No sooner did auction giants Sotheby's and Christie's report a 50% drop in worldwide sales for the 1990-91 season than a fledgling auction house packed in a crowd for its first big public event on Sunday afternoon in Santa Monica. More than 800 Southern Californians turned out for "Buy Low!," a sale of contemporary art staged by Santa Monica Auctions, which was recently launched by dealer Robert Berman. The auction of 212 recession-priced artworks yielded a total of $450,000 in sales, just above the halfway point in Berman's broad pre-sale estimate of $200,000-$600,000.
"I feel good about it. We were very successful with the works we sold for the RTC and the FDIC," Berman said, referring to 18 works consigned by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Resolution Trust Corp, a federal agency formed to clean up the savings and loan industry and liquidate property of defunct institutions. Other works in the sale were consigned by dealers and artists or offered by the Robert Berman Gallery.
Prices in the Sunday auction never topped the $9,000 bid by television producer Eric Leiber for Llyn Foulkes' 1963 painting, "Greetings From Hogback Mountain," but that RTC-consigned work greatly exceeded its $3,000-$5,000 estimate. Collectively, the other RTC properties brought about three times their reserves (the lowest price a seller will accept), Berman said.
Among them, April Gornik's painting, "Long Clouds" (estimated at $7,000-$10,000), was sold for $7,500. "Grotto," a 1981 oil by Louisa Chase ($5,000-$7,000) brought $3,750. John Wessley's "The Old Skipper's Room" ($700-$1,000) was knocked down for $2,300.
Staged under a huge canopy in the off-street parking area of the Broadway Gallery Complex, the auction was as much a Los Angeles scene as an art auction. Wearing shorts, T-shirts and Hawaiian gear, participants were offered an array of bagels and coffee, tacos and margaritas and French bistro food. They noshed and chatted while they waved their numbered paddles. At the end of the 4 1/2-hour spectacle, more than 100 collectors walked away with purchases.
Collectors appeared to be in search of bargains, not big-ticket items, however. About 30% of the works offered were not sold. The most expensive piece in the sale, an untitled 1977 painting by Tom Holland, valued at $35,000-$40,000, attracted no bids at all. Neither did Ed Ruscha's 1988 serigraph, "The Rooster," which bore a pre-sale estimate of $20,000-$24,000.
Political works by Robbie Conal were among the hot items. His three-part lithograph, "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll," brought $900, while a "Daryl Gates" poster--shot through with bullet holes by the artist--fetched $700. A Jim Dine etching, "Watercolor Marks," attracted spirited bidding and was sold for $5,600. Walter Gabrielson's vividly colored narrative painting, "Party Will Change My Life," brought $3,750.
Berman conceived the auction, in part, to jump-start a stalled art market. Most observers didn't think he had accomplished that, but he did bring out a crowd of bargain hunters who appeared to have a good time. As Berman jollied up the bidders, announcing that a Billy Al Bengston silkscreen "glows in the dark" and repeatedly claiming, "This is the best work in the show," members of the audience greeted the most exciting sales with whoops and applause. At one point, a barking dog joined the bidding.
"I, for sure, will do it again," Berman said, adding that he hoped this auction would lead to other RTC consignments. "We created excitement, this was great exposure for the artists in my gallery and we made money," he said on Sunday night after the auction.
By Monday morning, he was busy with clients who had second thoughts about missed sales and now wanted to do business. "My phone is ringing off the wall," he said.