Wall Decor for the 1%

It’s time for my semi-annual Modern and Impressionist art auction review. In the spring and fall I visit Christie’s gallery at Rockefeller Center to view the beautiful/horrible art up for auction. Thank Fog for pre-auction public viewings. These pieces are passing from one private collection to another. Once the auction is over, they’ll be squirreled away above a mantle in Beijing or Moscow or Dubai, never to be seen in public again. So you’ve got to look when you have the chance. Lets get right to it. I’ll start with the stuff I like and finish with the junk. As always, feel free to agree or disagree (if you must).

I dig Modigliani. I never tire of his hollow, empty eyes. If I could have anyone paint my portrait, I’d choose him. Jeune homme roux assis (1919).

modiglianiEst: $8,000,000-12,000,000. Sold for $17,637,000. Not bad.

This was one of the big-ticket paintings. Nymphéas by Monet (1907). One of his rare water lily paintings, it hung in the dining room of a reclusive heiress, unseen, for EIGHTY YEARS.

monet1Est: $25,000,000-35,000,000. Sold for $27,045,000

I dragged Daughter with me. We visited Christie’s before seeing a play starring her heartthrob, Daniel Radcliffe. That was the bait. She wanted to see Harry Potter on stage, I wanted to expose her to Martin McDonagh, my favorite contemporary Irish playwright, and show her some art. It was a fair exchange.


This is Jim Beam—J.B. Turner Train by Jeff Koons (1986). He’s nutty. In the good way. This is the same guy who made those giant balloon dog sculptures. This is made from stainless steel. It was mounted on a pedestal in the middle of a room with black walls. Bright lights beamed down on it. It was very shiny.

koonsEst: On Request. Oh, really?! Sold for $33,765,000

Portrait de femme (Dora Maar) by Picasso (1942). I tried to explain to Daughter how these are different views of the same woman. A composite. I don’t think she was buying my art-speak bullshit but you’ve got to try. The auction catalog said this was painted in one day. August 5, 1942.


Est: $25,000,000-35,000,000. Sold for $22,565,000

Tangotee by Ernst Kirchner (1919-21). I like this guy a lot. A good German expressionist painter. Kirchner is a recent discovery. I attended a Kirchner exhibit at the Guggenheim a couple of years ago and have been smitten ever since.

kirchnerEst: $1,000,000-1,500,000. Sold for $2,045,000

I’ve started to pay more attention to sculpture. This startling figure is Main crispee gauche avec figure implorante by Rodin (1907). Seems this woman is in peril. I wonder who the hand is supposed to be?


Est: $50,000-70,000. Sold for $50,000

Every auction has at least one fetching Rothko painting. Untitled (1952). I’d like this hanging on my wall at home. A lot of this stuff is nice to look at, but I couldn’t live with it. This piece would calm my ass down.

rothkoEst: On request. Egads! Not again!? Sold for $66,245,000

Three Studies for a Portrait of John Edwards by Francis Bacon (1984). Bacon is hot. [Ha. I did that on purpose.] Last fall, his triptych of Lucian Freud sold for $142,400,000, so now everyone who owns a Bacon thinks it’s a good time to sell. This is one of those pieces I love to look at but couldn’t live with.


Here’s a detail of the third painting.

Est: On Request. It’s an epidemic! Sold for $80,805,000. That’s a lot.

There’s always a healthy representation of Warhol. This is Race Riot (1964). It’s considered one of his more important works because of its serious subject matter. No celebrity glitz or transsexual fun here. Just a group of Birmingham cops setting the dogs lose on a lone black man. Red, white and blue. Same as old glory.


Est: On Request. All these ‘estimate on request’ pieces are giving me an inferiority complex. I can’t even ask what it costs?! The last thing I need is a new benchmark for my own mediocrity. Sold for $62,885,000.

From the left, Chagall’s La Fenêtre ($3,133,000), Miró’s L’étoile insaisissable ($3,637,000) and Léger’s Grande nature morte ($2,165,000). Daughter in the middle: priceless.

sam2Are you guys ready for some crap? Or, perhaps you feel you’ve already seen some. No matter. Onward. This is the stuff that makes me laugh. Once again, here’s proof positive that wealth is a lousy barometer for good taste. Hang in there for the shocking conclusion.

I’m going to try—like I do at every auction, year after year—to appreciate Jean-Michael Basquiat’s work. I’m going to wipe the slate clean reject all my preconceived notions, take a step back and study this. I’ll give it serious consideration. Untitled (1981).

basquiat2Est: $20,000,000-30,000,000. Sold for $34,885,000. Nope. Didn’t work. It’s still CRAP.

