Last night at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale was focused on Chinese buyers. The auction house made no secret of the fact by stationing its Shanghai-based Asia Chairman, Patti Wong, at the most prominent telephone high on a rostrum at the front of the room directly across from auctioneer Henry Wyndham. At times during the evening, it seemed as if Wyndham and Wong were engaged in pleasant dinner-table banter as the bids went back and forth returning more often than not to Wong. All the while, several hundred eavesdroppers in the room (and countless more on the internet) tried to make out the meaning of the conversation.
Smiling, relaxed and chatting amiably with her clients in between big honking bids, Wong provided much of the evening’s drama. That isn’t to say that she walked away with the entire sale. But when Wong wasn’t bidding, the drama was muted.
Asian clients, Sotheby’s said, accounted for the 3 of the top 5 works and 30% of the sale’s value. American buyers won the other two, including a Monet Nymphéas that had been bought 60 years ago and was won by a collector represented by Sotheby’s Old Master czar, George Wachter, who firmly outbid Wong for the $54m second-place work of the sale.
The top work, Van Gogh’s landscape, was bought by a bidder in the room. Like the 2006 sale of a Picasso Dora Maar painting to an unidentified man in the back of the room (who later proved to be a representative of Georgian oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili) which set off a frenzy of speculation in the press (read this and this), the winner of the evening’s top lot became the focus of everyone’s attention. Here’s Kelly Crow:
The sales kicked off Tuesday at Sotheby’s, anchored by a pastoral landscape of Arles, France, by Vincent van Gogh, “The Allee of Alyscamps,” that sold for $66.3 million to an Asian man in the saleroom. The man sat several rows from the rostrum, wearing a black leather jacket and sneakers, and bid while whispering into a cellphone. He declined to speak after the sale.
Artnet’s Brian Boucher was equally entranced:
The night saw an unusual event: the Van Gogh, L’Allée des Alyscamps, was snatched up, after a nearly six-minute contest, by a bidder in the room. Most high-level bidders vie for their purchases by phone. He sat about halfway back in the room. In jeans and a hooded jacket, his attire was a departure from the business suit more typically worn by buyers.
A Japanese dealer we spoke with after the auction said the buyer, whom he sat next to, was speaking Chinese on the phone but denied being Chinese.
The extent of the Chinese diaspora, the bidder could really be domiciled anywhere from Vancouver to Vladivostock. Perhaps it was the bidder’s visibility that emboldened some of the art world’s old guard to unleash their skepticism. Boucher spoke to Frances Beatty of Richard Feigen:
“I haven’t seen that happen in a long time,” said Beatty. “Buyers at these sales tend to be more discreet.”
While the Van Gogh did bring a remarkable price, it didn’t inspire great love from dealers in the room. “It’s a B painting,” said Paris dealer Christian Ogier, of Galerie Sepia. “In a great Van Gogh, the brushstrokes should dance.” Japanese dealer Minoru Yasuda called the painting “second-rate.” All the same, it handily exceeded its $40-million high estimate.
The Art Newspaper’s Charlotte Burns and Julia Halperin also polled the art world’s elite and found them less than impressed:
The work had previously been sold by a private Japanese collector in 2003 for $11.8m ($12m-$18m), and was back on the block with an estimate in excess of $40m. Some dealers said tonight’s high price was driven more by the fact that few works by Van Gogh come to market than the quality of this particular painting. “It’s a bit flat and the subject matter is a little banal to my mind—it’s not Van Gogh at his most innovative,” said Andrew Fabricant, a partner at Richard Gray gallery. “But when you get a painting by an artist of that size, people don’t look critically. The name carries so much weight.”
No doubt these grandees would have turned the consignor away if the work had been offered to them. Surely they would have told any client interested in the painting to give it wide berth too. Sotheby’s was sober about the work and its place in art history. But they surely know that the prices of A pictures hover far above the impressive $66m the van Gogh made. Robin Pogrebin points that out in the Times:
The highest price paid for a van Gogh at auction was the $82.5 million paid in 1990 for his “Portrait of Dr. Gachet.”
That $82.5m from 1990 would be $149m in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars. As a reference point, the Picasso Christie’s is offering next week with a $140m estimate was sold in 1997 for $31.9m. The record-setting van Gogh Gachet would have fetched $101m in 1997 dollars or triple the Picasso’s price. If the “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” has continued to outpace inflation at the same rate, it would probably come to market with a $450m estimate. When a Gauguin sells privately for $300m, that’s not a fanciful calculation.
More to the point, $66.3m seems to works out to be a B price for this B van Gogh. Whether it is a good bargain only time will tell. The Observer’s Philip Boroff points out the pooling of cash among the wealthiest is tipping the scale towards asset inflation:
“It was a very solid sale,” said Armand Bartos, a private dealer. “He was pulling in top money. But it took a long time.”
