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Art: Thumbs Under the Hammer

2 minute read

Gentle, high-minded and peaceable stands the artist at his easel, mind, heart and soul intent on creation. Shrewd, suspicious and materialistic stands the artist in the marketplace, protecting his interests with a zeal that would make a pawnbroker blush. The most meaningful U.S. marketplace is the auction room at Parke-Bernet Galleries in Manhattan; and when Parke-Bernet announced for last week an end-of-season clearance sale of modern masters that promised to set prices, the art world got alert.

The loudest fury raged around three paintings presented as works of Jackson Pollock. The Van Gogh of the abstract expressionists has sold in private dealings of his best work for more than $100,000; a price sharply below that could hurt the Pollock market. His widow, Painter Lee Krasner, who owns many Pollocks, dropped in anxiously on Parke-Bernet to see the works. She pronounced that her husband never dripped these and hurried off to the state attorney general’s office to sign a restraining order to stop the sale. Parke-Bernet had no alternative but to withdraw the paintings.

That act, of course, trod hard on the toes of the consigner, a California artist named Manuel B. Tolegian. Though his own work is stolidly academic, he claims that Pollock was a high school chum, a “constant companion,” and a co-worker in the 1930s. He, for one, stood behind their authenticity 100%. How could Mrs. Pollock judge the paintings, he asked, when they were done before she knew the artist? “I didn’t even know Pollock had a wife until recently,” added Tolegian innocently.

There were two other withdrawals. A rather Hartleyesque still life, signed M. H., was blacklisted by a New York expert who knows Marsden Hartley. Then a bumbling Franz Kline was yanked because its owner could not be reached to defend it.

Lost in the shuffle were the prices that other modern works set; most were lower than dealers hoped. A Milton Resnick abstraction brought only $550. A 1948 semiabstract De Kooning brought $9,000. Abstract expressionists won no enthusiasm. A huge Mathieu went for a paltry $5,250. Hartigan hit $3,000 but had a low of $700; Okada hit $2,000, Marca-Relli $3,000. The real surprise of the evening was a quiet, 1952 still life of ceramic ware, plain as a cupboard and less abstract than a Cezanne, by 73-year-old Giorgio Morandi. Winning bid: $9,500.

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