Thursday, July 8, 2010


Marilyn Monroe's chest, x-ray, 1954, sold at Julien's Auction "Hollywood Legends" sale on June 27, 2010 for $45,000

One of the most talked about auction lots in recent weeks was the set of Marilyn Monroe chest x-rays that sold at the Hollywood Legends auction run by Julien's Auction at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. The selling price was $45,000. It seems that even the auctioneers were surprised by the figure as their estimated price was $800-$1000. Also, in Julien's Auction press release about the sale, the x-rays are just briefly mentioned while an entire paragraph is devoted to the therapy couch Monroe used in her doctor's office from 1960 until the time of her death.

When I first read about this auction I wondered about the provenance of the x-rays. With a selling price this strong, I assumed the proof of successive history of ownership was pretty solid but I was eager to find out exactly how the x-rays were obtained. According to news reports, the x-rays were taken in November 1954 at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Florida and prove Monroe was suffering from endometriosis. According to London's telegraph newspaper, a young doctor obtained the x-rays for use in classes he taught at the center. When the doctor died, his daughter inherited the x-rays and put them up for sale. Although Monroe was in the process of divorcing Joe Di Maggio, the name on the x-rays read "Marilyn Di Maggio".

I also wondered how the auction house came to its estimate. Certainly an item like this is a little more unusual but was there anything of "like, quality, and kind" in which to compare? Certainly there have been many artists producing x-rays of flowers, still life, and other objects and turning them into fine quality photographs. A good example of this is the photograph below created by Helmut Newton of a hand wearing a Van Cleef & Arpels Diamond Bracelet. In April of 2010 this silver gelatin print sold at Phillips de Pury & Company for $18,000.

Newton was a famous German-Australian fashion photographer who's work was seen in magazine's like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. Despite the artist's fame, it is not a good comparable. Although the image is of an x-ray the actual medium is a silver gelatin print photograph. Next, it is important to point out that there is an arm and a hand in the x-ray but the actual subject is the very expensive bracelet worn by the hand. In the case of the Monroe x-ray, it can be assumed that the primary attraction was not the person taking the x-ray but the actual subject of the x-ray. Therefore, a better and more logical comparable would be a different x-ray of Monroe or another equally famous person which has sold at auction. Believe it or not, such an x-ray exists. On September 4, 2008 the "Fame Bureau" in Dartford England sold the below x-ray of Elvis Presley's arm. Because Elvis lived during the same period as Monroe and is arguably just as famous as Monroe, this x-ray is a good comparable. The selling price on that day was £3,500 (approx. $5,300).

Finally, it is important to note all of the media attention this auction received in advance of the sale. From serious news organizations to comedy parody shows (see the Stephen Colbert coverage here), the attention surrounding these x-rays created a buzz that could not have been achieved otherwise. Although media coverage is not something appraisers usually discuss in relation to valuing objects, the effect of the media coverage and the excitement it creates should not be ignored. It would be impossible to look at an auction result of $45,000 for chest x-rays and not to acknowledge the effect of such publicity. Or, in the words of Stephen Colbert, "Good for you, whoever is making money selling a dead woman's private gynecological X-rays."

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


On July 10, the 100 artworks of "The Vadar Project" will be auction at Freeman's in Philadelphia. The works, created by artists from the underground art scene as well as notable pop and surrealist artists will be sold beginning at 12:00 p.m. According to the press release, many of the lots will begin at $1,500. Most estimates range from $3,000-$5,000 with a few lots estimated to potentially reach $8,000-$15,000. Although the sale follows a ten day auction preview in Los Angeles, the exhibit has actually been touring the world since its premier in 2007. The exhibit was curated by Dov Kelemer and Sarah Jo Marks of DKE Toys.

The Vadar Project is a good example of an auction that will appeal to a wide variety of collectors. Those interested in Star Wars and toy memorabilia, pop art and underground collectors, as well as those who collect the works of individual artists.


