When the gavel came down on the 44th lot of last night’s $242m sale of Contemporary art, applause erupted throughout the room—not from the trickle of straggling audience members but from every corner of the phone banks that circle the room. Sotheby’s staff—beleaguered, hurt and somewhat isolated from their management, if departing Contemporary art department staffers are to be believed—were having a cathartic moment.
The release was quickly followed by some brooding jabs as Gregoire Billault opened with press conference with an attempt at wry humor—he referenced a rival auction house’s claim that morning that Sotheby’s was “bringing the art market down.” Billault was quickly followed by his boss who sarcastically thanked the press for their continued focus on the company.
Picking up on the defiant vibe, the Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Crow smartly asked if the team had done anything special to get themselves motivated for the evening’s sale. No, was the response, it was just like any other day of sale.
It wasn’t. Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening sale was very different. It was a highly managed sale that came in at an astonishing 95% sell-through rate. The Sotheby’s team were taking no chances. Works were placed with third party guarantees, reserves were negotiated down, buyers were rallied.
Again and again, Sotheby’s pulled off small victories or engineered compromises to get the deals done. It was a solid sale made extraordinary by the context. Success also came at a cost. The two Twombly works leading the sale sold well under their estimates and, presumably, their guarantees. Whether last night’s sale moved Sotheby’s closer to its goal of increasing auction profits remains to be seen.
The New York Times team of Reyburn and Pogrebin spoke to a gaggle of dealers and advisors who echoed the prevailing sentiment:
“Given the turmoil at Sotheby’s — they had to cobble together a sale — it just had a more positive vibe at the outset,” the dealer Lawrence Luhring said. “It seemed more lively than last night.”
“Now that was an auction,” the art adviser Nancy Whyte said. “There were plenty of buyers out there tonight.”
“There’s still money out there,” the London-based dealer Offer Waterman said. “The election is a big factor. People are waiting. But passionate collectors are still buying.”
The Art Newspaper’s Dan Duray followed the theme with more encomiums about the underlying health of the art market;
“There’s still plenty of money out there,” said the dealer Emmanuel Di Donna, formerly worldwide vice-chairman of Impressionist and Modern art at Sotheby’s. “It’s just a matter of a readjustment.” The top lots, he said, were not as strong, but the house had managed to smooth that out with guarantees, and put together a good sale with middle market lots.
Matthew Paris of White Cube gallery, said that he too was impressed with the sale that Sotheby’s had managed to put together in this market. “Both them and Christie’s last night,” he said, “really went to war for these lots.”
ArtNews’s Nate Freeman joined the chorus:
“All the rumors of the demise of the market were premature!” a downright jolly Zwirner told ARTnews after the sale wrapped. “I was very impressed by the energy here tonight. And congratulations to Amy!”
“It was a really strong sale, and it showed that the whole week just…crescendoed,” said Simon de Pury, putting his signature emphasis on the last word. “And it will bring confidence back to the consignors who were on the fence after Monday.”
Artnet’s Brian Boucher also polled the crowd:
“It was a very strong night,” said New York dealer Dominique Lévy on her way out of the salesroom,[…] “Last night really boosted confidence,” Lévy added, referring to Tuesday’s strong sale at Christie’s of similar material
“Tonight, there weren’t just one or two bidders on many lots—you saw private dealers, advisors, and collectors bidding,” she said. “A remarkable sale,” Miami collector Don Rubell told artnet News.
“A great sale of great stuff,” Ségalot said while exiting the house.
And the WSJ’s Kelly Crow got her licks in too:
“Sotheby’s faced lots of pressure coming into this sale, but they had good things at good prices—and that’s really all you need,” Ms. Ordovas said. “We saw a depth of bidding in this sale like we’ve not seen all week.”
Robust Bidding at Contemporary Art Auction Bolsters Sotheby’s (The New York Times)
Sotheby’s bounces back with steady contemporary art sale (The Art Newspaper)
Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale Nets $242 Million (artnet News)