Sotheby’s Taubman Masterpiece sale was a tense night of 77 lots overshadowed by the ever-present fixation on the record auction guarantee. In retrospect, it would seem that the positioning of the collection—and the size of the guarantee—provoked the trade and became irresistible to the press. In the run up to the sale, attention never seemed to settle on the art itself.
That seemed to be born out in the bidding where high estimates may have put off the trade but several very good pieces seemed to several observers to go for bargains. With the exception of the Modigliani and the Stella, there seemed to be few works to attract trophy hunters. The overall high prices across the art market also prevented the sale from being a souvenir hunt (if, indeed, Taubman’s notoriety had that kind of value.)
But let’s begin with Josh Baer who’s near-instant reaction remains the most balanced and thoughtful. In his Baerfaxt email, Baer wrote:
This is maybe one of the more complicated sales to discuss ever – certainly that total is impressive and many lots did well and even record levels – but it felt like the most unimpressive major night ever.
Perhaps too much lipstick was applied to a collection that lacked a provenance that would excite collectors?
For sure, the family dynamics of the choice of Sotheby’s and the reported 500M$ (or more?) guarantee was titillating to many – however does anyone outside the shareholders of Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips really care if they make or lose some money?? Don’t we, and shouldn’t we, just care about the results re the price and quality of the works???
Surprisingly, The Master, Judd Tully, is the only writer to have picked up the salient point that even despite the rocky evening, Taubman’s evening sale out-performed the Yves St.-Laurent/Pierre Bergé evening sale held six and a half years ago:
Even with some expensive buy-ins that wound up in Sotheby’s inventory, it topped the record for any single-owner evening sale, hurdling past the mark set in February 2009 at Christie’s/Pierre Bergé & Associés auction in Paris, when the Yves Saint-Laurent-Pierre Bergé Collection of Impressionist and Modern Art fetched €206.1/$266.7 million for the 59 lots sold.
Not even Taubman’s most loyal associates would suggest his reputation was on the global scale of YSL’s. So, on the one hand, the Taubman sale is a good measure of how far the art market has come in that time. And yet. Dan Duray made one of the more interesting points about the collection, especially in the context of whether Taubman was a connoisseur or just a buyer with extra access:
Taubman was a loyal Sotheby’s patron. Of the 77 lots on offer last night, 55 had been bought at Sotheby’s auctions; of these, there is sales data available for 39, and Taubman only bought 11 above their high estimates. […] [M]ore often than not the lots merely broke even. Of those 39 lots, only a few sold for a significant amount more than Taubman had paid for them, and eight sold for less than their previous purchase price, or went unsold.
In that sense, Taubman’s personal taste doesn’t seem to have matched the markets changing tastes over the last few decades. And, without any hard evidence, it does seem that some of Taubman’s best purchases came from the period before he was brought into Sotheby’s. Which brings us to the biggest issue surrounding the sale. Taubman’s collection could never be separated from his role as owner of Sotheby’s. It affected the guarantee negotiations and the way Sotheby’s marketed the collection. That marketing seems to have sparked a range of responses arrayed along a spectrum from sympathetic to vitriolic.
Katya Kazakina spoke to one dealer:
“They were in a tough spot,” said Janis Gardner Cecil, director at Edward Tyler Nahem Fine Art gallery in Manhattan. “They had to have the Taubman sale stay here. In order to do it, they had to shoot for the moon.”
The former head of Sotheby’s private sales was also sympathetic to Sotheby’s position, here’s what he told Judd Tully:
Given that wide array, it was difficult to gauge the strength of the current market, or as New York art advisor and former Sotheby’s rainmaker Stephan Connery put it, “There seems to be a market and it appears to be a well-informed one.” Connery attributed the uneven course of the evening in part to the intense competition Sotheby’s faced from rival Christie’s in wooing the Taubman horde. “Because of the competition, the estimates were pushed a lot.”
The Detroit News spoke to Asher Edelman who was put off by the estimates. He also wondered whether tastes have changed:
Edelman […], called the Sotheby’s estimates “insultingly high,” suggesting ultimate sales figures may have been destined to fall short in too many cases. […] “Americans have moved away from early Modern and Impressionism,” said Edelman, “unless it’s something very special. But others often buy for that ‘blam!’”