JOSH AGLE (SHAG), (B. 1962), Darth Tipua, Estimate: $4000 - 6000

ANTHONY AUSGANG, (B. 1959), Darth Vader is Gay, Estimate: $3000 - 5000

JOE HAHN, (B. 1977), The Revenge of Mr. Hahn, Estimate: $8000 - 10000

WADE LAGEOSE LAGEOSE DESIGN, (B. 1966), Untitled, Estimate: $10000 - 15000

PLASTICGOD, (B. 1973), Praise the Lord, Estimate: $10000 - 15000
CAMERON TIEDE, (B. 1972), Darth InvadedEstimate: $3000 - 5000

Saturday, June 12, 2010


Parody (also called send-up or spoof), in contemporary usage, is a work created to mock, comment on, or poke fun at an original work, its subject, author, style, or some other target, by means of humorous, satiric or ironic imitation. -Wikipedia

Damien Hirst is a British artist best known for cutting up animals and displaying them in "vitrines". In the 1990s he became one of the leading figures of the "Young British Artists" and shot to fame with the help of "super collector" Charles Saatchi

Parody has a long history in art. From political cartoons of politicians to humorous paintings of self-aggrandizing individuals, artists have used their medium and their wit to call attention to the absurdities of those who they deem ridiculous, who take themselves too seriously, or who commit heinous and unconscionable acts. In recent years, parody has again taken a front seat in popular culture. Television shows like the Colbert Report (which mocks popular political pundits) to the Simpsons (which satirizes everything from the family to celebrities) have hit a nerve with the public. In these shows, "wit" is directy toward "folly".

Julie Harvey, Charles Saatchi, 2005

Charles Saatichi was the cofounder of Saatchi and Saatchi advertising agency until 1995. He is known as a "super collector" and owner of Saatchi Gallery. He helped boost the careers of many artists including Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Similarly, a few artists have begun to create works which poke fun of the things that they deem worthy. A good example of this are Julie Harvey's "Go-Go Nudes", a series created in 2005. In these paintings, Harvey parodies big name artists, art dealers, and art promoters to spotlight them as media hounds and sensationalists. She does this by creating naked portraits of the subjects in silly poses. At the time of their creation, Harvey also created what one could think of as an interactive performing art piece choreographed to compliment the paintings. On March 11. 2005 Ms. Harvey hosted an art show entitled "Julie Harvey's Go-Go Party". It can be found here but is best described as an Austin Powers extravaganza with actors and dancers who schmoozed with guests. "
Julie Harvey, Tony Shafrazi, 2005

Tony Shafrazi is the owner of Shafrazi Art Gallery in New York. Although he handles the works of many art luminaries such as Francis Bacon and Keith Harring, he is best known for spray painting "Kill Lies All" on Picasso's Guernica. He said he did this to protest the commuted sentence of William Calley (who was sentenced for his role in the My Lai massacre) by Richard Nixon. Later, Shafrazi became the Shah of Iran's art advisor and assembled a 20th century collection on his behalf.

What does all of this have to do with appraising and valuing art? The fact is, every person involved in putting a value on items must understand what is going on in the marketplace as well what trends are becoming "hot" in popular culture. To understand the marketplace, appraisers must understand what subjects interest those who are willing to buy art. Although Julie Harvey's series, Go-Go Nudes caters to those who "know" the art world, it also speaks to the larger popular trend of "parody".

In case you are wondering, Julie Harvey's works range from $7,000-$14,000 depending on size. Her work is carried at Bernarducci Meisel Gallery on West 57th Street in New York. You can find it by clicking on "featured artists" here.

