After all of the attention focused on Sotheby’s this week to determine the state of the art market it is a bit of a let down to have to say that we’re really no wiser even after the auction house was able to sell three quarters of a billion dollars in mostly Impressionist and Modern art through four sales. To add to the mystery, Sotheby’s was quick to point out that it had sold $576m in Impressionist and Modern art, a wheelhouse category for the firm, even though the market is said to only be interested in Contemporary art. (By the time Friday’s day sale is counted, the firm will be at $600m for the week and $1.7bn for the year.)
Many have been predicting some sort of reckoning in art—and today’s jobs numbers and their nearly inevitable effect on the Fed’s decision to raise rates in December may still bring that about—but there’s not enough information in these sales to draw any real conclusions.
As Judd Tully points out in his recap of last night’s Impressionist and Modern sale at Sotheby’s, the comparable sale last year was a third higher.
The workmanlike results trailed the $422.1 million total for 58 lots sold in the equivalent sale last November, which was led by Alberto Giacometti’s $100.9 million painted bronze “Chariot.”
Then, again, the solid results at Sotheby’s last night suggest a different line up of material combining the better Taubman Imp-Mod lots with the Franck collection and Koch works might have yielded a market confidence boosting blow out. As it was, Sotheby’s stuffed the tail end of last night’s sale with material that was quickly rejected by bidders and rapidly reduced a very strong sell-through rate into an average one.
The surprising strength of the Taubman day sale will cause second-guessers to wonder whether Sotheby’s and the Taubman family might have done even better had they been willing to lower estimates to attract more bidders. Or it could be that the market, especially the Imp-Mod market, has shifted focus to better works at a lower price point. The modest bidding on the van Gogh, Malevich and Koch paintings might suggest that reading too.
Overall, the quality of the works on the market make it difficult to tell whether there is weakness in the Imp-Mod market, a settling down of the overall art market or something else entirely taking place here. One striking observation is that Sotheby’s room was sparse last night without it having a dampening effect on the sale. Again, that might have been fatigue from a crowd that had dutifully showed up the night before or evidence that the high-quality video feed is making evening sale attendance less mandatory to doing business—or both.
As for the reporting on the sale, it is hard to make everyone happy. Brian Boucher of Artnet news captured this in his report:
“It was very strong,” New York dealer David Nash told artnet News as he exited the sales room. “There was vigorous bidding, even though bidders were a bit sparse on the van Gogh,” he said, referring to the night’s second-highest lot, a landscape by the artist that fetched $54 million.
Paris dealer Christian Ogier was a bit more restrained. “The night sailed along pleasantly enough,” he said, before blaming the lack of high-end bidders on the house’s optimism. “The prices are still so high, with the house pushing the estimates too hard,” he said. “It doesn’t make for lively bidding.”
Though Artnews’s Nate Freeman felt the need to include this swipe at Sotheby’s which hardly captures what happened the night before:
William Koch didn’t seem to be in attendance, but his twin brother David was there. At the end of the cocktail hour, he stood by the entrance to the sale room, waiting as the last of the guests took to their seats. Someone was explaining to him the black-tie formalities of the previous day’s sale. “Yesterday they had caviar and Montrachet and they couldn’t get anyone into the auction.”
Robin Pogrebin had the news that Ronald Lauder had bought a Taubman day sale standout—which seemed like another missed opportunity for the Evening IM sale—which also gave Sotheby’s a chance to communicate further on everybody’s favorite subject, the Taubman guarantee.
The auction house was also buoyed by its day sale of Taubman Modern and Contemporary Art, which totaled $42.7 million with fees, in which more than half of the lots sold above their high estimates. At that sale, a Richard Gerstl portrait bought for the Neue Galerie by Ronald Lauder sold for $3.7 million, four times the high estimate. Based on the day sale, in combination with Wednesday night’s $377 million — and the value of unsold items that Sotheby’s expects to sell and a few pieces that will be in other sales (including a 3,000-year-old monumental Egyptian figure of Sekhmet that formerly belonged to John Lennon) — Sotheby’s is projecting it will cover its guarantee.
Katya Kazakina focused on Asian buying or, at least, Patti Wong’s purchases which showed that Chinese buyers remain an important part of the mix in these sales even if they were buying in the lower registers of the seven and eight-figure range:
Asian buyers were present on both days. At the Taubman sale on Wednesday, they picked up the top lot, Amedeo Modigliani’s 1919 painting of a somber young woman in a black dress that fetched $42.8 million, exceeding its presale target of more than $25 million, as well as paintings by Francis Bacon and Roy Lichtenstein and a bronze by Alberto Giacometti.
On Thursday, Patti Wong, Sotheby’s chairman of Asia, bought Picasso’s “Blue Period” pastel for $12 million on behalf of a client, as well as Van Gogh’s small portrait of a baby for $7.6 million, surpassing the high estimate of $5 million.
That was cold comfort to Sotheby’s former head of private sales who expressed dismay that the Franck’s van Gogh never really got going on the auction block:
“That was a surprise,” said Stephane C. Connery, whose Connery & Associates Fine Art specializes in high-end private sales of Impressionist and 20th century art. “I personally liked that Van Gogh. Someone got very lucky. Maybe what happened yesterday cooled people’s appetite.”
Meanwhile, the Observer’s Alanna Martinez gave us all a lesson that worrying about a market decline over looks the eye-opening gains made in the last two decades since the crash of the Impressionist market in 1990. Here she’s talking about a small Monet painting of a lemons that sparked one of the evening’s rare tenacious bidding contests:
It previously sold at Sotheby’s in 1993 for $213,441. Last night, it was estimated to fetch $1.2-1.8 million, and it sold for $2.2 million, with the buyer’s premium, after lengthy back and forth bidding. A tenfold return to the seller (plus a Monet on the wall for a while) in a little more than two decades. Now that’s, wherever it goes from here, an art boom.
A Solid Showing at Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
$306 Million Sotheby’s Impressionist Sale (artnet News)
Warmer Response at Sotheby’s 2nd Night of Auctions (The New York Times)
Sotheby’s Sells $726.7 Million of Art in Two Days Led by Picasso (Bloomberg Business)