Just after last night’s Contemporary Evening sale at Sotheby’s, the auctioneer and three leading specialists who helped bring together and manage the sales gathered around a microphone preparing to speak to the press. The tableau looked like the last jubilant scene—sometimes called a Martini Shot—from a comeback movie. Oliver Barker, Alex Rotter, Gregoire Billaut and Cheyenne Westphal formed a perfect arc behind the microphone, smiling with satisfaction. All that was needed were hand waves, confetti and credits rolling down the screen to a catchy song.
After several years of lagging behind their competitor, Sotheby’s Contemporary department set the tone of the market and produced a well-managed, successful sale in a shifting market. It is hard to say ‘cooling’ when the lead item in the sale tops $70m (and is said to have been sold to a big traditional collector.) Certainly the market is shifting toward lower-priced seven-digit works leaving a hole in the $20-50m range that has been created by a lack of supply.
Facing a market where consignors may esteem their works more than the market, Sotheby’s put together a sale around three main works and then worked hard to make sure the rest of the material was well-estimated. Then, close to the sale, they worked even harder to bring out the bidders and managed consignor expectations.
This is something Kelly Crow noticed in the Wall Street Journal:
The house went into overdrive in the hours before the sale, in several cases asking sellers to dramatically lower their secret, must-get reserve prices—or give them up altogether—so that auctioneer Oliver Barker could leverage the works’ firesale price levels at the outset to tease out extra bids.
This was evident in the way they managed the sale of the Jackson Pollock work that had been shopped privately for some time. Judd Tully went into detail on the lot:
Though hardly a masterwork, Jackson Pollock’s signed and dated poured painting “Number 17, 1949” from 1949, in enamel and aluminum paint on paper mounted on fiberboard, sold to another telephone for $22,930,000 (est. $20-30 million). Its appearance was perfectly timed to coincide with the Museum of Modern Art’s “Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934-1954,” which showcases the museum’s fantastic holdings, and a major show at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, “Jackson Pollock-Blindspots,” corralling 50 of his poured paintings. The work last sold to Larry Gagosian at Sotheby’s New York in May 2003 for $5,272,000. The total for that long ago evening sale is almost more interesting, tallying all of $27.3 million, illustrating how much this market has grown. The Pollock came armed with an 11th-hour backed guarantee.
One of the tent poles of the sale was Stephen Cohen’s Warhol Mao (previously owned by Francois Pinault) which did quite well by making $47.5m and was supported by a guarantee from a third party at $40m. The sale was important to Sotheby’s but even more important to the Warhol market.
Warhol has been a bedrock of the Contemporary art market. The rise in his market has tracked the rise in the Contemporary art market. Warhol market waxes and wanes like any other market. But this season is the first point at which many have noticed a marked weakness. They’ve also noticed that the Mugrabi family have pulled back some of their market support.
Katya Kazakina makes it explicit:
The evening’s casualties included three paintings by Warhol, with the combined low estimate of $10 million. At Christie’s on Nov. 10, four paintings by Warhol failed to sell.
Alberto Mugrabi, whose family owns the largest private Warhol collection and is known to support his market at auction, said there were a lot of weak pieces by Warhol at auction this week.
“Of course we still support the Warhol market, but I can’t buy every painting that comes up,” he said.
The Mugrabis did bid on a Warhol at Sotheby’s and they’ve been happy to sit out plenty of lots before. So the issue is more one of perception than fact. One also ought to remember that the Mugrabis are not the only market makers in Warhol. More to the point, the role of a market maker is buy when prices are down and sell or step back when prices are up. The Warhol market might be right in the middle of that, neither hot enough to sell nor cold enough to buy. This comment from one buyer to Judd Tully combines the two themes
“I think the market in general is plateauing,” said New York art advisor Allan Schwartzman of Art Agency Partners, which bought Warhol’s “Diamond Dust Shadows” from circa 1979 for $2,290,000 (est. $1.8-2.5 million). “The market has sent out a very clear message of what it is prepared to go to and didn’t go beyond that for the most part.” Schwartzman also characterized the sale as “solid and sober with what they had.”
Many others made similar comments, and we’ll get to those below, but one of the puzzling events of the sale was the failure of one prominent Basquiat and the success of two others not well-rated by observers. Scott Reyburn and Robin Pogrebin tried to get to the bottom of it:
“Those works that are not priced well won’t sell,” the collector Larry Warsh said. Basquiat’s 1982 “Hannibal,” for example, which failed to sell at a low estimate of $8 million, “was a very good painting,” added Mr. Warsh, one of the earliest collectors of that artist, “but it was priced too high.” Basquiat’s “Untitled” from 1987, by contrast, sold for more than three times its high estimate, bringing $8.3 million with fees, despite being what many described as inferior.
Judd Tully pointed to one of the lots chased by Basquiat veterans:
Tony Shafrazi and Jose Mugrabi were the dueling underbidders.
The youngest member of the Nahmad family, Joe, played a central role in the two lots that surprised so many observers by being the focus of dogged bidding. He bought one. Both works were offered by the Basquiat estate which several seasoned veterans were surprised to learn still had work to sell. Having no previous owner surely added to the appeal of the works. But Larry Warsh identifies a far more compelling trend, size. Here’s what Warsh said:
It’s nice to see the estate releasing works to the market—in a careful way ( with correct estimates)—but these works, that were sold (and did very well), were just large. That’s consistent with the many new buyers today who are interested in “size over quality.” I will save my jokes.
So recognizable work that decorates well has value that may trump artistic quality. This may be a feature, again, of art as social currency. Or it may just be a reminder that low estimates attract bidders, a theme dealers came back to again and again in the press. Here’s Artnet:
A New York dealer acknowledged that it wasn’t the newsiest of sales compared to previous years, when numerous auction records were being set at seemingly every sale. “How long can you keep up that momentum?” he asked.
“That felt real,” New York dealer Marianne Boesky said after the sale. “They were really good prices for really good things.”
“The market is strong but selective,” London dealer Pilar Ordovas told artnet News after the sale, “and a little selectivity is very good for all of us. We’re seeing an adjustment of the over-optimistic estimates we’ve seen in the last few years.”
Artnews followed on the theme. (Though the reporter clearly must have been at another sale if he thought he heard the urbane, unflappable and understated Oliver Barker scream anything):
“It was a better price point—things were within reach,” said Kim Heirston, an art advisor who picked up an Ed Ruscha at $3.3 million for a client on the phone. “It was a good feeling, and definitely a good mood.”
The bidding came fast and furious from the curtain-open of the first lot, an untitled 1961 Frank Stella painting, as a cascade of phone bids and in-room bids—”A plethora of bids!” Barker screamed—dotted the sea of chairs, as CEO Tad Smith looked on from a side pocket with a delirious grin.
Finally, one trenchant answer to the question of whether these sales show a cooling market or a pickier market comes from a gallerist who reminds us that the market itself is separate from what the auction houses try to produce for strategic reasons:
“The market is setting its own levels instead of being dictated by the auction houses,” Edward Tyler Nahem, an art dealer, said at Wednesday’s sale. “So often the estimates are coming not from the market reality, but out of fear that the competition will get the material.”