Saturday, May 29, 2010


Jasper Johns, Flag-Moratorium, 1969, offset color lithograph
Clients often ask for more details relating to the medium of their work. Most people understand different types of painting methods but are often confused about the processes involved in creating prints. It is important for any collector to understand how their work was made. The more familiar you are with the work of an artist and his working method, the less likely you will be to purchase something that isn't what it is purported to be. Lithography is one of the more complicated processes because it has changed and advanced so many times over the years.
At first, lithographs were made by drawing an image into wax which was applied to lithographic stone and then that image was transferred onto paper. Today, the process of lithography is still similar to the older process but the materials artists and printers employ are different. Instead of wax, today's artists usually use polymer which is applied to an aluminum plate. The image is then printed directly from the plate onto the paper. In the case of offset lithography, the process is different still. Modern offset lithography depends on printing plates which are coated with a photosensitive emulsion. The printer puts the image and the emulsion in contact and then exposes it to ultraviolet light. In the printing press, the plate roles against a rubber coated blanket and the image is then transferred to the paper.
During the 20th century, lithography was re-discovered as an art form by artists such as Picasso, Chagall, and Miro. Mourlot Studios in Paris began to encourage artist to work on lithographic stones which could be produced in small numbers and then used to advertise the work of the artists. During the 1960s, Jasper Johns began to use lithography to produce the majority of his prints.

The offset lithographic print above by Jasper Johns from 1969 is entitled, Flag-Moratorium and is a color offset lithograph measuring 17.1" X 25.9". It is number 107 from and edition of 300. It will be auctioned in Germany on June 12, 2010. The estimate in US dollars for this work is $8,677 - $11,156.
You can view the auction here.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


The "style and spirit" sale held by Christie's (South Kensington, London) held on February 23, 2010 lived up to it's name. In a surprise result, an 1840s stuffed crocodile in a William IV period mahogany and glass cabinet on casters sold for $17,495.
Although this type of display may seem like a relic of the past, the concept has, in fact, been reinvented in today's world. No longer just an object of interest, stuffed or preserved animals have become "art objects". The most notable example of this are the pieces by controversial British artist Damien Hirst. Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living from 1991 depicting a preserved Tiger Shark in a glass case was sold to the hedge-fund billionaire Steven A. Cohen for $8 million and is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One can't help but believe that Hirst was influenced by 19th century displays of preserved animals. In turn, the enthusiasm surrounding Hirst's work has created new interest in the older natural history displays.

Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damien Hirst

Sunday, February 14, 2010


L'Homme Qui Marche by Alberto Giacometti at auction

Newspapers and art journals have been screaming. "Alberto Giacometti Sculpture Breaks Auction Record", A Touch of Fame Works its Magic in the Market", "Giacometti: The plot thickens over spending man", "Giacometti Auction: Sotheby's Business Model Wins Again" and "Sotheby's Historic Sale". Of course these headlines are all referring to the the sale of L'Homme Qui Marche I" (Walking Man I), which sold on February 3, 2010 for a record breaking $65 million pounds. But what does such a sale mean for the art market and why did it happen now.

All of the hubbub surrounding the sale is great PR for Sotheby's and for the art market in general. But who would pay such a high price for the sculpture and why now? It is true that in the last five years Giacometti prices have been rising. It is also true that in the last year record prices have been set for sculptures by the artists Rodin, Brancusi and Degas. Perhaps one can conclude that a group of wealthy buyers are playing the "my sculpture is bigger than your sculpture" game. Certainly part of paying such an exorbitant sum is creating a stir and stroking the ego of the wealthy collector. After all, money not only buys taste in the art world, it often creates it.

But another, more complicated and compelling answer may be the real one and it goes back to the auction house PR machine. In order to generate buzz and create a sale, auction houses often begin calling around to their short list of wealthy and willing buyers. In his article Bait and Switch Charlie Finch, a writer with artnet magazine sums it up this way, "The game is simple: when museum holdings of great value cannot be sold, buyers at auction are not compelled to be identified and auction houses have willing arts journalists ready to sell the sucker public on another astounding record, which could easily have been pre-arranged to goose the market and provide a nice dividend to the auction firms, true value and the discerning eye which drives it cease to exist."

So this begs the question, is the art market actually rebounding? The simple answer is 'yes'. However, the more complicated and realistic answer is 'sort-of'. If you ask around at art galleries and smaller auction houses they will likely tell you that their overall sales have gone up a little or stayed exactly the same. Since the majority of items sold in any given year are not over the $1 million mark the real market is still in flux-a fact not surprising given the continuing state of our economy.