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5 Bargains the cockerels left behind at major auction houses

It was ball again just before summer at Christie's, Sotheby's, Phillips and Bonhams. Contemporary art auctions are the showpieces of see-and-be-seen. And the place to throw loads of money. For the happy few, in other words. Or better: a pissing contest for men (mostly - really - men) who get the measure of hedge funds and mega-corporations. Score-driving, in other words; en plein public, in optima forma.

Cockiness led to a Basquiat sale for 105 million euros. Basquiat is 'hot'. There is not a whole lot of quality material in his oeuvre of high-museum level. At least: This is how museums find . And collectors for a long time too. But then Johnny Depp finds himself in money trouble over his divorce from Amber Heard. Depp needs cash and so the actor sells a pair of Basquiats from his collection. Depp is cool. As a score-hunting rooster, you want to be. That's why you grab what you can from that cool factor: Basquiat.

Depp's Basquiats are not among the man's best work, but fetch nice prices. The canvas coming under the hammer this spring is among the few top works by the artist who died early. And then it becomes a summation of Depp's cool, Basquiat's hip-hype and inherent relative quality of the work within the oeuvre, plus of course: beating each other up among the super-rich. And lo and behold: the headline-winning hammer price of $105 million - one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction, by one of the least acclaimed artists.

At auctions, you can also find a lot of nice works for much less money. Those works (often wrongly) do not make the headlines. Therefore, I scrutinise the catalogues to find a selection of 'bargains' for less than 1% of the Basquiat's hammer price.

Jan Schoonhoven - R72-19, hammer price €217,000

After a very successful exhibition at David Zwirner in New York Jan Schoonhoven is more than ever in the interest of American collectors. This 1972 relief with square squares of white papier mâché is a masterful example of the Dutch postman's imperfectly finished minimalist touch. The play of light and shadow, the repetition, the simplism and yet the human hand that remained visible: R72-19 was immediately appreciated and went away for more than double its estimated value at Phillips in London.

Richard Serra - Left Corner Square to the Corner (Five Sided), hammer price € 201,960

Drawings by Richard Serra are part of the permanent collections of the Stedelijk and Bonnefanten in our country. They are large areas of Belgian linen that the artist has covered with thick low paintstick. You see the waxy layer in relief on the canvas and can follow the movement of the draughtsman's hand. At the same time, Serra's works take possession of space. They do so much so that as a viewer, you have to conquer your place; calibrating your relationship to the work again and again.

You might find the tension and energy in his drawings especially where it touches the wall - the black to white and vice versa. Now on show at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, also at immense size. Those who wanted to ask themselves at home whether the pentagon rises or sinks into the corner had to take a little more than its estimated value for this monumental work at Sotheby's in New York.

Photo: © 2017 Wolfgang Tillmans / Christie's

Wolfgang Tillmans - Silver 115, hammer price €90,350

About four square metres in size, Wolfgang Tillmans' Silver 115 pulses like Mark Rothko's sfumato planes captured in a photographic plane. Your eye shoots back and forth between out-of-focus and flawlessly captured details. What you see is not clear at a glance. To this, Tillmans wraps a flickering play of coloured light around it. For Tillmans, too, a major retrospective at TATE works wonders. You didn't see much of his work at the big auctions, but this season Tillmans' photographs were present in the catalogues more than once. Enigmatic and intense, Silver 115 speaks volumes for the abstract side of the acclaimed top photographer's work.

Isa Genzken - Kinder Filmen I, hammer price €347,350

Interest in Isa Genzken's work is increasing with a number of recent major retrospectives (including at the Municipal) is slowly increasing. Her work, which used to have minimalist traits and is always full of biographical elements, is also on the rise in the trade. Kinder Filmen I is a large museum-quality sculpture that recalls the John McCracken-like clear line of plates against a wall. And at the same time, Genzken manages to literally draw connections to her childhood.

Notions of innocence: searching and perhaps not finding, she cleverly combines with the mirrored planes in which we - adult, now and she herself too - face our likeness. Conversely too: the now in mirror image and how much of it is still child or the film of our youth that we imagine and keep replaying? In short: this later work sums up the varied style of Genzken's work in a sculpture of particular importance in her oeuvre.

Eduardo Chillida - Lurra XXIII, hammer price €111,000

At Bonhams in London, you have to do a bit of weeding through the somewhat lesser work of the lesser gods. You soon end up with nicely tried but unoriginal pastiches on the work of, say, Sam Francis. However, this sculpture by Eduardo Chillida, despite its small size of 20x13x12 cm, stands out. Executed in terracotta, the sculpture harbours an understated tension. It is a force that seems to bind and press together while bursting outwards. A primalness moreover, not least where Chillida shows himself indebted to the art of great, ancient civilisations from the Americas, for example. Chillida's works are being fought over and then the hammer price of just above the highest estimate is not too bad.

Photo: © 2017 Barbara Kruger / Sotheby's.

After the intense (and sometimes frantic) bidding frenzy at major auctions, the question remains whether Barbara Kruger may have been absolutely right. Her Untitled (2011) went at Sotheby's for more than twice the top estimate. Right or not; her work thus also happily thunders along in the merry-go-round of the top auction market for contemporary art.

Next auction season, I will again go bargain hunting at the Big Four. Report will, of course, follow here.

Sven Schlijper-Karssenberg

Sets his ear to places he does not yet know in today's sound. Writes the catalogue raisonné of Swedish artist Leif Elggren's oeuvre, is a board member of Unsounds and programmes music at GOGBOT Festival. His essays on sound art have appeared on releases by Pietro Riparbelli, Michael Esposito, Niels Lyhnne Løkkegaard and John Duncan.View Author posts

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