On The Block: Looking for a $30 Million Bargain | BLOUIN ARTINFO
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On The Block: Looking for a $30 Million Bargain

Flesh and Spirit, 1982-83, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Oil stick, gesso, acrylic and paper on canvas 2 panels, each: 721⁄2 by 145 in. 184.2 by 368.3 cm. overall: 145 by 145 in. 368.3 by 368.3 cm Estimate in the region of $30 million, Sotheby’s New York Contemporary Art Evening Auction, May 16, 2018, Property from the Estate of Dolores Ormandy Neumann
(© 2018 Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY Courtesy of Sotheby’s)

Do you have $30 million burning a hole in your pocket? Are you planning to invest it in some museum-quality art?

 If so, the main auction houses have all got some enticing ideas for you in their coming spring sales.

A Jackson Pollock drip-painting that has never been seen at auction before is being offered at Sotheby’s, estimated at the magic figure of $30 million at hammer prices. Sotheby’s is also offering one of the largest works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, priced at $30 to $40 million.

Christie’s has two Andy Warhol portraits, both seen as making about $30 million, too. One work is from Warhol’s notorious “Wanted Man” series and another shows singer Elvis Presley. Christie’s also has a Francis Bacon portrait of his lover George Dyer, also with the same price tag.

Phillips is not so far adrift of these prices, with another large Basquiat that is seen as making $20 million.

It seems like $30 million is an ideal benchmark for evening-sale forecasted prices. In all such events in 2018, the blue-chip items have been exceeding $10 million, while the level of $50 million starts to get into rarified territory occupied by only the most talked-up Picassos and Basquiats, for example. At that point failures hurt whether guaranteed or not — nobody wants an unsold “Pope” by Francis Bacon on their hands, as happened in 2017. Still, the market has got off to a solid start in 2018, with plenty of demand for midrange works and respectable sold rates touching 90 percent or more.

The Sotheby’s Pollock is “Number 32,” on sale in New York on May 16. The Pollock has spent 35 years in the same collection, acquired in 1983. Pollock had started his drip-painting series in 1947, and this was one of the smaller ones he made while working out the subtleties of the technique, using paper mounted on Masonite or canvas. This latest one features aluminum paint. The last time a similar work came up for public auction was in 2013, and that piece made a record $58.4 million. This revelation may make the current estimate of $30 to $40 million for “Number 32” look conservative.

The Sotheby’s Basquiat in the same sale is “Flesh and Spirit,” another work acquired in 1983, in this case for $15,000. It was then bought by Dolores Ormandy Neumann and has stayed in her family collection ever since. It is made up of four multi-canvas panels measuring 145 inches square — making it one of the short-lived artist’s largest works, and certainly the biggest to appear at auction. Basquiat often painted his large-scale works by casually placing them on the wall or floor, then lying or standing next to them. This one references Robert Farris Thompson’s 1983 book “Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Philosophy,” an art book that Basquiat admired.

The day after Sotheby’s sale, Christie’s two Warhols on offer are of a notorious criminal and Elvis Presley. “Most Wanted Men, No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr.” from 1964 is estimated in the range of $30 million. The armed robber has a hair quiff and matinee-idol looks: He looks more like James Dean than Al Capone or Jesse James. The original monumental mural of 13 police photos in the series was installed for a planned World Trade Fair pavilion in New York and was painted over just before the opening. Various reasons were given for its destruction, such as that the criminals’ images did not fit with the event’s celebratory theme of achievement. Undeterred, Warhol made more canvases of the images, including the one now on sale, later that year.

The second Warhol work is “Double Elvis (Ferus Type),” from 1963. It is another image that shows the artist’s obsession with celebrity of all kinds, from the famous to the infamous. Rather than showing Elvis as a musician, Warhol depicted him in a gun-slinging hero role from the 1960 movie “Flaming Star.”