Untitled (1964) by Cy Twombly. Signed and dated ‘Cy Twombly 64’ lower center. WHERE?! I don’t see it.Oh…wait…I think I see a ‘4’. It’s crap.

twomblyEst: $5,000,000-7,000,000. Sold for $7,445,000

Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (712) (1990). Oh, how I hate Richter’s work. The very first time I laid eyes one of his paintings I hated it. And I don’t like this one, either. It’s lazy slop without any rhythm or emotion. I don’t understand it. I don’t want to understand it.

richterEst: $22,000,000-28,000,000. Sold for $29,285,000

Here it is, brothers and sisters. The one you’ve been waiting for. The worst of the worst. And that’s saying something. This is The Silent Sink (1984) by Robert Gober. The medium is plaster, wire, wood and semi-gloss enamel paint. It’s a sink. A fucking sink.

sinkEst: $2,000,000-3,000,000. Sold for $4,197,000. I have no witticisms for this. It makes me kind of sad, actually. It seems you can get to a point where you have so much money that you lose touch with reality. Four million. Give me a break. Thank God they didn’t give any of that money to poor people. They’d have just wasted it on stupid stuff, like food or housing.

63 thoughts on “Wall Decor for the 1%

  1. Really enjoyed this post and the opportunity to walk through the gallery with you in absentia – never would see these works otherwise. The Modigliani is my favourite from your list here I think. The prices paid are beyond comprehension…and makes me wonder whether monetary value can ever be a measure of emotional response. Instead it seems like Emotion has left the building and Exclusivity and Demand sit at the table, ever impatient, waiting for someone to serve them a soul filling meal.

    • Thanks! And welcome! Please wipe your feet. These works—especially the Modigliani—are more fetching in person. My photos are inadequate.

      It’s a different world. An unimaginable amount of money that’s well beyond anything I’ve experienced or ever will. I’m just grateful for the quick peek.

  2. Thank you for the guided gallery tour, very interesting. I’ll have to take you on a guided tour of the nearest gallery to me sometime which is the Turner Contemporary, ooh actually (and I hadn’t thought of this when I started mentioning that gallery), but I can show you a view from the window of the Turner Contemporary because I posted that on my blog a couple of years ago, here – http://vanessa-chapman.com/2012/03/25/my-week-in-pictures/ it’s a small picture but it opens up bigger if you click on it. Anyway, out of those that you have shown I would probably pick the Kirchner for my house…although my sink is cracked, so maybe the sink too.

    • I love your Turner pic! The others I that post, as well. Except, maybe, the eyeball. I’ve always wanted to visit the Turner Contemporary but it’s kind of far away. Perhaps one day.

      I was going to protest the banal nature of The Silent Sink by going back the next day and wash some dishes in it. I was going to insist it was a performance. Then I came to my senses.

      • The Turner Contemporary only opened in 2011 so it might not be that one you’re thinking of. It’s in Margate rather than London where our most famous galleries obviously are. The Turner Contemporary is good for the area because there’s nothing like that around, and they do a lot of outreach work with local schools.

  3. Art is wonderful but it should never be viewed with the dollar value because that just makes people like me defensive, angry and slightly nauseous. Nothing in this world should be worth that much. Let me put that another way: no one in this world should be able to pay that much. Strange we live in an age where people shout “Information wants to be free!” but good art is inaccessible and, in some cases, hidden away for 80 years!
    Thanks for the guided tour. Enjoyed it, rant notwithstanding.

    • I end up feeling like a jealous underachiever. In these auctions, the dollar figure transcends the art itself. It becomes a spending contest amongst the insanely wealthy.

      The ranting is my favorite part. It always is! The other stuff is just predatory to the rants.

  4. “She wanted to see Harry Potter on stage”—Good thing you didn’t take her to his first play where he was buck naked…

    I’m art illiterate, but I enjoyed your pics of the items.

    • Can you believe he did that?! Equus. I didn’t see it but I heard there were kids in the audience. The parents didn’t do their homework. They didn’t know about Potter’s wand.

      I take exception to your “illiterate” comment. Did you enjoy any of it? Think some was junk? That’s all that counts. Your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s.

  5. I loved this virtual museum visit. Saved me the $10 entrance donation.
    I agree completely with your likes/dislikes. I don’t know what to say about the sink. I mean I know what to say but it’s not very nice.

    • Here’s the awesome part about these pre-auction exhibits: they’re completely FREE. You just walk on in! And it’s never crowded. I don’t get it! If these showings were put on at The Met or MoMA, they’d be blockbusters. People would line up out the door. The exhibits are usually up for the five days prior to the auction. Keep a lookout.

