The old saw from Tolstoy about families could be updated for auctions: All happy auctions are alike; each unhappy auction is unhappy in its own way.
So it was last night after Christie’s for the third auction cycle outdid its own seemingly un-toppable performance with an $852m evening sale that was so well managed only 5 of the 80 lots offered failed to find buyers.
The response from auction house and dealers alike was a near universal glee tinged with a faint sense of vertigo and unease that Christie’s Contemporary head, Brett Gorvy, tried to quell with talk of “growing global enthusiasm” and “a virtuous cycle of confidence” in the market. And by the market, Gorvy meant Christie’s ability to make a market.
Here’s the Observer’s Philip Boroff:
“It’s the consistency that blows my mind,” said Alex Glauber, a New York art advisor. He called the preponderance of eight-figure prices “desensitizing.” “I would say that it’s a decidedly good time to sell art, especially at a Christie’s evening sale.”
Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, former uber agent Michael Ovitz and Leonard Riggio, founder of Barnes & Noble Booksellers, were among the throng packed in the Rockefeller Center salesroom. “The material was good,” Riggio said as he exited. “Great art, low interest rates,” added his friend Stavros Merjos, a Beverly Hills art dealer and collector. “People buy art on credit all the time,” he said.
Specatators who praised Christie’s—which had shelled out gargantuan guarantees to produce a gargantuan result—could not keep themselves from damning Sotheby’s in the same breath.
Here are a few worthies who spoke to Art in America’s Brian Boucher:
“A lot of sellers are not willing to part with their works until they are sure they have a buyer,” New York dealer Christophe van de Weghe told A.i.A. after the sale. “But if there’s a hiccup in the market, a lot of people are going to get burned. The auction houses are playing a very dangerous game with these guarantees.”
“Sotheby’s lost a lot of money with guarantees last night,” Luhring told A.i.A. “Christie’s did better.”
“Guarantees are part of the business now,” dealer Jeffrey Deitch toldA.i.A. “And as far as Christie’s, they know what they’re doing.”
The idea that Christie’s makes money on these sales while Sotheby’s comes out in the red is an unprovable shibboleth of the current market, another reflection of the confidence invested in Christie’s that could possibly come at a price in lost profit.
Last night’s very long sale did not seem much like a glamorous evening affair. The packed room was redolent of a Dutch coffee house auction and the bidding often carried out with ruthless efficiency that left many important purchases passing without much notice.
All that these sales prove is that the Contemporary art market is now much too big for a mere five evening sales a year. To grow further, Christie’s would be wise to transform the format. After all, Christie’s is telling us the buyers are more global and more retail (meaning collectors buying for themselves) than ever before. If that’s more than marketing spin, it would suggest the antiquated structure of day sales for the trade and evening sales to flatter consigning collectors is out-moded. With 750 people in the room, it’s certainly over-crowded.
Dan Duray at ArtNews pulled out one of Gorvy’s talking points:
But the evening was primarily made up of people buying for themselves, Brett Gorvy, Christie’s chairman and international head of postwar and contemporary art, said at the press conference after the sale, emphasizing the some 500 bidders from 43 different countries. He said that the new buyers were facilitated by recent “outreach” efforts in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and the Middle East.
“This was a collecting-buying pool tonight, rather than dealers,” he said.
With 500 bidders against 80 lots, the average work of art, Gorvy is trying to tell us, had a little more than 6 bidders. Obviously for many of the night’s lots that wasn’t the case. To bolster Gorvy’s point, Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal did a little accounting of her own:
Mainland Chinese collectors won a $17.5 million by Willem de Kooning and a $17 million Gerhard Richter, both abstract paintings featuring lush colors. A Lucian Freud portrait, “Julie and Martin,” sold to a young Asian man for $17 million
But Americans held their own, taking home examples by Sherman, Franz Kline, Robert Ryman and Martin Kippenberger. And there were a few boom-era signs of shopping sprees: The European phone bidder who won the $70 million Twombly also took home a $16 million Roy Lichtenstein, “Sunrise.”
The other striking thing about Christie’s sale was its breadth. Warhol lead the sale but didn’t have much impact. Over the months since Gorvy announced the two German Warhols, Christie’s slowly walked back expectations. As late as last week, the estimates were being given at a conservative $60m with winks and nods that the price could still reach the $15om Gorvy had initially projected … or more. In the end, both works sold near the conservative estimates and were matched by a strikingly small Cy Twombly blackboard painting offered by his former assistant and head of the Twombly Foundation. And if bidders were the better measure, Dan Duray points out that the pair of Warhols were hardly the belles of the ball:
Each of those lots saw three bidders, but the third-highest lot of the evening, Cy Twombly’s record-setting untitled work from 1970, had far more, with four after the $50 million mark and early bids from dealers David Zwirner and David Nahmad and Hong Kong art advisor Bong Lee.
[…] Dealer Harry Blain said after the sale that “the encouraging thing was to see the depth of interest” in the Twombly. […]
“It’s a better example of Twombly than the Warhols were examples of Warhol,” he said.
The “mature” Warhol market is probably a subject for another time and a longer post but it is worth mentioning that the market was able to thrive withoutleadership from vibrant Warhols. The surprises in the market came not at the peaks but around the edges where a dark blue Mona Lisa excited bidders late in the sale and support came lower down the artist’s value stack. The Master, Judd Tully, checked in with the Warhol market’s Oz, Jose Mugrabi:
Mugrabi also acknowledged that he had bought one of the eleven Warhols offered in the evening, “Diamond Dust Shoes” from 1980-81, for $2,045,000 (est. $1.8-2.2 million)
If Warhol was muted, so was another market leader, Richter. The four Richter abstracts performed very well, bringing $65.5m led by the $31m primary colored 648-3. Yet the sales were barely noted or noticed. Instead, the validation of the Christopher Wool market was more front of mind. Here’s Bouchard talking to Wool’s dealer:
The sale included four Christopher Wool paintings that fetched a total of $31 million, on the heels of a Guggenheim Museum retrospective. Luhring, the artist’s dealer, pointed out that “they’re at a new price level, and everyone wants in.”
