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Inside Art

Out of the Guggenheim's Core

Is the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum selling off its history?

The museum's curators don't think so. But Gary Snyder, owner of Snyder Fine Art, a gallery on West 57th Street in Manhattan, is happily capitalizing on their actions, however they are defined.

Mr. Snyder's current show, "The Museum of Non-Objective Painting, American Abstract Art," which is on view at 20 West 57th Street through May 11, features work by artists like Rolph Scarlett, Rudolf Bauer and Hilla Rebay from the 1930's and 40's.

Their work formed the core of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which opened in 1939 at 24 East 54th Street to showcase Mr. Guggenheim's collection of abstract art and was the forerunner of the Guggenheim Museum, which opened in 1959.

More than half of the 28 paintings and works on paper in Mr. Snyder's show are from the Guggenheim's original collection. Many were sold by the museum to Steve Lowy, a private dealer in Manhattan, over the last decade. Mr. Lowy has put them in Mr. Snyder's show on consignment.

For a museum to sell art privately rather than at public auction is unusual. To avoid conflicts of interest and criticism, most institutions decide to sell their art in a public arena.

"We've deaccessioned both publicly and privately," said Lisa Dennison, a curator at the Guggenheim. "The museum was approached by a dealer who said there was tremendous interest in these works, so we examined our holdings. We also spoke to both Sotheby's and Christie's but felt that selling privately would be more lucrative."

Mr. Lowy declined to comment on his dealings with the Guggenheim, saying that the transactions he makes with his clients are confidential.

Ms. Dennison would not specify how much money the museum made from the sale of the paintings, but she said that the Guggenheim sold 24 works in a group and that the money was put into a fund for art purchases.

Mr. Snyder, noting that the market for this kind of art is growing, said 14 works from his current show had been sold.

He added that he believed the Guggenheim officials who decided what works the museum would sell might "not have the best eye."

"To let go of a Scarlett like this," he said, referring to "Composition," a colorful painting from 1938-39, "is to ignore the roots of Abstract Expressionism. But they don't consider this historical period to be of any value. They don't think this stuff can compete with Abstract Expressionists or European modernism."

"In every case, we still have huge holdings by these artists," Ms. Dennison said. "We are not overlooking our history."

Sotheby's as Financial Service

Sotheby's wants everyone to know it is still a center for one-stop shopping. So don't be surprised if an advertising brochure called "A Capital Idea" drops out of your Sotheby's auction catalogue.

While the flyer (the first since 1988) may be new, the service being advertised isn't. The auction house offers loans to clients, using artwork they plan to sell as collateral. (Sotheby's will lend up to 40 percent of its lowest estimate of the work's value at auction.) It will make loans against an art collection even if the owner isn't planning to sell. It also arranges financing in advance of a sale if the potential buyer owns other works of art that can be used as collateral.

When Sotheby's began its financial services company in 1988, it made loan commitments to potential buyers of objects coming up at auction, with the object itself as collateral. That practice ended in January 1990, after it received unwelcome publicity over a loan it made to the Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond. Mr. Bond bought van Gogh's "Irises" for $53.9 million, but the auction house lent him $27 million to help pay for it. Mr. Bond defaulted on his payments and "Irises" was later sold to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif.

At the height of the art market, Sotheby's had outstanding loans totaling $250 million. After the stock market crashed in 1987, some clients are believed to have defaulted, although Sotheby's will not discuss the matter. In any event, the company made a concerted effort to reduce its financial services and by 1992 its loan portfolio had decreased to about $100 million.

Now it's growing again, and has reached about $150 million, Sotheby's officials say. "We intentionally got more conservative," said Mitchell Zuckerman, president of Sotheby's Financial Services in New York. "But now more clients are asking for the service." He added that Sotheby's charges "a target range of prime plus 3 to 4 percent."

"In a compelling case, for instance, for a large and particularly attractive deal, we might lower that rate a bit," he said. "If we are going to charge more than a bank it is maybe 1 percent and we can deal with the art collateral quickly."

Christie's also offers its clients a financial cushion, but in a more low-key fashion. Patricia G. Hambrecht, its managing director in North and South America, said the company would tailor financial services for consignor loans. But she added, "We are generally not in the business of lending money against works of art that are not intended for sale."

The Return of the Middle Market

For the first time in five years, the middle market -- works priced from $100,000 to $1 million -- formed a solid foundation at Sotheby's sale of Impressionist and modern art on Wednesday night in Manhattan. The auction totaled $64.5 million, below its low estimate of $71.9 million. Of the 68 works offered for sale, only 10 failed to find buyers.

Last season, pricier works were in demand; many mid-range paintings never left the salesroom. This week, a new kind of customer took over.

Twenty percent of Wednesday night's buyers were Asian. The reappearance of Asian buyers for the first time since the market plunged in 1990 was also evident on Tuesday night at Christie's, where 16 percent of the buyers came from Asia. An unidentified Asian buyer bought Wednesday evening's most expensive painting, Monet's "Grain Stacks at Giverny, Morning Light" (1889), for $7.1 million.

By all accounts, more paintings sold Wednesday night than anyone had expected. "It's a sign of recovery that the middle market is doing better than the top," said Ian Dunlop, who heads Citibank's art advisory services in London.


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