May 13, 2009 / 2:59 AM / in 8 years

Bidders respond to lower prices for contemporary art

<p>A woman walks out of a room containing Jeff Koons' "Baroque Egg With Bow" sculpture at Sotheby's in New York May 1, 2009.Lucas Jackson</p>

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The first spring sale of contemporary and postwar art saw a fairly solid result on Tuesday as Sotheby's and its clients adjusted to a scaled-down art market struggling with smaller auctions and sharply lower prices.

The sale's $47 million total including commission fell just shy of its low pre-sale estimate of $52 million, with 81 percent of the 48 lots on offer finding buyers.

Sotheby's officials said they were pleased by the result, despite the sale's having come in at less than half the take just six months ago.

"The contemporary art market is alive and well" and "has responded to the recalibration," said Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art, and the auctioneer.

Officials pointed out that the sale moved some 80 percent of its offerings, by both number of works and their cumulative dollar value, versus the autumn sale when the figure was closer to two-thirds.

"We've seen a pullback in prices of course," Meyer said, but not in activity. New buyers have joined an increasingly international bidding pool, while 25 percent of Tuesday's prices came in above the high estimates, he said.

In contrast, bidders at the November sales "got to the low estimate and just stopped," said senior international specialist Anthony Grant. "The ground feels a little bit more solid now."

Both Sotheby's and rival Christie's tried to keep estimates conservative and secure works that have never or rarely been offered at auction.

Tuesday's sale saw reasonably lively bidding, with several lots drawing up to half a dozen active bidders.

The top lot, Jeff Koons' "Baroque Egg With Bow (Turquoise/Magenta)" sold for $5.5 million, but that was still short of the low estimate, hinting that buyers are still flinching at large cash outlays.

On the other hand, Martin Kippenberger's untitled self-portrait from 1988 fetched $4,114,500, smashing the record for the German artist who had major recent retrospectives at the Tate Modern and the Museum of Modern Art.

Alexander Calder's "Ebony Sticks in Semi-Circle," one of the artist's seminal mobiles, also did well, selling for $3.5 million or more than three times the low estimate.

Among casualties were works by Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Gober, estimated around $5 million and $3 million respectively.

The auctions wrap up on Wednesday with Christie's sale of post-war and contemporary art.

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