The main concern for this Fall auction season—given the dramatic drop in auction volume—was that it would be exceedingly difficult to post strong Evening sale line up of Contemporary art. Buyers still seem to be in the mood to acquire works but few sellers are willing to part with their prime trophies.
As luck would have it, the estate of Steven and Anne Ames came on the market this Spring. Sotheby’s made a strong play for it and the $100m sale was announced last night. The Ames collection includes a number of top works by Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston, Robert Ryman and others.
But at the very top of the value pyramid in the collection are two abstract works by Gerhard Richter from the mid-80s. Each of the two major abstract paintings that were announced last night is estimated at between $20 and $30m.
The market for Richter abstracts has risen dramatically since the Ames first acquired their works. A.B. Still (above) was painted in 1986 but the couple only acquired the work at Sotheby’s in 1991 when they paid $264,000 for the red-dominant canvas that Raymond Learsy was flipping.
On the face of it, Sotheby’s $20-30m estimate for AB Still seems to be right on the money. Richter’s AB Courbet, which is only slightly larger, has similar color palette and was painted around the same period, sold three years ago for $26m at Sotheby’s.
But a lot seems to have happened to cool the Richter abstract market at that level since then. In June, Christie’s had to withdraw a green abstract whose similar and related work had sold for $15.5m in 2012. More than that, Christie’s withdrawn work comes from a run of paintings executed in 1994 that have had a remarkable track record on the auction block, including the triptych of works that Eric Clapton bought and eventually split up to sell two of the three works for $55m.
It seems fair to conclude that the quality of the work was less at issue than the seller’s expectations or the level of demand. Working in the Ames’s favor is the fact that the Richters are being sold with their provenance and that the second work, AB St. James comes from an important series, The London Paintings, shown at Anthony d’Offay’s gallery in London during 1988.
If Sotheby’s can jump start interest in Richter abstracts, it will be boon to the market which thrives on global artists with work that translates across cultures. For the better part of a decade, Richter’s abstract paintings were a driving force of increasing asset values. Over the last six months, the art market has been bereft of just the kind of leadership that Richter once offered. Maybe he will again.