  6. I like the Richter – it’s an abstract, it doesn’t have to mean anything. From your photograph it looks bright, colorful – it made me smile. It is very fluid and I immediately thought of reflections in water on a rainy day. Just delightful. I do agree with your other choices in the crap pile…

    • Hello, Grace! You and your opinions are welcome here. Glad to have you. We might not agree on Herr Richter’s work, but I think we can agree that it, like ALL the pieces here, both crap and not-crap, are grotesquely overpriced. (Or am I just jealous? Maybe a combo of each.)

  7. NotspamnotspamXXXXXXYYYYAASDDA

    The crap is certainly crap, but the sink is intriguing crap: it’s got a plughole but no taps. It makes me wonder how the water gets in. I bet you could think of a way of filling it. As for the Rothko, a second-hand rocking chair would calm your ass down for one-millionth of the price.

  8. I know that we’re all different, and we all have different perspectives on life, but I have to say i didn’t really like any of them.. Maybe the Modigliani, because it’s almost as good as my daughter’s painting when she was 12, and the stainless steel train is cool, but is it art of a train set? Does it move? or at least have smoke coming out of its chimney?

    The one exception may be the Rodin, but the f*cking sink takes the biscuit. How can anyone in their right mind pay that sort of money for a sink, AND I bet it leaks.

    I agree the money involved is obscene, but hey, the rich have always had their toys.

    I hope your wee daughter enjoyed her play and spurned the “art” with a teenager’s certainty.

    • I agree. The rich have ALWAYS appeared crazy to the masses. But, to me, there seems to be a difference between paying, say, $20M for a home or $250K for a car and paying these prices for this “art.” I can almost understand the other purchases. This, I just can’t wrap my mind around.

      I love that people check into the comment section and say “none of these work for me.” That’s beautiful. It’s always welcome here.

      I think my daughter pretended to be interested for my sake but, mostly, walked around detached. It’s still important to expose her to this stuff. It’ll kick in eventually. Maybe.

      • Actually, it makes at least as much economic sense to buy a $20 million Modigliani than a $20 million house. That painting could easily be worth $30-40 million in 10 years. The house… maybe, but someone can always build more expensive mansions, but no one will draw more Modiglianis.

      • That’s certainly one way to look at it. It’s true enough. From a purely investment standpoint, you’d be better off with a painting. But a house would be a more practical purchase. If it were up to me, I’d like a $20M painting to hang on the wall of my $20M house. If we’re going to dream, let’s dream big.

  9. Ah! How would I get my NY art fix without you? The train?Shiny, but if I spent all my money on the bling I couldn’t afford to pay a cleaner.No, I will not polish my own choo-choo!
    Once again, good to see these, but nothing I’d want to look at every day.Thanks,Mark

    • You can get your NY art fix the old fashioned way: get out here (again).

      Happy to oblige. People should know about the art world madness. They can use it as a benchmark for their own sanity and be grateful.

  10. Whoa Mark – that there’s some expensive stuff. Thanks very much for the vitual tour. I too am unlikely now to ever get a chance to see the real thing I really like the Abstraktes Bild . It looks like rainbow spirals underwater to me. I find it fascinating. The chrome train is also neat. The prices are unreal aren’t they?

    • I stand in front of these pieces and think of the enormous amount of cash they’ll generate and try to understand it all. They’re just pieces of canvas with paint on them. Some wooden frames. Some steel. Where is the value? What can you do with them? They have no practical application and yet, there they are. Tens of millions of dollars. I never get tired of this.

      • yeah, they can be beautiful but how does one value beauty? Of course, most of the value is about possession.

    • You chose well. I like it, too. All we need to do is come up with $1M each and we can split it. you can have it there from January through June and then you can ship it here to New Jersey for July to December.

  11. I’ll go out of my way to see Van Gogh, maybe Dali or Picasso, but most of this stuff didn’t do anything for me.
    I don’t have a large background in art, or its appreciation.

    But there wasn’t a whole lot here that grabbed me…

    • I take exception to your claim that you don’t have an appreciation. You don’t need a background in art or a specific education in order to appreciate it. I have NO background in art at all! I didn’t even go to college! But I spew my opinions all over the place. Your opinion is as valid as anyone’s. The fact that you weren’t impressed by a sink mounted on the wall makes you pretty astute in my eyes.

  12. I think I already shared some of my opinions on modern art on your blog, so I’ll just add a few more points.

    1) I started thinking “this is crap” a few pictures before you did.

