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Autumn art auctions see double-digit declines

Paucity of trophy offerings, plus geopolitical distractions aplenty, combine to dampen demand

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By Wednesday, Christie's fall auction of contemporary art raised US$325.3 million, versus the US$539 million it achieved in the spring.

New York

WHAT a difference a season makes. Back in May, a US$91.1 million Jeff Koons sculpture and US$110.7 million Monet created the impression that business at top-end art auctions was booming.

But this week, against a backdrop of presidential impeachment hearings, Brexit and other geopolitical distractions, numbers at New York's marquee fall sales of impressionist, modern and contemporary art were significantly down.

The change in mood was clear on Monday and Tuesday evening as sales of impressionist and modern art dipped at both Christie's and Sotheby's over their equivalent sales last May.

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By Wednesday, Christie's fall auction of contemporary art raised US$325.3 million, versus the US$539 million it achieved in the spring, when the Koons and other pieces from the S I Newhouse collection were included.

In the absence of a prestigious estate, and with owners reluctant to release blue-chip masterworks, there was little to whet collectors' appetites.

"This was a season with few trophies," said Thomas Danziger, an attorney specialising in art law at the New York firm Danziger, Danziger & Muro, LLP. "The auction houses did the best with what they had."

From the seller's point of view, he added: "The mood is not good, but the art market as we know it is not coming to an end."

At Christie's, in front of a packed auction room, the critically admired California artist Ed Ruscha created the main excitement when his rare, early word painting Hurting the Word Radio #2, dating from 1964, sold for US$52.5 million with fees, an auction high for the artist.

It was bought by one of three determined telephone bidders, after it had been guaranteed to sell for at least US$30 million.

Entered from the celebrated Beverly Hills collection of Joan and Jack Quinn, who had acquired the work directly from the artist, this 5-foot-high sky-blue canvas depicted the word RADIO in bright yellow letters, tugged and pinched by metal C-clamps.

The enigmatic fusions of pop and conceptual art, centered on texts, produced by Ruscha in California in the 1960s, are now considered ahead of their time.

But these early paintings rarely appear for sale. Another, titled Smash, from 1963, sold at auction in 2014 for US$30.4 million. "He did very few of these clamped pictures where the letters are torqued," said Todd Levin, a New York-based art adviser. "It was an early painting with a great provenance in excellent condition. If you are a Ruscha collector it ticked all the boxes."

David Hockney's rediscovered canvas, Sur la Terrasse, showing the artist's then-lover, Peter Schlesinger, on the balcony of the couple's room at the Hotel La Mamounia in Marrakech in 1971, had been the most highly-estimated lot of the night, at US$25 million to US$45 million.

With the painting being from an unnamed European collection, and last seen in public in 1973, the seller might have hoped to capitalise on the interest generated by the US$90.3 million price at Christie's last November for Hockney's 1972 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures).

But bidding was measured, two telephones slowly pushing the price to US$29.5 million, just above estimate.

Demand was similarly sluggish for other highly valued lots of the night. Gerhard Richter's 1967 photo-based painting of a ship, Vogelfluglinie, brought US$20.5 million against a low estimate of US$18 million and Yves Klein's 1960 abstract Barbara (ANT 113), painted using a female body as the brush, sold for US$15.6 million against a low estimate of US$12 million.

As ever, Christie's hoped to energise bidding by front-loading the sale with on-trend younger artists who have waiting lists of buyers. Dana Schutz's 2016 canvas, Shooting on the Air, inspired by the on-air murder of two television journalists, sold for US$1.1 million against an estimate at US$600,000 to US$800,000.

It had been purchased just three years earlier at a gallery in Berlin, in the same exhibition as Open Casket, whose evocation of the body of Emmett Till - a 14-year-old black boy who was lynched by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 - caused a furor at the 2017 Whitney Biennial.

That controversy has not hampered the artist's auction prices. In May, a large painting by Schutz titled Civil Planning sold for US$2.4 million, her best price.

At least there's something to look forward to. Next year the auction houses will compete to sell the collection of Harry and Linda Macklowe, whose divorce proceedings have dragged on for several years as they battle over assets that include an art collection valued at US$700 million.

"It will be better next season, quite apart from the Macklowes," said Evan Beard, the national art services executive at US Trust, Bank of America Private Wealth Management. "There are bigger estates in play at the moment, and people will want to take advantage of the last auction season before the election."

As ever, death, divorce, debt and demand dictate numbers in the art market. NYTIMES