Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Sale: Was That Good or Bad?
At times during last night’s Impressionist and Modern sale at Sotheby’s, one looked out over the packed sale room and wondered: “Why did you people come here tonight?” The room did not bid with much conviction and if the assembled masses were there to get bargains, it should have been their night. Instead, they were spectators watching a drama unfold on the telephones.
It was a long and tiring evening–though not as tense as last year’s troubled sale–that turned out to be better in terms of the overall total than the mood of the room suggested. Lot after lot struggled to reach its low estimate. Many were sold for prices far below the low estimates. Others got tantalizingly close only to pass without a buyer. Even the top lots in the sale, the very lots that carried the sale for the auction house, sold without the usual snappy bidding. Here’s the Master, Judd Tully, on some of the top lots:
The evening’s second highest earner, Edvard Munch’s Vampire sold for $38,162,500 (est. in excess of $30 million) to a telephone bidder; the underbidder was Victoria Gelfand, a Russian-speaking Gagosian director who was sitting next to Larry Gagosian. [ . . . ] “The sale did exceptionally well,” said London dealer Libby Howie, who bought fauve Maurice de Vlaminck’s Le Remorqueur for $3,666,500 (est. $4–6 million) on behalf of a client. “But I wasn’t going to go any higher.”
Carol Vogel covered the less fortunate lots:
The evening did see some big casualties. “Seated Man (Leaning on a Cane),” a 1918 painting by Modigliani that the Nahmad family, dealers with galleries in New York and London, bought at Christie’s in London in 1996 for $3.2 million, was estimated at $18 million to $25 million. There wasn’t a bid in sight, and Tobias Meyer, the evening’s auctioneer, gave up trying to sell the work.
The Nahmads weren’t the only disappointed dealers offering works last night. Another was William Acquavella, a Manhattan dealer who purchased Giacometti’s “Diego’s Head,” a 1958 painting, at Christie’s just three years ago for $1.1 million. On Monday, it was estimated to bring $6 million to $8 million. But again, not a hand went in the air. Sotheby’s had given Mr. Acquavella a guarantee that was said to be about $6 million, making it an expensive mistake for the auction house.
A year ago, a group of paintings by the Russian artist Boris Dmitrievich Grigoriev being sold by the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Mass., would have been snapped up. But on Monday the results were mixed. Among the best was “Pipe Players,” a 1924 painting that depicts a pair of peasant musicians.
One telephone bidder wanted the painting, and it sold for $2.8 million ($3.2 million including Sotheby’s commission), well under its $4 million to $6 million estimate. But “Shepherd of the Hills,” another Grigoriev, this one from 1920, brought $3.2 million ($3.7 million with commission). It was the only work fetching more than its high estimate, in this case $3.5 million.
And Alexandra Peers fixates on Larry Gagosian’s toilette:
Big bidders were dealers David Nahmad and bewhiskered ex–Goldman Sachs partner Robert Mnuchin. Larry Gagosian, in gleaming iridescent-lime reading glasses (think Sally Jesse Raphael goes green), looked suspiciously much more tanned than at the opening of his Giacometti/Bacon show Sunday night.
Many bidders had a limit and they were sticking to it. Long pauses filled the room as bidders vacillated on the other end of a telephone whether to put in another half bid. Tobias Meyer didn’t lose his usual teasing wit from the podium. “That’s the nice kind of bidding,” he told one auction house representative after another responded to a bid quickly and decisively with another, higher bid. To a third person manning the phones who tentatively suggested a partial bid, Meyer responded, “I’m not proud.”
The lighter tone was perhaps a product of the surrounding circumstances. With world financial markets down by 40% from their peaks last year, the auction house was happy to have a sale total that equaled the previous May. For Munch and Malevich, record prices showed that some art markets can still even be bullish. And they weren’t all in the masterpiece category, surrealist works did well tonight. The numbers have been building season after season and tonight they continued at a solid, steady pace.