Sotheby’s Clyfford Still Record Fails to Impress –

clyfford still Sothebys Clyfford Still Record Fails to Impress   artmarketblog.comSotheby’s seems to have re-ignited confidence in the art market with the results of their Contemporary Art Evening Sale.  But I for one won’t be celebrating just yet because all I see is a market that reacted to an extremely rare opportunity to acquire works by an artist who is about to have 95% of his life’s work excluded from the market behind the closed doors of a museum.  The fact that ANY of Clyfford Still’s works were able to be sold from the endowment is a miracle as both the artist and his widow, whose estate the works being sold come from, left stipulations in their wills that none of the the artist’s works from either estate were to be sold.  Fortunately for Sotheby’s, the museum dedicated to Still’s work would not have been able to be built without the proceeds from the sale of some of his paintings.   Because of the stipulations left in both wills, The Denver City Council, who are to receive the endowment and build the museum, had to challenge the will in court and then vote on whether or not to sell the paintings.  Obviously, the decision was made to sell.

So, considering that most of Still’s works – 2400 works or 94% of his oeuvre -  are in the collection to be installed in the Still museum, and considering that none of these works are likely to ever come onto the market again, the opportunity to purchase a major Clyfford Still painting from the endowment was too good to ignore.  And, in my opinion, would have been too good to ignore even in a depressed market because of the nature of the opportunity (not that I am suggesting that we are in a depressed market).  What I will suggest, however, is that the stellar prices paid for the Still paintings was not a result of their art historical importance or artistic value, but was a result of the nature of the opportunity.  I will also suggest that the Clyfford still paintings sold by Sotheby’s were an irrelevant anomaly in the scheme of things that is in no way an indication of the strength of the art market.

If you want evidence that the Still paintings are over-rated then look no further than the auction history of “1949-A No. 1″, the US$61,682,500 superstar of the Sotheby’s sale.  Although conspicuously absent from the provenance and history of the paintings as provided online by Sotheby’s, this painting has been offered for sale before.  Although I couldn’t find pics of the “1949-A No. 1″ painting sold in previous years, Still’s obsessive approach to the naming of his works that consist of letters, dates and numbers that signify the order in which they were created makes it incredibly unlikely that two paintings with the same name exist.  The last time that “1949-A No. 1″ was sold was in May 1990 when Christie’s offered the work with an estimate of $3.5 million to $4.5 million but failed to sell it.   A quote from the time of the auction by Martha Baer, Christie’s top specialist in contemporary art, states that “We haven’t experienced a major Still painting in the boom market for contemporary art that began two years ago.”  After the auction, auctioneer Christopher Burge was quoted as saying that the big disappointment was was Clyfford Still’s “1949-A. No. 1″ which failed to sell after bidding in the jammed gallery stopped at $3 million. Burge then went on to say that the reserve was not met requiring the work to be withdrawn from sale.  The other work by Still offered for sale during the 1990 auction was “1955-D” which had an estimate of $3 million to $5 million but was allowed to sell for a mere $1.1 million.  Doesn’t seem like a market hungry for Still’s work to me !!

The auction record for a Still painting prior to the 1990 sale was only $797,500, which was paid for an untitled 1954 work at Sotheby’s in 1985.  Accord to an Los Angeles Times article from 1985, “Clyfford Still’s old record of $165,000 toppled twice, when a 1954 abstraction from the collection of Francois de Menil brought $797,500 and a 1948 work from a European private collection was knocked down for $577,500.”  A jump to $3.5 million five years later during a boom time seems pretty reasonable, doesn’t it?  So why didn’t “1949-A. No. 1″ sell in 1990?

Overall, the market history of Clyfford Still’s work has been far from impressive.  I don’t deny that his work has perhaps been undervalued at times, but not to the tune of tens of millions of dollars.  If more of Still’s works were available on the market, and a not to be repeated opportunity to purchase a painting from his widow’s estate had not arisen, I doubt we would be so interested in Still’s work or would have such confidence in the art market.

To be continued…………


Clyfford Still

1949-A-NO . 1
signed and dated Clyfford 49; signed and titled 1949-A twice on the reverse
oil on canvas
93 x 79 in. 236.2 x 200.7 cm.

**Nicholas Forrest is an art market analyst, art critic and journalist based in Sydney, Australia. He is the founder of http://www.artmarketblog.comt Sothebys Clyfford Still Record Fails to Impress, writes the art column for the magazine Antiques and Collectibles for Pleasure and Profit and contributes to many other publications.

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