Sotheby’s stock price took a dramatic 13% hit this morning as global markets sell off amid fears of deeper macro dislocation. But yesterday’s sale hardly justifies the pessimism. It’s true that the bulk of the sale was plagued by the same estimate resistance that was seen last week during the Impressionist and Modern sales.
Sotheby’s specialists, nonetheless, managed their consignors’ expectations well and, except in a very few cases, were able to bring the reserves into line with buyer’s comfort levels. The sale’s 78% sell-through was hardly indicative of a market dislocation even if the results were shadow of the previous year’s haul.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the sale was the headline work that was withdrawn and would have closed the gap between last year’s results and this year’s substantially. On the outside, it looked like a vote of no confidence on the market even though the work had impeccable provenance. Colin Gleadell asked around:
The top lot, a luxurious abstract by Gerhard Richter owned by London collectors Eskandar and Fatima Maleki, carried a £14-20 million estimate, but was withdrawn at the owners request, said Sotheby’s—stressing that it was not due to lack of interest. One of the theories being bandied around was that Richter’s dealer, Marian Goodman, from whom (together with Anthony d’Offay) the painting had been acquired in the 1990s, objected to the sale, but that could not be established.
The sale opened with a run of hotly contested works by artists without deep auction records. That culminated with Adrian Ghenie’s The Sunflowers in 1937 which made a record £3.1m. Judd Tully spotted Thaddeaus Ropac bidding:
Ropac was unhappy that the Ghenie found its way to auction, since the buyer had apparently promised it would go to a museum when it was acquired on the primary market at Galerie Judin, Berlin in 2014. “It’s one of his best paintings,” said Ropac, “and I’m definitely not happy it went to auction so fast.”
The other high point of the evening came when Lucian Freud’s portrait of his former lover made a very strong price above the estimates. The rest of the evening involved transactions that either showed a level of market ennui or distress sales. The most visible distress sale was a Basquiat work on paper that got backstopped by the smartly opportunistic Nahmads. Here’s Tully:
Jean-Michel Basquiat’s ferocious and aptly titled “Untitled (Head of a Madman)” from 1982, in oil stick on paper laid down on canvas, sold to international dealer David Nahmad for £6,197,000/$8,961,482 (est. £4.5-6.5 million). The widely exhibited work, painted when Basquiat was 22 years old, last sold to the seller for a whopping $12,037,000 at Christie’s New York in November 2013.
The patriarch wasn’t the only member of the art dealing clan buying up what they perceived as under-priced works in Sotheby’s saleroom, as Colin Gleadell observed:
Post-war Italian art was not its usual rampant self this evening. A pleated Manzoni “Achrome,” smaller than the one at Phillips, sold to an American collector below estimate for £2.6 million, and a pale yellow slashed canvas by Lucio Fontana, bought in 1997 for £102,700, sold to Ezra Nahmad below estimate for £1.3 million.
“Both might have made more,” said dealer Ben Brown, who has a specialism in Italian art, but for the Fontana seller the price still represented an increase of about 14.6 percent a year.
Although the Nahmads were out in force even buying artists previously considered beyond their bailiwick, last night saw another iteration of a phenomenon noticed last November in New York. The Warhol market seems to have lost its police force, the buyers who could be counted on to bid on or buy works in the artist’s large market.
Sotheby’s silver, Little Electric Chair did not find a buyer. A very good 24-inch example of the flowers sold below estimates for £1.3m and what might have been considered a blue chip work with a strong auction record did well in Sterling terms but tread water in dollars. This is from Tully:
A third ’60s Warhol, “Large Campbell’s Soup Can” from 1965, in acrylic, silkscreen ink, and silver paint on canvas and inscribed by the artist to the first owners on the reverse, sold to a telephone bidder for £5,133,000/$7,422,831 (est. £4.5 -6.5 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in July 2008 for £3,513,250.
That last Warhol was off the market for seven years, not a terribly long or short period of time. Other works returning to market perhaps too soon seemed to get punished or, at least, were not rewarded, as Tully noted:
Yves Klein’s “Untitled Anthropometry” from 1960, executed in pigment in synthetic resin on paper laid down on canvas, sold to Gagosian Gallery for £1,025,000/$1,482,252 (est. £1-1.5 million). It last sold at Sotheby’s London in February 2012 for £937,250 and is apparently a bit early to reappear on the more discerning auction market.
That same theme seemed to be on display in one of the few guaranteed works at Sotheby’s, according to Tully:
In one of only four financial guarantees in place for the evening, Kazuo Shiraga’s Ab-Ex inspired abstraction “Koujouka” from 1990, imploded with thick brushstrokes in burning shades of yellow and red, sold for £1,565,000/$2,263,146 (est. £1.2-1.8 million). It was acquired by the seller at Shiraga’s exhibition held last February at the Mnuchin Gallery in New York, a rather quick turnaround.
All of that said, the evening’s bidding didn’t spook the market professionals even if it has scared off investors, as Colin Gleadell points out:
One observer, art advisor Rory Howard, [said] the bidding at the Sotheby’s sale was “deep, consistent, confident and calculated,” he said, “and was achieved without any smoke or mirrors (i.e., guarantees) to speak of. It showed the contemporary market is in rude health in spite of the economy.”
$100 Million Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Sale (artnet News)
Bidding Fireworks Spark at Sotheby’s $100.4M Contemporary Sale (BLOUIN ARTINFO)