It’s a market that has clearly been supercharged by the Guggenheim retrospective and subsequent re-setting sales. Tully puts an oar in here:
Christopher Wool’s 108-by-72-inch word painting “Untitled” from 1990, spelling out FOOL in broad, jet black letters, sold to Paris dealer John Sayegh-Belchatowski for $14,165,000 (est. $12-18 million). “It’s a masterpiece,” gushed the dealer as he exited the jammed salesroom, “My client expected it to go much higher.” The Wool had last sold at Christie’s London in February 2012 for £4,913,250/$7,708,268. That’s quite a return for a 33-month-long investment.
If there was a constant presence throughout the sale, it was Roy Lichtenstein who had 7 and a half works in the sale. Six Lichtensteins sold for nearly $70m and one Elaine Sturtevant appropriationist work made a huge $3.4m record for the artist. Here’s Tully again:
Though painted decades after the prime of the Pop Art movement, Roy Lichtenstein’s massive and romantic reprise, “Reflections on the Prom” from 1990, dominated by a oscillating field of oversized Benday dots, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $21,445,000 (unpublished estimate in the region of $15 million). It had last sold at Christie’s New York in May 2008 for $8,777,000.
There were six other Lichtensteins to choose from in the sale, assuming your pockets were deep enough, including “Sunrise” from 1965, which sold to another telephone bidder for $16,405,000 (est. $12-18 million), and the early and graphically stunning “Hot Dog” from 1964, in graphite, brush and India ink on Japanese paper, which sold to New York dealer Andrew Fabricant of Richard Gray Gallery for $4,421,000 (est. $1.5-2 million).
Not everyone saw it that way, Bloomberg’s James Tarmy spoke to advisor Thea Westreich who seemed to be looking though the other end of the telescope:
“Lichtenstein isn’t at the top of everyone’s wish list at the moment,” said Thea Westreich, a principal of Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services in New York. “Warhol seems to have gained ascendancy in the Pop market, and has for some years now.”
Lichtenstein and Wool were hardly the only artists to show strong repeat sales performances. Peter Doig set a new record somewhere in the din of the sale. It’s a good thing Artnet’s Eileen Kinsella was paying attention:
Among the artists who had records set tonight was Peter Doig, who has been a favorite name among wealthy collectors, and in recent years particularly of Russian oligarchs. His 1994 oil Pine House (Rooms for Rent), which was estimated to sell for around $15 million, went for $18 million. (To give a little context where pricing is concerned, the same painting was sold at Christie’s London in 2009, where it made $2.3 million—£1.4 million—on an estimate of $2.4–3.3 million.)
It wasn’t all forward momentum. Judd Tully points out that the Jeff Koons market pall continued despite the success of the Balloon Monkey which sold toward the low end of his range for nearly $26m:
Another, earlier Koons’ sculpture, the widely exhibited “Pink Panther” from 1988, cast in porcelain and a standout from his “Banality” series, sold for $15,845,000 (est. $8-12 million). Larry Gagosian was the underbidder. It had last sold at Sotheby’s New York in May 2011 for $16,882,500—a pretty good sign that it came back to market prematurely.
Even though the event was over stuffed with artists, Christie’s was able to score with its Kazuo Shiraga, the Gutai artist that raised eyebrows with a $3-5m estimate. Then it was revealed former partners Dominique Levy and Robert Mnuchin would hold rival Shiraga shows next year along side a museum show in Texas. Amy Cappellazzo, according to James Tarmy, was the winner of the Shiraga for $4.8m.
“It may look like an aggressive number,” said dealer Robert Mnuchin, who bid on the work. “But there’s a strong interest in very high-quality works by Shiraga, particularly red works, and particularly from the 1960s.”
Though Mnuchin lost the Shiraga, he bought a white Robert Ryman painting for $11.4 million that was valued at $8 million to $12 million.
Other works that got plenty of press sold without much interest, here’s Carol Vogel on the famous Sherman film stills:
After the sale, David Ganek, the Manhattan financier, looked particularly pleased, having been the only bidder on a group of 21 of Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” being sold by Mitchell P. Rales, a Washington collector and industrialist, and his wife, Emily, founders of Glenstone, the contemporary art museum in Potomac, Md. Mr. Ganek paid $6.7 million. “It’s one of the greatest examples of photography from the late 1970s until 1980,” Mr. Ganek said.
Finally, just to prove that being an insider doesn’t give one a crystal ball. Here’s Thea Westreich on the subject of guarantees and market demand:
“We’re dealing with a very small percentage of buyers and sellers,” said Westreich, the adviser. “The fact that auction houses have to put up guarantees means that sellers are nervous and are going to play the game only if they’re going to win it. How many people do you know walking around that have $25 million to spend, season after season, on a work of art?”
Judging from Christie’s results, there are at least 500 people walking around with $1m to spend on art season after season and more than a handful who won’t blink at $25m … or more.
How High Can It Go?: the $852.9M Biggest Art Auction Ever (New York Observer)
Christie’s Latest Blockbuster Edges Closer to the $1B Mark (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
A Warhol Leads a Night of Soaring Prices at Christie’s (NYTimes.com)