    2) For a few million dollar painting, I think it’s very fair to ask that a painter actually spends a few minutes to give a name to their painting other than “Untitled”. Yeah, sure, they’re not getting any of these millions, but if they want to pretend that their work is art, and make us want to believe that it means something more than an assorted collection of random brushstrokes, name the damn thing. At least the sink guy did. If needed, I can offer my services naming these paintings for mere 5-10% commission.

    3) I interpret that Picasso painting as the first-ever portrait of Jar-Jar Binks from Star Wars rehash.

    • I’m glad you mentioned the title. I’ve ALWAYS had a problem with “Untitled.” I usually make a point to make fun of an artist and call him/her lazybones for not making the effort to at least provide a clue as to where their intention pointed. I left it out this time because I thought I was being a whiner. Now I feel validated. Thanks!

      I didn’t mind the Picasso until you spoiled it with your dead-right assessment of it looking like Herr Binks. Thanks a lot.

  13. You know there is something i like about Basquiat, though i can get something close if not better by giving the boyos some paint and telling them to go all medieval robot on the paper and of course it’s much cheaper… and i might have told you this but i recently found out i live about 10 minutes from Andy Warhola’s grave, here in the burgh we use his real last name, somewhere on the North Side you can still see an old painted advertisement for his family’s business on the side of a builiding.

    • I try to like Basquiat’s work but I get all wrapped up in his having thrown it all away on an OD. It’s an inexcusable waste. Do you know how many artists try to make it in the world? He beat insurmountable odds. I can’t see his work through my anger.

      Never mind Warhol’s grave. They just reopened the Warhol museum out there and it’s supposed to be pretty great. I’ve half a mind to stop in during one of my semi-annual drives to Clevo. Here’s an article the NY Times just posed about it:


      • The Warhol is a great place, they bring in alot of great music and exhibits, i used to pull the Exile and skip out of work and head over there in the afternoon and wander around, the Piet Mondrian exhibit was my favorite basically because of how much his work changed over the course of his life, it’s well worth the trip to check it out and there’s a spot where you can watch the archivists dig through all the boxes of shit that Warhol saved, there’s a clock on the wall that tells you what year they’ll be done sifting through Andy’s garbage… and who knows you may be the first person to actually catch a glimpse of El Kono in his natural habitat.

      • Good article, appears they have finally sifted through all his junk, i need to get back there soon.

      • Every time I drive east on 80 and pass that 76 exchange I think I should turn left and get my ass down to the Warhol museum. But we always seem to be on a compressed schedule. One of these days I’m going to force my family to walk through with me. If you’re ever there and you see a dude pulling two daughter and a wife with long, bored faces, stop and say hello.

  14. I dig the Rodin sculpture, but there’s a lot here that doesn’t do it for me. That said, these pre-auction viewings sounds awesome and remind me that I live in goddam Waterloo Ontario, where artwork is typically replicated across our seven Starbucks.

    • It’s nice to see a Rodin that’s not “The Thinker.” That’s a nice enough piece but he did other stuff too, didn’t he?

      The good folks of Waterloo, Ontario, have a lot more common sense than the dopes who buy this junk. Waterloo keeps it real. NYC keeps it real stupid.

  15. I’ve never understood the art world. Way back when I was friends with some people who kept up on it– they described to me a paper lunch bag with a doughnut inside (it was “art”) that sold for an obscene amount of money. Wouldn’t that doughnut get moldy and attract bugs? I mean wouldn’t it all decay into compost eventually, even if in a glass case?

    If I had a ton of money to spend on art I’d open a museum of comic book art– that would be a hit with the school field trips.

    • There’s a guy named Julian Schnable who made a pile of money selling “plate” paintings. Bits of plates were glued to canvases. A few years later, they started falling off the canvas. Hilarious. The opposite of paintings that have lasted hundreds of years.

      Do you know who Jack Kirby is? I’d like an original Jack Kirby. The original art for the first appearance of Wolverine just sold for $660K.

  16. The Rodin sells for $50,000 and that Sink for $4 million???? HELP ME OH LORD!!!!

    Talk about ‘I don’t get it’…..And the Basquiate? Crap, Indeed. I don’t get him and I never will. I’ll be honesty…..I really didn’t care for any of this group, except the Rodin.

    • What? You don’t like the $33M choo-choo train? Do you know what that makes you?


      I don’t mind the Rothko. I think it could disappear into the background and have a subliminal calming effect on you. Until you thought about what you paid for it. That would negate any calm the painting afforded you.