David Nash made similar comments to Artnews adding that he did not think the sale was a market test:
“I think that they perhaps pushed the boat out a little too far, which means you have to have high estimates,” said David Nash, who headed the international Impressionist and modern division at Sotheby’s while it was owned by Taubman, and who now co-owns the New York gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash. “The estimates had to catch up with the guarantee, and perhaps this intimidated a lot of people. There was little opportunity to buy anything, in the sense that the estimates were already so strong.”
“I don’t think this is particularly related to the state of the art market at large,” he added.
The Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Crow made these observations on the lots that attracted market interest:
Collectors did reward plenty of pieces that Mr. Taubman bought early in his collecting, like the Modigliani, which he bought in 1983, and the Stella, which he bought in 1982. Designer Valentino Garavani tried to win a 1938 Pablo Picasso portrait of the artist’s lover Dora Maar, “Woman Sitting on a Chair,” that Mr. Taubman bought from the estate of designer Gianni Versace for $5.3 million in 1999. This time around, a phone bidder outbid Mr. Garavani and won it for $20.1 million.
Having said that, there were signs that despite the estimates serious and experience buyers were out looking for bargains and got outbid. Several of the press pack watched as designer Valentino and his business partner put in some disciplined bids, as Tully points out
They sat together in the front row of the salesroom and also underbid Francis Bacon’s early and quirky “Man with Arm Raised” from 1960, which sold to the telephone for $10,330,000.
Tully noted that private dealer Nancy Whyte bought one of the Rothkos and Dimitri Mavrommatis chased that one and the other unsuccesssfully. They were some of the few buyers seen in the room. Tully also pointed out the group of Egon Schiele drawings:
Of the eight Egon Schiele works on paper offered, and duly registered in Jane Kallir’s authoritative catalogue raisonne, “Madchen Mit Schwarzen Strumpfen (Girl with Black stockings),” from 1911, sold to London dealer and Schiele specialist Richard Nagy for $2,110,000 (est. $1.2-1.8 million). Speaking of the group, of which six of the eight sold for $13.5 million, Nagy said, “The Schiele results were predictable — the good works made the good prices and the bad and the ugly didn’t.”
And he spotted some new market participants:
There were also new bidders in the mix as New York-based painter Hyon Gyon, seated next to her Lower East Side dealer Hong Gyu Shin, bought Balthus’s R-rated “Adolescente Aux Cheveux Roux,” from 1947, for $1,810,000. When auctioneer Oliver Barker asked for her paddle number and Gyon looked blank, Barker quickly reassured her, “Don’t worry, we’ll find you a paddle.”
“I love Balthus,” said Gyon as she exited the salesroom, “and I just started collecting.”
That was a rare pleasant moment depicted in the press. The sale seems to have brought out a lot of bad feeling best illustrated by this from Nate Freeman in Artnews:
perhaps there was some lingering distaste over the fact that Taubman left the auction house’s top perch en route to the slammer for his role in a price-fixing scheme. Or maybe it was just the market’s disapproval of the tastes of a Midwestern shopping mall baron who was said to prefer picking up bargains to chasing (and spending on) masterpieces. Whatever it was, by the end of the sale, David Mugrabi could be seen mouthing the word “embarrassing.”
Or this Tweet from the editor of the New York Times’s Styles Section:
— stuart emmrich (@StuartEmmrichNY) November 5, 2015
Kelly Crow also passed along this tart comment from dealer Richard Feigen :
Sotheby’s $377M “A. Alfred Taubman: Masterworks” Sale (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
Lacklustre result for Sotheby’s sale of former chief’s best works (The Art Newspaper)
Taubman Art Trove Fetches $377 Million in Mixed Sotheby’s Sale (Bloomberg Business)
Taubman’s art collection goes on auction block tonight (The Art Newspaper)
Worries of Market Chill at Sotheby’s Auction of Ex-Chief’s Collection (The New York Times)
Taubman Art Collection Auction Yields Surprise Prices (Detroit News)