The Elvises made for Warhol’s solo exhibition at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles included many multiple images, triples and quadruples. Here the black screen-print on a silver-painted background has a ghostly duplicate, as if a comment on Elvis’s stillborn twin, Jesse Garon. The painting last appeared at auction in 2012 when it fetched $37 million at Sotheby’s. The seller is former casino mogul Steve Wynn, people familiar with his art’s provenance told Blouin Artinfo.

At the time of going to press, Christie’s had just confirmed the inclusion in its spring sale of the Bacon picture of his lover, “Study for a Portrait” from 1977.

The start of 2018 has seen Impressionist and Modern auctions also pulling in good prices, boosted by some bulk-buying of Picassos. Christie’s will be joining in with its May 15 event, which has a self-portrait by the Spanish artist. This is estimated at making as much as $70 million.

“Le Marin,” an oil-on-canvas work executed on October 28, 1943, has long been seen as among Picasso’s most celebrated self-images, with the artist wearing one of his famous striped fisherman’s jerseys. He chose to remain in France during the war and this work was executed in Paris at the height of Occupation — Picasso and Western civilization’s lowest ebb. Picasso rightly looks worried: He was being harassed by Nazi agents who destroyed his work. Just weeks before, they had suggested sending him to a concentration camp.

The work is also being sold by the billionaire Wynn, who has sold shares and art since quitting his job after being accused of sexual harassment, which he denies. Christie’s has refused to comment on the ownership, citing its policy not to identify clients unless they agree. The work was formerly in the collection of Victor and Sally Ganz. Christie’s contended that alongside the Rockefeller Picasso it is also selling, this is “the most important painting by the artist to appear at auction since ‘Les Femmes D’Alger (Version 0)’.” This sold in May 2015 for $179.4 million including fees, a record price for a painting at auction at that time. It remains the most expensive Picasso in public auction and the second-most expensive painting after the “Salvator Mundi,” attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and sold last year.

Of course, some of the greatest highlights of the season’s auctions come with the sale of the Rockefeller collection, already well previewed in a previous edition of this column. This includes David and Peggy Rockefeller’s Rose-Period Picasso work, “Fillette a la corbeille fleurie (Young Girl with a Flower Basket)” from 1905, which is also estimated at about $70 million.

The Phillips sale on May 17 has Basquiat’s “Flexible,” offered by the artist’s estate and making its first appearance at auction. The 1984 multi-board work is about eight feet tall and depicts one of his famous human figures — possibly a storyteller, orator or musician.

The near-eternal search for the next big auction star continues in the background to all this. It is a tradition at the end of “On the Block” to mention a few names to watch. Recent sales have led to hopeful dealers nominating Arte Povera artists such as Alberto Burri; Britain’s Peter Doig; and surrealists such as Salvador Dali.

One of the latest names to hit records and therefore trigger alerts on our Blouin Art Sales Index is that of Mark Bradford.

In Phillips’s London sale in March, one highlight was Bradford’s wall-size “Helter Skelter I,” owned by tennis star John McEnroe. The 2007 work sold for £8.67 million (about $12.2 million), beating an estimate of £6 to £8 million and setting a record for the artist at auction.

Some dealers said the price was partly explained by the work’s Particularly complex mixed-media collage on canvas. Still, at some 33 feet, it had been an overwhelming presence in McEnroe’s apartment and begged the question of how many private collectors have a wall large enough? Of course, one answer was that this was a museum buy, and so it has now proved.

The Broad later announced it had acquired both the mural and also Bradford’s most recent work, “I heard you got arrested today” from this year. Little does as good for an artist as when he or she becomes deemed as “museum quality”.

Joanne Heyler, founding director and chief curator of The Broad, clarified that Bradford’s work has been increasingly central to the Broad collection over the past 12 years: “Exemplifying Bradford’s ‘social abstraction,’ Helter Skelter I is a masterpiece that references a chilling period in Los Angeles history — cult leader Charles Manson’s malevolent obsession with inciting a race war in the late 1960s, which he called ‘Helter Skelter’.”

At the time of writing, the next round of sales don’t have any Bradfords on offer but do watch out for then they are next on the block.

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Founder Louise Blouin