  17. I like Modligliani because there is a simplicity yet deep energy to his work. Also like Kirchner. I have 2 Rothko prints in my house – I find them soothing. Don’t like Bacon unless it’s in a sandwich and whilst I find Picasso interesting and stimulating I also find it uncomfortable. I do like the ‘Abstraktes Bild’ by Richter as it is like a sea of blurred vision.

    I can appreciate the effort or feeling behind any piece of art but it’s always subjective except for the silent sink….WTF?

    • I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a Modigliani that I didn’t like at least a little bit. How’s THAT for consistency?!

      Ah. See my response above this one regarding Rothko. Great minds think alike. You and I are obviously in simpatico with one another. If you ever make it to New York, look me up and I’ll show you some impressive Rothkos.

  18. Ah… poor Robert Gober! I quite like some of his stuff. It’s eighties postmodernist work referring to Duchamp, or somesuch… of its time etc. And he made his sinks by hand… this isn’t a mass produced sink… not Armitage Shanks, and they were often part of larger installations, this might have been mounted on a wall painted with a forest scene.
    But I agree… the prices are all extremely stupid.

    • Funnily enough, I just read that Gober just participated in a charitable event. Artists, actors, photographers, etc., were all given disposable Instamatic cameras. They all filled them with photos, autographed them and they’re up for auction. If you want to know what they took photos of, you have to buy the camera. The big bid item is the camera by James Franco. I think that’s up to several hundred dollars or something like that. I’m glad Gober has a charitable heart but the sink is awful–hand fashioned or not.

  19. Oh my gosh. I was staring at the prices going like, “What?! No way! I mean, did I see it…*closes eyes and opens them again*…I saw it correctly.”

    That is A LOT of cash for art work. I don’t even know what I’d do if one of my paintings would sell for that much.

    Loved seeing this though and walking around with you, staring at the pieces. That sink though…I mean, seriously?!

    • It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? I think a lot of those people are wrapped-up in spending millions on art and not so much into the art itself.

      I think in order for a artist’s painting to sell for that kind of scratch, they have to be dead. Most (all?) of the artist represented are long gone. Well…Koons is still alive. Also, Gober. The idiot with the sink.

  20. Well this was a really interesting look at some amazingly expensive art. It’s amazing also that so many people can agree that a painting could be worth millions and millions of dollars. It reminds me of the Emperors New Clothes.

    I liked the first one best. I would pay a couple hundred dollars for that one. I also like the dancers. That one I would pay $50 for depending on the frame. The Monet is disappointingly boring. I like him though. I would definitely like the sink better if it had a blueberry stain.

    • Your comments are as funny as your posts. A blueberry stain?! God! Where do you get this stuff from?

      You should look into Modigliani’s work. You’d really like it. I’d definitely cough up a few hundy for it. I wouldn’t buy that Basquiat no matter how deep the discount. You should also smoke a big fatty and then look at the Monet. See what you think then.

      • Oh so Monet is actually the very first magic eye art! Well now this is getting interesting!

        I will definitely check out Modigliani! Gonna google him right now.

  21. I always have Monet in my bedroom and I’m with you on Modigliani.
    Is it possible to be in love with a dead sculptor? I was – in the sixties – with Rodin.
    Sink or pissoir? There are no taps. One of the many artists taking the aforementioned I think.

  22. I’ll be honest – I don’t think any of this is worth what it goes for. Not even close. And I know there’s a bigger system (similar to the fashion industry) where having meteoric prices for this kind of art trickles down to the possibility that some barely-known artists might actually make a living… but still. 80 million dollars? I believe that if you’ve earned that kind of cash, you should do with it whatever you wish, but I simultaneously believe that if you’re not using at least a large chunk of it to help people in truly desperate straits, you’re just a crappy human being. Who knows. Maybe these collectors are philanthropists as well – I shouldn’t assume they aren’t. I personally get riled up because I just don’t care one bit that Monet painted those water lilies – I think they’re bland as all get-out. Maybe I just don’t “get” it.

    I do love Rothke for a house, but I can re-create that in a fun stay-at-home art night date. And sculpture has always reached much deeper into my soul than painting – I think it’s the fact that I could – hypothetically, if there were no guards – actually feel every angle of the emotion the artist was trying to convey.

    • The whole reason I do these semi-annual art auction posts is for the outrage factor. Who, in their right mind, spends this kind of money on paint and canvas? Some of it is quite awful but that doesn’t seem to deter them. Money is a funny thing. The amounts are relative. It’s unimaginable to you and I but it could very well be that $80M is affordable to someone. They’re out there somewhere.

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