett, is the competition for top high-end lots. “One problem for Bonhams is that it remains strongly associated with the middle market,” said Bennett.” If the ambitious Brooks wants to get more high-value lots, he will have to change people’s perception of the auction house.”

–Laura Meyers

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