Sotheby’s successful $364m evening sale of Contemporary art seemed to suffer from an image problem. It was hard to read the event without the twin context of the auction house’s management’s recent fight withDaniel Loeb over strategy and board seats as well as the monumental performance at Christie’s the previous two evenings. On paper, however, the sale was strong in both overall volume and through the 85% success rate.
The numbers show Sotheby’s running a well-managed sale but the room itself was another matter. The evening opened strong with the Sender collection out-performing estimates and guarantees. Here’s Gallerist’s Dan Duray on the feeding frenzy:
During those Sender lots, Per Skarstedt and Jeffrey Deitch battled over an untitled Martin Kippenberger, with Mr. Deitch winning it for an above-estimate $4.8 million hammer price. Sukanya Rajaratnam of Robert Mnuchin gallery jumped in on the bidding for a painting by 25-year-old Lucien Smith, which eventually hammered for $190,000. A five minute battle, that culminated in a sale of $4.3 million, ensued between former Sender adviser Todd Levin’s client and the phone for a subtle (for an auction house), record-setting Rosemarie Trockel textile ($4.98 million, with premium). “$300,000!” shouted Alberto Mugrabi on the Adam McEwen graphite water fountain sculpture, when it was 100,000 below that, and which was just $29,000 under a record he achieved at Christie’s on Monday (the lot eventually sold for $437,000).
And Art in America’s Brian Boucher found someone who concurred:
“The Sender material is fantastic, and the market reflected that,” New York dealer Barbara Gladstone said on her way out, partway through the sale. Some of the Sender lots on offer tonight came from Gladstone’s gallery. “I was happy all along. All my children did very well.”
The change came when the sale switched to the various owners portion particularly after the large Basquiat once owned and shown by Peter Brant sold to the guarantee. Judd Tully captured the change in tone:
The under-performing Basquiat seemed to have a curiously adverse effect on the sale’s atmosphere, as if someone sprinkled this-isn’t-a-booming-market-anymore dust in the air-conditioning ducts.
“It really felt like a different world,” said London dealer Pilar Ordovas, in describing the atmosphere as she exited the salesroom. “The [lack of] energy of the room transmitted to the bidding.”
“They started off with a roaring beginning,” said Jonathan Binstock of the Citi Private Bank art advisory group, “and then an inexplicable psychological funk settled over the room.”
“The ambiance was really bad,” said Brussels dealer Mimmo Vedovi, who underbid the Sigmar Polke “Untitled” painting that made [lot 59] $,197,000, “and the estimates were too high. “
Kelly Crow tried to answer the question:
What made the difference? Dealers said the fact that Sotheby’s sale coincided with the VIP opening of Art Basel in Hong Kong didn’t help. That’s because the behemoth art fair likely distracted a few of the Chinese bidders who dominated Christie’s sale the night before. One Asian collector bought a $12.2 million Mark Rothko at Sotheby’s, but there weren’t any evident shopping sprees.
Sotheby’s York Avenue saleroom still drew plenty of home-grown financiers and fashion designers like Mary-Kate Olsen and Marc Jacobs, who wore a pin-stripe suit and scuffed white sneakers and won a $2.1 million Ed Ruscha, “She Gets Angry At Him.” After his win, Mr. Jacobs high-fived his front-row companion and said, “Cool.”
But there was clearly more to it than that. Christie’s seems to have done a better job of cultivating Chinese buyers and marshaling them for the sale. Although Sotheby’s China strategy was action item for Daniel Loeb, this sale shows that there are other ways to execute a China strategy than racing to hold sales in the Mainland.
The lack of Chinese buyers also doesn’t explain the lopsided results for similar art works. Joan Mitchell made a record on Tuesday but was bought in on Wednesday; a Koons equilibrium tank sold well on Tuesday but went un-bid-upon a day later (the condensation in the tank during the viewing might not have helped matters); and although Richard Prince’s work performed well from the Sender collection, the various-owners nurse painting made Monday’s success for Millionaire Nurse seem like a distant memory.
Dan Duray was a witness as Judd Tully put the question directly to Sotheby’s Alex Rotter:
Art + Auction’s Judd Tully asked Mr. Rotter to compare Sotheby’s contemporary sale to Christie’s of the night before, which was the highest ever art auction total ever. “I wasn’t there last night,” he said. “I’m here. We’re here. We’re looking at our sale. We’re looking at our consigners, we’re looking at our results.”
“I read the results, Judd,” he continued, “I’m not pretending I didn’t. We do the best for our consigners and our buyers. We estimate carefully, we sell carefully, but also aggressively. We care for everyone, and that’s just what it is.”
Finally, Brian Boucher brings up the question of whether guarantees are warping estimates and causing the perception problem:
“It was a strong sale,” Schwartzman told A.i.A. “It’s all about estimating. Things that were properly estimated did as they should.”
“A bit disappointing,” pronounced dealer Irving Blum. “It went well enough. They kept hitting their low estimates pretty consistently. The art world is intact.”
Just over half of the works on offer were guaranteed to sell, by the auction house or by irrevocable bids from third parties. “Auctions are behaving more and more like private sales on a public scale,” Schwartzman told A.i.A. before the sale. “Sellers want to see money up front. The auction houses have had to pay up. That’s the reality of today.”