Helena Newman had plenty to smile about after Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale last night. The strong £103m ($152M) total midway between estimates was surely one reason. The high level of market control shown in the sale of 27 lots after last month’s debacle in the same category was surely another. Finally, the suggestion of greater-than-recently-thought depth and demand in the Impressionist and Modern category was useful and encouraging for the broader art market.
The sale ended up being mostly about signaling. So let’s start there.
First, much has been made of Sotheby’s talent migration in the wake of a reorganization earlier this year. Installing Helena Newman as auctioneer was a reminder that Sotheby’s still has a deep bench and, perhaps, its previous approach to everything but the Contemporary art market might have been a bit hidebound.
Newman proved herself a commanding figure in the box with an almost musical style of crying her bids. There were moments when she seemed to owe a debt to the melodramatic Simon de Pury who had a habit of dropping his register and drawing out his vowels when excited—or trying to project the hope of excitement. But Newman’s enthusiasm had a real impact on the sale and its perception.
The performance made it clear there was more than enough room for Sotheby’s to refresh the theater of auctions in the age of worldwide webcasts without losing any of its old-school charm.
Chinn Up Front
The other bit of signaling came during the bidding on the evening’s top lot, Picasso’s Femme Assise from 1909, when Sotheby’s top art expert, Amy Cappellazzo, bid from instructions against a telephone manned by Adam Chinn who has replaced Mitchell Zuckerman in the role of head of transaction support. (The two former Art Agency, Partners colleagues seem hold multiple roles within the auction house.)
Transaction support is an awkward title for the firm’s chief dealmaker who constructs and signs off on guarantees and other complex financing arrangements across the enterprise. For Zuckerman, it was very much a backstage position. Normally telephone bids are handled by specialists or client-facing business getters. On occassion, during the big sales, everyone gets pressed into service. But this wasn’t that kind of all-hands event.
It’s not at all clear what we’re seeing here. Was Chinn bidding for an AAP client showing off the clout of the firm’s advising relationships? Or was he bidding because Cappellazzo and he don’t want to take a chance entrusting such an important bidder to others? Or could it just be a random event?
The most important bit of posturing in last night’s sale was about the overall health of the art market and a particular pulse-taking on the Impressionist and Modern sector. Sheldon Solow, the New York real estate developer who has been cannily exploiting the market’s need for high quality material, was said to be the consignor of the Picasso.
The success of the painting shows, like Adam Lindemann’s success last month with a major Basquiat, that there are enough collectors with dry powder to set the right works on fire. Newman tried to mask this slightly by saying uncertainties around the UK’s referendum on EU membership was the reason for the tightly controlled sale. Considering the broader trend in the overall art market and the Modern market, this would seem unlikely, though she is surely right about the prospects for future consignments.
Here’s Katya Kazakina on Bloomberg:
“Brexit was a factor with some consignors,” said Helena Newman, Sotheby’s global co-head of Impressionist and modern art, who made her debut as the evening sale auctioneer. “Our volume is down but I would anticipate that a sale like this will give the market confidence for future consignments.”
Solow is confident enough in the quality of his holdings and in his own risk-taking to avoid guarantees. But Sotheby’s seemed to blink when it came to the second big lot of the evening.
Here’s The Art Newspaper’s Ermanno Rivetti to explain:
Amedeo Modigliani’s Jeanne Hebuterne (au foulard) (1919) had been initially guaranteed by the house, though this was later changed to an irrevocable bid (a type of third-party guarantee). This proved unnecessary, however, as protracted bidding saw the work sell for £34.3m (£38.5m with fees), again, well above its estimate of more than £28m.
The guarantee was surely not changed so much as replaced with an irrevocable bid. Whether the irrevocable bidder won terms or Sotheby’s took a bid lower than the guarantee to mitigate its exposure is, of course, not public.
The last minute deal—Newman announced it as the lot came up—suggests Sotheby’s is walking on eggshells in in this market and still willing to give up some profits to make sure big sales go through.
The Master, Judd Tully, went a little deeper, not on guarantees but on the state of the Modern market. The buyer paid $56.6m for last night’s portrait or 80% more than a work Tully offers as a comparable from 2004. Even though a Modigliani nude soared last November, the broader market for the Modern master hasn’t quite seen the same price appreciation:
The second star, Amedeo Modigliani’s sublime 1919 seated portrait “Jeanne Hébuterne (au foulard),” last sold at Christie’s London in June 1986 for £1.9 million, too long ago to make a reasonable comparison. A better though still distant indicator might be “Jean Hébuterne (Devant une porte),” from 1919, which sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2004 for $31,368,000.
With the bulk of the Evening’s value in those two lots, there was a dearth of directional information in the rest of the sale. Tully made note of one of the evening’s early lots that produced protracted bidding:
Alberto Giacometti’s early, 1925 oil on board “Portrait of Diego,” […] sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for £1,325,00 ($1,948,545) against an estimate of £500,000 to £700,000 ($725,000-1.02 million). […] The robust price might be attributable to the painting’s inclusion in the recent National Portrait Gallery (London) exhibition “Giacometti: Pure Presence,” which opened in 2015, as well as to the fact that it came to market from the artist’s brother Bruno Giacometti, following the death of Diego.
Among the strong prices paid were two lots acquired by Acquavella Galleries adding fuel to the speculation that buyers are migrating back to galleries. Colin Gleadell made this point on Artnet:
The strongest bidder in the saleroom was New York’s Acquavella Galleries which bought an 1890 still life by Paul Gauguin just above estimate for £3.4 million ($5 million). The painting had previously been offered in 2001 with an estimate of £2-3 million, but had been unsold.
The gallery’s other purchase was a 1931 constructivist painting by Joaquin Torres-Garcia, last seen at auction in New York in a Latin American sale in 1997 when it sold for an above-estimate $464,500. Nineteen years down the line, it punched its weight, selling above estimate again for £989,000, or $1.5 million
As with the Contemporary market, there has been a shift away from the most expensive lots to a search for re-discovered artists or bodies of work. Unfortunately, some of the momentum in those markets failed to carry through in the Evening sale. For example, Gleadell gives us these details on one of the evenings very few passed lots:
The Rodin market would seem to be strong: Sotheby’s had experienced supercharged demand for a lifetime cast of Iris which sold for a record £11.6 million in February, and for a marble of the Eternal Spring which made $20 million in May. As for the fact that tonight’s lot was posthumous, auctions everywhere have been witnessing a gradual erosion of the old prejudice against posthumous casts—in the Rodin market, at least. There was also a rarity factor in that there are 30 known casts in this size, of varying dates, and only five are in private hands.
In the event, none of these factors mattered. Eve was bought in with no bids at £6.2 million ($9.1 million). Simon Stock, a senior director of Sotheby’s, said he thought perhaps the estimate had been a little high, adding that he would probably sell it privately later.
Picasso and Modigliani portraits make an impression at Sotheby’s sale (The Art Newspaper)