A New Kid in Town

Swann Galleries is a third-generation family business. George S. Lowry—now chairman of the company—became President and Principal Auctioneer in 1970 upon the retirement of founder Benjamin Swann. Nicholas D. Lowry, the current President, joined Swann in 1995 as head of the Vintage Posters department. He was named Principal Auctioneer in 1998, and President in January 2001.

Swann Galleries joins the contemporary art frenzy

In the red-hot auction arena of contemporary art, price is often a prohibitive factor for potential collectors. Last May in New York, for instance, a wax-and-resin effigy of a fully costumed Pope John Paul II by the Italian conceptual artist Maurizio Cattelan fetched a record $886,000 at Christie’s, and a rare Abstract Expressionist painting by Jackson Pollock sold for almost $8 million at rival Sotheby’s. But now, a boutique-sized Manhattan auction house has entered the contemporary fray with decidedly lower-priced offerings and a strategy to draw in new buyers.

“We see ourselves as filling a market niche that is typical of what we do for prints and photographs,” says Daile Kaplan, vice president and director of photographs for Swann Galleries, who has spearheaded the move to contemporary art with Todd Weyman, the director of works on paper. “We’re looking at material that’s going to sell in the $5,000 to $120,000 range instead of the half-million to six million dollar price range.” The focus, says Kaplan, will be “multimedia and multifaceted,” with photo-based artworks, individual photographs, lithographic multiples, drawings and sculpture by late-twentieth-century artists. “We’re casting a wide net of what we mean by contemporary art,” she notes.

While other artistic movements are well defined, contemporary art is “definitely a gray area,” says Kaplan, who moonlights on the hit PBS television series “Antiques Road Show.” “Everyone has a different idea of what they think it is, but I’d describe it as a style and a practice that is recognizable because of the tools, the subject matter and references employed. So looking at a date isn’t as useful as drawing on these other attributes.”

Nevertheless, the international art market generally pegs the time boundaries of contemporary art from 1945 forward, embracing both dead and living artists. The former category ranges from Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock to Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. The latter category includes painters, performance artists, photographers and sculptors, from American sensations, such as Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman, to British imports Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. The definition debate swirls on as Christie’s recently unveiled a selling category called Post-War art to include the Abstract Expressionists and Pop Artists while corralling contemporary art from roughly the mid-’60s onwards. Sotheby’s also subscribes to the 1945-and-onward definition.

Swann’s entry into the contemporary art world came on November 13, when it offered artworks ranging from Lichtenstein’s circa 1965 Sunrise, a blue-pencil lithograph for New York’s Castelli Gallery, to Cy Twombly’s 1950 oil painting Portrait of Thomas Brown Wilber. Kaplan called the sale “a critical success” that attracted many new buyers, but admitted she was disappointed by the results. The auction generated a rather anemic $425,615 against pre-sale expectations of about $825,000 to $1.2 million.

The top-selling work was a large and gushingly decorative David Hockney lithograph from 1980, Afternoon Swimming, which sold for $34,500, which included the buyer’s premium (estimate $40,000-$60,000). It instantly captures an idyllic L.A. day at poolside, lush with Southern California landscaping.

Another piece that drew attention was Francesca Woodman’s evocative photographic montage from 1980, A Fashion Picture, which fetched $25,300 (est. $25,000-$30,000). Woodman committed suicide in 1981 at the age of 22, and her self-portrait-based works are increasingly sought after, having cracked $50,000 at previous auctions. Kaplan describes the blue-tinted montage as a “pictorial letter,” representing a moment when the artist was trying to break into the fashion industry.

Traditional oil painting got its due with Twombly’s dashing portrait of a young art student, which earned $29,900 (est. $40,000-$60,000). The fresh-to-market painting, a big plus in the collecting world, hailed from the estate of the sitter, who became an art historian and collector of Old Master prints. A number of other Twombly works from the early 1950s also attracted buyers. An untitled brush-and-ink work of plant forms on thin laid paper fetched $11,500, while Female Cat, executed in black crayon on cream wove paper, made $10,925. Twombly subsequently went on to great acclaim, and his later work has sold for more than $5 million at auction.

