Speculative `Fever' for Young Artists Cools in New York Auctions

  • `If you know someone who wants it, let me know,' dealer says
  • No takers for $60,000 painting evoking bird droppings at sale

Demand for abstract paintings by artist Lucien Smith was so strong two years ago that art adviser Mia Romanik sold a dozen of his works in one month. She’s not getting any requests now.

“They are certainly not trading as they once did,” said Romanik, who is based in Los Angeles. “The volume is just not there. At all.”

Smith, 26, is a prominent casualty of the decline in the speculative market for young artists whose prices had been surging just a year ago. Now sellers are trying to offload works at auction amid volatile financial markets. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is down 10 percent since May 21, when it hit a high for the year.

Contemporary art auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips in New York fell 26 percent to $33 million in September from $44.8 million during the same sales last year as a third of lots failed to sell. Just 63 percent of artworks created in the past four years found buyers, 22 percent less than last year, according to research by Artnet Analytics.

Lucien Smith's untitled "rain" painting from 2012 failed to sell on Sept. 17.

Source: Phillips

“The era in which you could buy something for $3,000 and sell it for $100,000 a month later is fully over,” Bill Powers, whose Half Gallery held Smith’s solo debut in New York in 2012, said in a phone interview. “And rightly so. That was unsustainable exuberance.”
Smith’s latest painting at auction -- an untitled canvas estimated at $15,000 to $20,000 -- failed to sell at Sotheby’s on Sept. 29. Another canvas, splattered with drops of paint, flopped at Phillips on Sept. 17.

Winnie the Pooh

Smith debuted at auction in November 2013 with a 10-foot-tall painting depicting a landscape from “Winnie the Pooh.” It fetched $389,000 at Phillips in New York, a 3,890-percent increase from the $10,000 paid by the sellers. The price remains the artist’s auction record.

“If you know someone who wants it, let me know,” said Alberto Mugrabi, a private dealer and collector who bought the work at Phillips and still owns it.

There’s healthy demand for new works by Smith, according to galleries that work with the artist, including Half Gallery and Salon 94 in New York and Moran Bondaroff in Los Angeles. Smith’s new paintings will be shown in New York and Los Angeles later this year, dealers said.

“We can sell all the paintings he gives us,” said Jeanne Greenberg-Rohatyn, owner of Salon 94, adding that these sales ranged from $10,000 to $75,000 in the past year and a half.

Overproduction by artists and overexposure by auction houses are among the causes of the general slump, said dealers, collectors and advisers.

“The amount of art that was made in the past couple of years is astonishing,” Romanik said. “The artists were just slamming them out. Now there are not enough buyers."

The “New Now” sale at Phillips on Sept. 17 tallied $4.5 million, down from $5.3 million a year earlier. There were no takers for Joan Miro-like paintings by Christian Rosa and conceptual abstract canvases by Hugh Scott-Douglas, Ayan Farah and Nina Beier.

Mop, Speakers

At Christie’s “First Open” auction on Sept. 30, the reserves -- minimum prices at which sellers agree to sell -- on many works went out of the window. An assemblage that included a mop and wireless speakers by art collective Bruce High Quality Foundation, fetched $2,125; it was estimated at $25,000 to $35,000.

Rosa’s painting at Christie’s sold for $12,500 against the high estimate of $30,000. Pieces by popular artists Jon Pestoni, Michael Riedel and Walead Beshty didn’t find takers.

At $18.9 million, Sotheby’s tally was the highest of the three houses, but it represented a decline from $28.3 million in 2014. A group of found tchotchkes set against a massive blackboard by the Bruce High Quality Foundation, estimated at as much as $200,000, didn’t sell. Even more established artists weren’t immune. Dan Colen’s abstract painting evoking bird droppings, estimated at $60,000 to $80,000, didn’t find a buyer.

The amount of contemporary art at auction is also rising. In New York in September, 913 lots were offered at the three houses, up from 884 a year ago. More contemporary art will be sold at London auctions during the Frieze Art Fair starting Oct. 12 and at the bellwether art sales in New York in November.

“If you look at the number of auctions, it’s overwhelming,” said Alain Servais, a Brussels-based collector of contemporary art.

Zombie Formalism

Much of the speculative fever surrounded a new generation of artists -- mostly men who were born in the 1980s -- whose sparse, abstract paintings were made with techniques such as spraying, dying or printing. The style was named “Zombie Formalism” by critic Walter Robinson. Smith’s most coveted works, known as “rain” paintings, were made by spraying paint from a fire extinguisher onto canvases.

Alexander Calder's “The Gamblers”

Source: Sotheby’s

Bidding wars erupted in September over lower priced pieces by established artists. At Christie’s Willem de Kooning’s small 1962 drawing, “Woman in Motion,” fetched $87,500, above the estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. Alexander Calder’s 1970s gouaches, featuring the signature palette of the artist’s mobiles (reds, yellow, blue and black), were a hit. One 1972 drawing, “The Gamblers,” sold for $250,000, more than six times its low estimate of $40,000 at Sotheby’s.

“Like with any fever, people act irrationally, but eventually they realize they can get a beautiful de Kooning drawing for the same price as a 25-year-old painter at auction,” said Powers. “The math doesn’t add up after a while.”

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