Sotheby’s Contemporary art sale was an argument between the expectations of buyers and sellers with the auction house standing in the middle frantically trying to make each side see reason. Its an awful place to be but the experts at Sotheby’s deserve a lot of credit for getting last night’s sale to the $47 million dollar mark considering that most works fell below the hammer estimate, often at levels that would have guaranteed the work would be bought in during another market.
Market conditions were clearly tough. Lindsay Pollock and Philip Boroff offer this reminder on Bloomberg:
Sotheby’s evening sale in May 2003 totaled $27.3 million. The year-ago auction made $362 million.
This is surely the “recalibration” Tobias Meyer talked about in the after-sale de-briefing. This morning’s press clippings were about as subdued as the sale. The Master, Judd Tully, captured the mood perfectly with these observation and piece of reporting:
But mostly it was a strange evening that felt as if the smallish crowd was on appetite suppressant pills. [ . . . ] Sotheby’s put together a no-frills sale, hitting the money on pre-sale expectations and keeping things at the right level for a subdued marketplace afraid of overspending. [ . . . ] “The market is unexciting but stable,” said New York art adviser Allan Schwartzman moments after the sale. “It’s exactly what you would have expected. People know what they want.”
The big story of the night was the Koons Baroque Egg which provoked a lot of ink. But the real story lies beyond the sale room. The boom years created a straw man who stalked the art market, the evil speculator uninterested in art but in the market to make quick money. For years there was a fear that hedge fund buyers would be the epitome of these speculators.
In the Baroque Egg, we have an odd story that both fulfills those fears, debunks them and subtley suggests some truth. Here’s Carol Vogel on the facts:
The evening’s star was Jeff Koons’s “Baroque Egg With Bow (Turquoise/Magenta),” which went to Larry Gagosian, the Manhattan dealer who represents Mr. Koons. He paid $5.4 million, under its $6 million low estimate. From the artist’s “Celebration” series, in which Mr. Koons fashioned oversized children’s toys in shiny colors, it was being sold by Daniel S. Loeb, a hedge fund manager who bought it from the Gagosian Gallery in 2004 for an estimated $3 million.
Judd Tully points out that Gagosian had offered it last September in Moscow for $18-20 million. Despite the comparatively small price, a third of last Fall’s asking price, Loeb made good money on the sale. So was that a case of speculation? If so, there are still speculators in the market despite the constant refrain that they’ve all be beaten away.
During the after-sale confab, Tobias Meyer answered a question about Gagosian’s purchasing the piece with a strong suggestion that the dealer was bidding for a collector and not supporting his artist’s prices. Meyer also insisted that the underbidder was a collector as well. But Lindsay Pollock and Philip Boroff found someone who felt differently:
“There are a number of people who have serious investments — emotional, art historical and financial — in Jeff Koons,” said New York art adviser Cristin Tierney. “It had to sell.”
Dealer Larry Gagosian suggests otherwise in Carol Vogel‘s story: “Buyers haven’t lost their grip on the market,” Mr. Gagosian noted. “They’re in charge.”
Among the undeniable collectors, Eli Broad was seen bidding on an early Calder mobile, one of the evening’s contested properties. It was the cause of a fair bit of jocularity. Tully grabbed the art patron:
As he left the salesroom later, Broad noted, “It’s a great, early work, and we went twice the high estimate. You’ve got to stop somewhere.”
Other collectors who might also be considered dealers, were active too. Judd Tully kept a tally on Jose Mugrabi:
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Red Man One, from his prime year of 1982, sold to the telephone for a respectable $3,554,500 (est. $3–5 million) after being chased by New York dealer Jose Mugrabi.
Mugrabi was in fine form, also bidding on a number of Warhols as if guarding his legacy, nailing the 14-square-inch Flowers (1964) for $410,500 (est. $400–600,000) but watching Fifteen One Dollar Bills, a 1982 work on paper, go to New York dealer Lawrence Luhring for $902,500 ($750,000–1 million).
The elder Mugrabi might have caught the true mood of the sale when entered into a battle of wills with the auctioneer, Meyer, in the middle of the sale room. During the bidding on Andy Warhol’s camouflage painting, Mugrabi tried to break the bidding increments–not an unusual practice. Meyer held his ground. First the auctioneer teased with “it’s now or never” as he leaned out over the podium with his signature raised arm and open hand holding a bid in place. When Mugrabi proposed a smaller bid, Meyer replied, “No, that’s mean.”
In the end, everyone involved got what they wanted. The good humor, however, was not abundant during the sale which is a point that impressed Judd Tully:
There wasn’t a Richard Prince “Nurse” painting in sight, for a change, but two joke paintings from different periods were offered, and both sold.
The earlier one, Can you Imagine (1989), scaled at 78 by 58 inches, drew five bidders and sold for $1,370,500 (est. 600–800,000). New York dealer Per Skarstedt was the underbidder.
But Prince’s My Girlfriend, a 2005 joke painting measuring 92 by 72 inches, squeaked by at $662,500, selling to Los Angeles dealer Patricia Marshall, who bid in the room on behalf of a client at her side.
Are Prince’s later jokes not as funny as his early ones?
In a ‘Recalibrated Market,’ Auction Buyers Take Over (New York Times)
Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale Solid But Subdued (ArtInfo.com)