Another piece offered at the sale, which was one of Kaplan’s favorite entries, was a Vik Muniz creation, an exquisitely detailed small drawing cleverly disguised as a photograph. The untitled graphite-and-colored-pencil drawing from 1995 is a trompe l’oeil impression of a family snapshot, circa 1950, portraying a housewife in a floral print dress, proudly holding her young daughter. The drawing realized $2,990, (est. $3,000-$5,000).

The Lichtenstein lithograph, pegged to sell for between $8,000 and $10,000, brought in $8,625.

While some lots found enthusiastic buyers, a number of works that the auction house had high hopes for didn’t sell. One that failed to generate interest was one of the strongest offerings and certainly the priciest: an untitled collaboration from 1981 of ’80s art stars Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman (est. $90,000-$120,000). The gender-bending conceptual work portrays each artist in identical business suits, makeup and hairstyles and parodies the better-known photographic style of Sherman, whose elaborately costumed and staged self-portraits elicit an international following. The diptych is part of an edition of 10.

Also failing to sell was a poignant work by Australian photography sensation Tracey Moffatt. The entry represented one of the prized staples of the contemporary art movement: large-scale color photos with staged environments. Moffatt’s gritty tableau, the last in a series titled Something More No. 9 from 1989, portrays the failed journey of a young woman trying to escape the brutality of her hometown existence (est. $10,000-$15,000). The 40-by-50-inch image from an edition of 30 depicts the broken body of the woman sprawled across the foreground, near a highway signpost that reads: BRISBANE 300 MILES.

Several other entries also missed their reserve prices. One was California abstractionist Sam Francis’s Pasadena Box from 1963, comprised of eight color lithographs, a Japanese-influenced three-part color lithographic screen and separate scroll, plus an original gouache (est. $30,000-$40,000). Another disappointment was Lucas Samaras’s 1971 Auto-Polaroids, a collage of 12 color and black-and-white self-portraits (est. $10,000-$15,000). (Samaras, whom Kaplan characterizes as “one of the early bad boys of the fine art world,” is storied for persuading a blue-chip cast of dealers, collectors and other art world figures to pose nude for him in his studio.) And, Lee Friedlander’s 1965 black-and-white photograph Lone Star Café, Texas, which portrays the ghostly self-portrait shadow of Friedlander in the foreground, also failed to sell.

Why was Friedlander, a so-called traditional photographer who regularly appears in photography auctions, being included in this contemporary context? “He’s someone who’s recently crossed over, if you will, into the contemporary art marketplace,” explaines Kaplan, who mentions a recent Friedlander exhibition at the cutting-edge Andrea Rosen Gallery in the Chelsea art district, directly across town from Swann. “I call it cross-germination.”

Unfazed by the lackluster showing of the November sale, Swann plans to hold another contemporary auction in May. For now, at least, it is steering clear of some of the hottest artists of the 1990s, since that glitzy slice of the auction market is dominated by uptown giants Christie’s; Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg; and Sotheby’s, where the turnover is faster than “a blink of an eye,” according to Kaplan. “There’s plenty of great material by artists who may not be fixtures of the late 1990s contemporary art scene but are the really important artists of the 1960s through the ’80s.”

As to the kind of audience Swann is prospecting for, Kaplan came straight to the point. “We’re after an audience that has an interest in contemporary art but also is versed in photography, cinema and other art forms.”

Kaplan certainly fills that bill. The author of three photography books, she began her career in New York’s SoHo as an independant filmmaker and “performance artist,” exhibiting in avant-garde venues in New York City and Europe. “I was also making photographs but really couldn’t figure out what my particular hook was. I just knew I loved photography and contemporary art.”

