The images splashed across the pages of this fall’s auction catalogs are as familiar as they are telling: Degas dancers and Pissarro landscapes; Picasso portraits and Warhol dollar bills. All are well-known paintings and drawings by tried-and-true artists carrying estimates as low as sellers are willing to go.
In the year since the worldwide recession devastated the art market, prices have tumbled, collectors have retreated and auction houses have instituted layoffs. And now Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury are tiptoeing carefully. When the two weeks of big fall auctions start Tuesday evening, buyers will find traditional paintings, sculptures and drawings intended to appeal to today’s more conservative tastes. Gone are the lucrative financial incentives like guarantees (a minimum sum offered to a seller regardless of the outcome of a sale) that were regularly doled out when times were good. Gone too are extravagant parties and lavish catalogs the size of telephone books.
Prices are also a lot lower. Last season many paintings carried estimates in the tens of millions of dollars, though the majority didn’t sell. Sticker shock is no longer an issue. The most expensive works carry a high estimate of $12 million. “It’s a more considered market,” said Tobias Meyer, who is in charge of Sotheby’s contemporary art department worldwide. “People now think carefully about what they buy and how much they are willing spend.”
Prices are also lower because there aren’t many blockbuster artworks on the market. There were none in the few estate properties that were up for grabs recently, and collectors who don’t have to sell are, for the most part, holding on to their art as they gauge price levels.
This season’s offerings reflect what have jokingly been called the three D’s: death, divorce and debt. Sellers include the Merce Cunningham Trust, which administers the rights to the work of the choreographer and dancer who died in July; the newsprint magnate Peter Brant, whose divorce has been tabloid fodder; and Louis Reijtenbagh, a Dutch financier who settled lawsuits surrounding several bank loans and is selling artworks to satisfy the claims.
Putting together the sales has been tough, auction house executives admit. “Without guarantees it’s been all about relationships and creativity,” Mr. Meyer said.
As often happens, the work of an artist who has recently been the subject of a museum exhibition suddenly surfaces at auction. It is no coincidence that a Kandinsky is being offered on the heels of a career retrospective, seen at the Pompidou Center in Paris in the summer and now at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. In this case the heirs of Arthur M. Sackler, the American art collector who died in 1987, decided it was the right time to part with a 1932 Kandinsky filled with his abstract geometric forms. It is expected to bring $6 million to $8 million at Sotheby’s on Wednesday.
Perhaps the buzz around “Pop Life, Art in a Material World,” a show that opened last month at the Tate Modern in London, has something to do with the number of Warhols and other Pop artists up for sale. The undisputed star at Sotheby’s postwar sale on Nov. 11 — and what may well be the hottest work of the season — is Warhol’s “200 One Dollar Bills,” a 1962 painting from his seminal first series of silk-screens. A private European collector is selling the work, which was once part of the celebrated collection of Robert C. Scull, the taxi tycoon and Pop and Minimalist collector who died in 1986. That year the seller bought the painting from a Sotheby’s auction of Scull’s estate for $385,000, at the time a record price for Warhol at auction. Now it is expected to fetch $8 million to $12 million.
Mr. Brant is also selling a Warhol. “Tunafish Disaster,” a 1963 painting from the “Death and Disaster Series,” is being offered at Christie’s on Nov. 10 with an estimate of $6 million to $8 million. In addition Mr. Brant is selling a 1983 six-panel painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, “Brother Sausage.” Christie’s experts believe it could bring $9 million to $12 million.
Tuesday night’s sale of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s is perhaps the weakest of the season. “It’s been a struggle,” said Conor Jordan, head of Christie’s Impressionist and modern art department in New York. Among the highlights are traditional Impressionist works like an 1896 Degas pastel of a dancer rubbing her feet, which comes from an unidentified Japanese collector and is expected to sell for $7 million to $9 million. An 1873 panoramic landscape by Pissarro is estimated at $3.5 million to $4.5 million. It is being sold by the London collector Lord Harris of Peckham, chairman of Carpetright, a floor covering company.
There is dealer property too, like Mondrian’s “Composition II, With Red, 1926” that other dealers say is from the Nahmads, a family that runs galleries in London and New York. They bought the abstract canvas at Christie’s in London five years ago for $2.9 million and are now hoping to get $4.5 million to $6.5 million.
Sotheby’s sale on Wednesday night is bigger and the material is stronger. One of the most important sellers that night is offering works described in the catalog as property from “an important European collection.” That collection, experts familiar with the lots say, is Mr. Reijtenbagh's and includes canvases by Bonnard and Modigliani, Degas and Corot. There is also a Kees van Dongen image of a half-nude Arab boy, inspired by a trip he took to North Africa in 1910. It is estimated at $7 million to $10 million, one of the most expensive works of the evening.
Another big-ticket item at Sotheby’s is a Giacometti sculpture, “L’Homme Qui Chavire,” conceived in 1950 and cast a year later. It is being sold by S. I. Newhouse Jr., the publishing magnate who owns Condé Nast, another business that has recently undergone layoffs. The $8 million to $12 million estimate may seem high, but the Giacometti has been unsuccessfully offered for sale privately by both Christie’s and the Gagosian Gallery for nearly twice that estimate. Experts say that the auction process will help sort out prices for Giacomettis.
Christie’s has made some estimates in its postwar and contemporary art sale on Nov. 10 purposely low. It is selling several gems that once belonged to Cunningham and John Cage, his partner in life and work who died in 1992. They include “Dancers on a Plane,” a cross-hatch canvas by Jasper Johns that is estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million. Paintings by Mr. Johns have sold privately for as much as $80 million.
Brett Gorvy, a head of Christie’s postwar and contemporary art department, explained his firm’s approach this season: “We have consciously stayed away from young artists who either have not yet been tested or whose prices have already got way too high.”