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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Fantasy Shopping for a Joan Mitchell

Every auction season I go fantasy shopping—looking for things that I would love to own but that are far beyond my reach. I typically look for strong examples of favorite artists’ work that is scaled to my small New York apartment. It’s harder than you might imagine to find pieces that fit this bill. The Judd I mentioned recently is one example.

Lee BontecouAnother example is the Lee Bontecou wall relief that Christie’s sold in the fall of 2003 (right). The piece was part of MoMA curator Dorothy Miller’s personal collection, and it had hung in her New York apartment for years. Several works, actually, in Miller’s collection meet my criteria. She had what I think was a perfect Franz Kline—just big enough to give a sense for the majesty of his grand paintings, but small enough to fit comfortably in a living room with eight-foot ceilings.

Since her traveling retrospective a few years ago, Joan Mitchell’s work is coming up for auction more frequently than it used to. Mitchell’s small work doesn’t usually fit the criteria I have for a great apartment piece because Mitchell didn’t always scale her work down very well. (Not many artists who work large do it well, actually.) Most of the small Mitchell paintings that I have seen feel different than her large canvases because she used the same sized brushes on the diminutive work that she used on her more sizable paintings. As a result, the relationship between the individual brushstroke and the whole canvas has a completely different feel in the small pieces than it does in the large.

Joan Mitchell, 1953I haven’t liked most of the small Mitchell work that has come to market in recent seasons, but Sotheby’s has an early piece of hers going on the block this week that is just about perfect (at right). For this 19 x 16 inch canvas, Mitchell sized down her brushstrokes to retain the same scale relationship to the canvas that her larger paintings have. It’s that adjustment that makes the piece work so well. It doesn’t just feel like Joan Mitchell working on a small canvas. It feels like a small Joan Mitchell canvas.

I was intrigued enough by the piece to ask one of Sotheby’s art handlers to show me the back of the canvas at the preview last weekend because I was surprised that Sotheby’s was listing the year of execution as 1953. The piece appeared to me to be in a style that Mitchell didn’t really perfect until a few years later. I wondered if there were any markings on the inverse side that would confirm or deny my suspicious.

When I got a peek at the back (below left), I immediately saw what I was looking for—what appears to be an original label from the Stable Gallery confirming that the piece was painted in 1953 (below right). I also noted that the gallery label listed the original asking price for the work: $125. My immediate thought was that with a current auction estimate of $40,000-$60,000 someone had done very well with that investment.

Click to enlarge this image Click to enlarge this image

When I returned home after the preview, I decided to figure out just how well the piece had actually performed for its single owner over the last 50-odd years. I was surprised by what I found when I ran some numbers.

Next: why art isn't a great long term investment, even when it appreciates significantly.

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