After a fruitful and bohemian stint curating exhibitions on photographers, such as the social documentarian Lewis Hine, Kaplan entered the auction world at Swann in 1990 as a photography specialist. “It was literally a trial by fire. I never imagined working in a commercial environment, but I discovered I enjoyed being in the business world.” Kaplan says her favorite part of the business is “excavating” material and bringing it to market. Carving out a contemporary niche that showcases photo-based works is a natural progression for the hard-charging specialist.

Kaplan is well aware of contemporary art’s penchant for high-brow jargon and how easily those elitist mannerisms might turn off prospective buyers. She carefully treads this reporter’s question about how much knowledge a potential contemporary art collector needs to have about the subject before taking the plunge and bidding. She offers an analogy.

“Many times in the photography sales, we’ll see beginning collectors come and say, ‘I’m looking for a photograph of a cat’ or ‘I’m looking for a photograph of a nude,’ which is to say, their motivation is subject-oriented. They don’t know Cartier-Bresson’s name, they don’t know Brassai’s name. They are simply responding to the photographic image and impulsively determining, ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it.’ With contemporary art material, I think there is a level of sophistication that enters into it because it isn’t so literal and isn’t necessarily so figurative. In that way, it does require a different sort of collector.”

Seemingly unsatisfied with her initial response, Kaplan grapples with the question again. “The first order is to look at the art and see if you like it. If it turns out to be an artist you’re unfamiliar with or dying to learn more about, we can help you with that. It’s a multipronged experience, but in the end, what will determine a buyer’s interest in an item is whether or not it appeals to them on a visual and aesthetic level.”

For those interested in delving into the contemporary art field, a wealth of sources are available. Magazines such as Art & Auction, Artnews, Art in America, Artforum and Flash Art serve up gallery and museum artist reviews, features and trend pieces on current contemporary artists as well as historical figures. Artnet (www.artnet.com) is a comprehensive Web site that not only provides a digital magazine but an exhaustive database of auction prices (by subscription) on artists from Jean-Michel Basquiat to Andy Warhol.

Contemporary art galleries are another source of information for collectors, and developing a relationship with an experienced dealer can prove invaluable. New York is still considered the international art world capital and there are virtually hundreds of contemporary art galleries from which to choose. The monthly Art Now Gallery Guide (www.galleryguide.org) offers succinct listings, as do general interest magazines such as The New Yorker. For those searching for blue-chip galleries, the Art Dealers Association of America (www.artdealers.org) lists more than 100 members in New York and other prime member galleries throughout the United States. To be considered for membership, galleries must be in business for five years and “have a reputation for honesty and integrity in relations with the public, museums, artists and other dealers.”

Art fairs are also excellent venues for viewing a stunning variety of art and price ranges, such as The Armory Show 2002, which will feature some 150 international contemporary art galleries at Piers 88 and 90 in New York City from Feburary 21 to 25.

Collectors planning to acquire contemporary art via the auction route can also peruse auction catalogues, which provide abundant background information about the artists along with color reproductions of works being offered for sale. The major contemporary and Post-War sales take place at Christie’s; Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg; and Sotheby’s twice a year in New York, in May and November, while Christie’s and Sotheby’s stage such major sales in London, in February and June.

Swann’s initial sale wasn’t as glitzy as its better known rivals’, but it managed to inject a bit of flair nonetheless. A walk-through collecting seminar several days before the auction gave interested collectors “a kind of access to the material which they might not have [had] if just walking in blindly,” says Kaplan.

Taking an unsolicited swipe at her stuffier uptown competitors, the specialist notes, “We’re perceived as an accessible, friendly and informal house where the experts are available for questions, and we’ll continue with that policy because it works well with us.”

Judd Tully is the editor-at-large of Art & Auction Magazine and a frequent contributor to the London-based Antiques Trade Gazette and Masterpiece magazine.

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