) -- An auction of Lehman Brothers' art collection spotlights the financial crisis' abstract-expressionist impact on the art market: a series of bold, broad, violent strokes that opened its effects to interpretation.
While the Bernard Madoff scandal was considered a mess in art circles, the first Lehman Brothers auction Nov. 1 at Freeman's in Philadelphia is a classic in waiting. Nearly 280 works that hung above the cleaned-out desks in Lehman's darkened offices go up for bid in the first of three auctions featuring the company's collection. They are expected to fetch $420,000 to $680,000.
Part of Lehman's auction is Louis Lozowick's "Bridge Repairs (Repairing Brooklyn Bridge)," a lithograph from 1938 valued at $7,000 to $10,000.
It's like finding Joan Miro and Marc Chagall works at
. While there are roughly a dozen works estimated at $10,000 and higher, there's no minimum bid on a majority of the art, which means Robert Motherwell prints or a set of Walker Evans photos can be had for $1,000 or less.
"There's a lot of very affordable material here," says Anne Henry, who's in charge of the auction. "A person who was not established in art collecting but wanted a few things can know they're buying something that met a major corporation's criteria for top standards of condition and historical importance."
While no single work in this auction will fetch seven figures, the low price tags are almost a mea culpa from embattled businesses to a similarly beleaguered art community. Art patrons were feeling a bit more bohemian after losing fortunes in Madoff's investment fraud. The Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, which was a big backer of both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, lost $145 million in the scheme.
You'll pardon these folks if they grab Roy Lichtenstein's "I Love Liberty" for $20,000 or less, or snap up a few Robert Rauschenberg, Alexander Calder and Jim Dine works for less than the price of a Kia. The $13.5 million that ex-Lehman Chief Executive Richard Fuld made on his own art auction last November and the more than $90 million that Lehman's creditors took by selling its Gulfstream jets and helicopters should make up for losing a few nice pieces.
"The condition of everything is nearly pristine, which is unusual to say the least," Henry says. "Most of these things were purchased directly from galleries, print shops or from the artists themselves."
A bigger haul may be yet to come, as the scattered nature of Lehman's art holdings clouds the picture. The pieces up for bid in November, along with about 30 offerings in a Dec. 6 fine American and European paintings auction and another 500 works in a separate Lehman sale on Feb. 12, are only what
relinquished after buying part of the firm and its New York headquarters in September 2008. That whole package may bring in only $700,000 to $1.1 million.
Considering former Lehman leader Robert Lehman's strong ties to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Fuld's wife's spot on the board at the Museum of Modern Art, there's some doubt about whether a few hundred prints and lithographs constitute the bulk of the bank's collection. Lehman subsidiary
mixed its own art collection with its parent company's after they merged in 2006 and has the option to buy remaining works by May. It's believed that Neuberger Berman possesses a mini-Met in its New York offices, featuring works by Damien Hirst, Gerhard Richter, Marlene Dumas and Takashi Murakami.
"At one point, there was an estimate of holdings in the $30 million range," says Kimberly McLeod, a spokeswoman for Lehman Brothers. "That doesn't apply to Lehman Brothers, and I don't even know if that number is correct."
-- Reported by Jason Notte in Boston.
Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet.com. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, The Boston Herald, The Boston Phoenix, Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent.