Sotheby’s had a giddy day yesterday that turned into a sombre night. The morning launched with an earnings call that signaled the company was still in a restructuring phase. But the news that eventually captivated the financial markets was the suggestion an outside investor is stalking the auction house.
The firm’s stock price jumped nicely in response as investors sought to ride the momentum. But as with so many things in Sotheby’s most recent history, the right strategic move was followed by inconsistent execution. To recap: Sotheby’s won the Taubman collection; then it turned out the consignment came at the cost of its entire commission. Sotheby’s offered employees buyouts. The program seemed to go better than expected; then it didn’t.
Last night’s sale started off well before laboring under the weight of its estimates and uneven quality. Sotheby’s may have played a smart game by running a sale without guarantees but they failed to manage the market impression of a 66% sell-through rate.
The Art Newspaper’s Erman Rivetti got a simple explanation after the sale:
“There were too many second-rate paintings,” said the dealer James Roundell after the sale.
Kelly Crow added the opposite pole bedeviling the market when she spoke to dealer Vincent Matthu:
“Sellers want prices they could have gotten six months ago,” added Mr. Matthu, “but it’s a new market.”
And Katya Kazakina got an undiluted dose of Todd Levin’s opinion:
“As far as I am concerned this is a catastrophe,” said Levin. “It’s not just enough to get the works, you have to close the deals.”
But even Levin doesn’t think this is the end of the world:
“The market has retracted a bit, but good things are bringing strong prices,” said Levin. “And the very high-end lots are going underground, to be sold privately.”
Levin’s take was echoed in Nate Freeman’s post-sale scene at Sotheby’s:
The post-sale press conference started late. “Sorry we were slightly late starting,” Shaw said, grinning, “because offers were already flooding in for the works that didn’t sell.”
Seasoned market players were also less likely to take the sale as anything more than a return to recent experience when sales were less managed and more open to market pressures:
“People are a little tentative, but the great stuff sold really great and the other stuff…—well, a lot of the other stuff sold too,” said collector and dealer David Mugrabi, who didn’t seem to be bidding much himself at the sale. “It was fairly typical, really.”
Several reports homed in on the simple fact that Sotheby’s is caught in a squeeze between its need to be careful about offering guarantees and the unrealistic expectations of sellers who often believe their property exceeds its market appeal. Here’s the New York Times’s tag team of Scott Reyburn and Robin Pogrebin:
“Given the fireworks we’ve seen in the market, and the subsequent waning, the lurching around of the global economy and key collector groups,” said Mary Hoeveler, an art adviser based in New York, “it’s not the moment to sell if your expectations are high.”
“This wasn’t a sale of trophies,” said Heinrich zu Hohenlohe, director of Dickinson in Berlin, specialists in high-end artworks. “There weren’t the standout lots that get people excited.”
“It was a relatively difficult sale in difficult times,” he said.
Kelly Crow got something similar too:
New York art adviser Nancy Whyte engaged in a dogged duel with a telephone bidder in order to win Maurice de Vlaminck’s 1905 landscape, “Undergrowth,” for $16.4 million, over its $18 million high estimate. “It’s rare and it’s great,” Ms. Whyte said after the sale, “but there were things in this sale that weren’t top quality and needed lower estimates. It’s a new paradigm.”
Though Judd Tully reminds us that there were still plenty of people attending the sale to get business done. When markets dip, the real speculators and collectors come out to take advantage of the weakness:
It was clear the buyers knew exactly what they wanted and spurned the rest. One lot that fell on the right side of that equation was Édouard Vuillard’s sublime page-size interior “Marie brossant un vêtement à la fenêtre.” The 1893 oil on board sold to London private dealer Rory Howard for $850,000 (est. $500-700,000). Similarly, Alberto Giacometti’s striking “Atelier,” an oil on canvas from 1950, sold to storied London dealer Thomas Gibson for $3,250,000 (est. $2.5-3.5 million). It last sold at Christie’s New York in November 2007 for $3.8 million, so one might say Gibson got a bargain. In the same vein, the 1943 Pablo Picasso pen and ink “Homme couché et femme assise,” formerly in the collection of the late dealer and works-on-paper collector Jan Krugier, brought $586,000 (est. $500-700,000). “I think the things that are attractive and sensibly priced go,” Gibson said moments after the sale concluded. “The appetite for works is very selective and should be.”
Finally, there was s significant missing element in Sotheby’s sale that Kelly Crow noticed:
Sotheby’s chief seller to Beijing buyers, Patti Wong, stood at the phone banks but didn’t lob a single bid for her clients all night, a turnabout from several years ago when her collectors took home several trophies in any major sale. Mr. Matthu said the expected star of the sale—that sunken Derain—should have elicited a few bids from Asia.
[…]“Apocalyptic, no?” whispered a Paris dealer, Vincent Matthu, even as the sale was ongoing. “Where are the Chinese?”
Disappointing Sotheby’s sale shows correction at top end of the market (The Art Newspaper)
Sotheby’s Sales Weaken Amid Thinning Market (The New York Times)
Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Sale Weathers a Softer Market (BLOUIN ARTINFO)