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New York's Spring Art Auctions Have Seen Some Yawns And Some Records

Hector Retamal

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The biggest surprise at Wednesday night's Sotheby's auction was a painting by Chicago-based artist Kerry James Marshall. Past Times set a record for a living African American artist at auction. It went for $21.1 million, including auction house fees — almost triple its estimate. The acrylic and collage on canvas depicts a black family picnicking by a lake: dad practices his golf swing; his daughter plays croquet while mom opens the picnic basket next to her son listening to a boombox.

The painting has been compared to bucolic scenes by some French pre- and post-Impressionists but it puts African Americans in the place of the white leisure class and in asking, "Why not?," it logically advances the dramatic depictions of black life created by Marshall's predecessor, the late Romare Beardon.

Another record was set at the same auction: David Hockney's Pacific Coast Highway and Santa Monica sold for $28.5 million, the highest price ever for the artist at auction. The oil painting shows the highway winding through bright green, blue and purple hills with the city in the distance. The English artist has spent most of his time in California since the mid-1960s.

New York's spring art auctions kicked off last week with all of the attention going to Christie's sale of art from the John D. and Peggy Rockefeller collection. Much hyped as the most valuable single-owner collection ever to go up for auction, the May 8 sale generated $646 million for charities designated by the late couple. Claude Monet's Nympheas en Fleur, from the artist's famous water lilies series, set a record for Monet: $84.7 million. Henri Matisse's "Odalisque couchée aux magnolias" ("Odalisque reclining with magnolias") set a record for that artist at the same auction: $80.75 million.

The records continued to pile up, sort of, earlier this week. Sotheby's proclaimed Amedeo Modigliani's Nu couché (sur le côté gauche) (Nude reclining on her left side) the most expensive painting ever sold by the auction house. But it didn't meet expectations. Some had expected it to at least come close to the previous record for a Modigliani — $170.4 million. But Nu couché struggled to attract bidders and finally went to a buyer the auction house had already lined up for $157.2 million.

News of another sort followed when a Picasso did not make it to Christie's auction block. Le Marin was supposed to go under the hammer on Tuesday but the auction house issued a statement saying, "Pablo Picasso's Le Marin (The Sailor) was accidentally damaged Friday during the final stages of preparation for Christie's May 12-15 exhibition." A second Picasso was then withdrawn from the auction. Both are owned by controversial casino magnate Steve Wynn.

But Christie's bounced back. Even without the Picassos, the auction house brought in $416 million and set two more records. Suprematist Composition by Kazimir Malevich set a record for the Russian artist, who died in 1935: $86 million. Not long after, the late Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi set a record of his own. La jeune fille sophistiquée (Portrait de Nancy Cunard) ("The sophisticated young woman"), a bronze figure on a marble base cast in 1932, sold for $71 million. The previous record for a Brancusi — $57 million — was set just last year, also at Christie's New York.

All of the prices listed include auction house fees and experts attribute the records to the overall high quality of the works on auction.

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