“The really rich people have cornered all the money,” Bartos said in explaining the huge sums iconic works command today. “This is peanuts for them.”
The Master, Judd Tully, illustrates both the vertiginous effects of that wealth accumulation on the art market but also the fickle nature of collector’s intrest. An artist like Giacometti can have a ten-fold appreciation in a decade but collectors are always surprising in where their tastes might turn:
Alberto Giacometti’s iconic priestess, “Femme de Venise VI” (lot 34) from a lifetime cast after the original plaster of 1956, made $16,154,000 (est. $8-12 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York in May 1995 for $1,652,500.
Buttonholed on his way out of the salesroom, veteran London dealer Thomas Gibson observed, “People are very focused on what they want and everybody seems to want the same things.”
As the thinning crowd eased out of Sotheby’s York Avenue salesroom, the book bag toting buyer of the van Gogh, accompanied by Patti Wong, was observed viewing a group of Keith Haring shaped wall reliefs hung on a nearby wall.
Van Gogh and Haring? What a combination!
Dan Duray also focused on matters of taste, in both senses of the term:
The majority of the excitement in the room wasn’t even in the room but above it, in a sky box, where Leonardo DiCaprio could be seen enthusiastically bidding on an early lot with a blonde—The Chagall? The Giacometti? The Miró? What are blondes into these days?—and then making out with her. Some new white privacy screens installed in the booths’ windows did nothing to prevent his identification; who else wears a newsboy’s cap with a ponytail? (Plus a source of ours saw him in the hallway asking for a cheese knife.)
Who could possibly want to be in Venice right now?
“Venice is for newer, more cutting-edge contemporary stuff,” said dealer Ezra Chowaiki outside the sale room, “This is for older—”
“The better stuff,” interjected collector John Bloomberg, who had just purchased “Été à Moret” by Alfred Sisley for $3.8 million.
“Sisleys are the new Monets,” he added.
But Monet remained the evening’s Monet with all but one of the works finding buyers. Another seemed to succumb to a stubborn consignor unwilling to lower the reserve but Sotheby’s tells a different tale about why the snowscape appeared on the turntable twice. Here are the ladies from The Art Newspaper again:
Le Chemin d’Epinay, effet de niege (1875), found a last-minute reprieve when it was reoffered at the end of the auction after being bought in earlier. “Someone was not on the telephone when they should have been so we reoffered it and they bought it,” said the auctioneer Henry Wyndham, who ultimately hammered down on the work for $5.5m (est $6m-$8m). “I have no idea why they weren’t on the telephone. Maybe they were in a tunnel—we’ve had that before.”
“Monet has been a mainstay of the past several auction seasons and we’ve focused on this market as something we want to dominate,” said Simon Shaw, the senior vice-president and worldwide co-head of Impressionist and Modern Art. “Certain names transcend nationality, and Monet is one of them.”
Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina also spoke with Chowalki and how Sotheby’s stacked up against the competing distractions:
“The resale cycle has become much shorter,” said Ezra Chowaiki, a New York-based art dealer. “People are getting more used to it. All that matters now is the quality.”
“They are competing against Christie’s next week,” Chowaiki said of Sotheby’s. “They are competing against Venice right now. And they are still doing really well.”
Finally, let’s give the last word to Sotheby’s ability to attract a broad base of bidders. The Impressionist and Modern market is drying up for some auctioneers but Sotheby’s has made it vibrant and international, refreshing the bidder pool once populated by Russian and Gulf State buyers with a new cohort of Asian collectors and, perhaps, also renewed interest from the Americas.
The Art Newspaper got this:
Much of Sotheby’s success comes down to its ability to market brand names to emerging markets such as Asia—collectors from the region bought three of the top five lots this evening. Describing Monet and Van Gogh as having “international currency”, the auctioneer Henry Wyndham said: “In the old days, the market was quite limited in terms of the people who bought their work. Now it’s far wider.”
Artnet had this:
“I was impressed with the depth of the bidding,” said Ogier. “There were five bidders for Monet’s Nympheas, and five for the Van Gogh, bidding from China, Hong Kong, and Japan,” he added. Sotheby’s specialist Yin Zhao, who is based in New York and works with Asian clients, had a busy night, vying for several of the night’s top lots for clients by phone.
Sotheby’s $368M Sale Kicks off Auction Season (artnet News)
Sotheby’s stands alone and sweeps up $368.3m at Impressionist sales (The Art Newspaper)
Van Gogh Painting Is Star During Sotheby’s Auction (NYTimes.com)
Sotheby’s Kicks Off New York’s Auction Season With a Bang (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
Asians Grab Van Gogh, Monet at Sotheby’s $368 Million Sale (Bloomberg Business)