This round-up of the coverage of last night’s Impressionist and Modern Evening sale at Sotheby’s is available to AMMpro subscribers. Monthly subscriptions come with a grace period of one month. Feel free to subscribe and cancel if you’re not satisfied with our coverage and analysis.
A little more than a week ago, Sotheby’s newly promoted Chief Operating Officer, Adam Chinn, was asked to comment on the firm’s ability to manage its guarantee book. In response, he praised his team’s core competence: “We’ve got a group of people now who work very, very well together,” Chinn said, “and who are just damn good at pricing pictures.”
That may be true but Chinn overlooked another, more elementary skill that was on display last night at Sotheby’s as the firm pulled out $173m sale from what seemed, during the proceedings, like a fruitless grind especially after the night’s lead lot by Egon Schiele was withdrawn from the sale.
It turns out Sotheby’s are just “damned good” at saving a sale by rallying buyers, taking irrevocable bids and showing the patience and sang froid necessary to turn the night’s lead lot into a profitable success. Not only did Sotheby’s announce from the rostrum a string of irrevocable bids covering works from the Finn collection of sculptures which, it turns out performed well and probably didn’t need the downside protection, but Sotheby’s staff scrambled to line up the bidders and drive the action on the works that were appealing to collectors. Or, as The Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Crow learned:
“Everything that sold well spoke to collectors who have a sophisticated sensibility,” said David Norman, a former Sotheby’s expert who is now a private dealer.
Sophisticated buyers require a fair amount of sophisticated engagement by the auction house’s experts. Sotheby’s did an especially good job of that with the Max Ernst sculpture that soared to $14m by making the most of the relationship between Ernst and Robert Motherwell whose heirs consigned the work.
The Impressionist and Modern art market is balanced upon the massive value of a very few prized lots. Without those lots, the auction house has to fall back on making prizes out of works that have distinctive stories behind them. That was true of the Diego Giacometti library, the Max Ernst sculpture, the Henry Moore and small de Chirico works among the top ten lots. To some extent, the Malevich fit that mold as well.
These more sophisticated lots also seem to have more margin in them. At least, Sotheby’s wants to send that message. Kelly Crow had this observation that could have only come from Sotheby’s executives:
Two people with knowledge of the house’s finances said Sotheby’s still earned between $15 million and $20 million in gross profit from the night, better than expected.
Whatever the financial health of the sale, the lots that generated interest showed the Impressionist and Modern market has plenty of health to it when the material excites buyers. Here’s an interesting take on the Ernst from Artnet’s Brian Boucher:
“It absolutely flew!” dealer Frances Beatty Adler said of the Ernst after the sale. “There’s a resurgence of interest in Surrealism, and people see its influence on Pop art, Ruscha, Gober—we don’t even have to mention the return of ‘Twin Peaks!’”
As well as a tartly satisfying explanation for the lack of interest in the Schiele:
“It’s a very good painting for a Klimt, but it’s not good for a Schiele,” said Paris dealer Christian Ogier on his way out of the saleroom.
ArtNews’s Nate Freeman added this:
“It was very strong considering the material—there is not a lot to work with here,” said David Nash
In many ways, the Malevich was one of the most interesting lots on offer. Little was made of the work in the pre-sale publicity but the dates on the work and the sheer paucity of Malevich paintings that could ever become available (not to mention the extraordinary works owned by the Nahmad family) suggested the painting was very well priced.
During the bidding, the auctioneer, Helena Newman, stood in the center of the room wearing a lapis dress that picked up on the lapis bar in the picture waiting out the initial stand off between bidders. Her discomfiture gave way to visible relief as the bidding worked its way slowly through the estimate range. At the end, three bidders, all represented by different Sotheby’s staff, chased the work. As Lisa Dennison, who came to Sotheby’s from the Guggenheim museum, bid against Alina Davey, a Russian Specialist, it seemed as if the competition was between a museum eager to own a big name in art history and a wealthy private buyer from Russia which would stake out the two poles of logical interested parties. (Sotheby’s later confirmed that Dennison was bidding for a private buyer, not an institution.)
But Gregoire Billault’s success in winning the painting had at least one observer who is well schooled in the art collecting game to suggest the Malevich is just the sort of picture Bernard Arnault might buy.
The late Monet Nymphéas that was guaranteed and sold for just shy of $16m was the kind of work that many would have expected to go to an Asian buyer. The stamped work was bought for less than $4m in the Impressionist-fueled late 1980s market. But it sold to an American private buyer who might have appreciated the trophy at a discount.
Like the Malevich, the sale also included a striking Giorgio de Chirico metaphysical painting, Il Sogno de Tobia, from 1917. If the painting lacked some of the essential elements to be valued at multiples of the $9.2 that Gabriel Catone paid after very competitive bidding.
To get deeper into the weeds, we need the help of The Master, Judd Tully, who has done his usual sedulous preparation:
The evening got off to a promising start with Alexander Archipenko’s polychrome wood sculpture in blue hues, “Seated Figure” from circa 1917 that sold for $564,500(est. $100-150,000) […] London dealer Offer Waterman was an underbidder on the Archipenko. The work previously sold in June 2015 at the Richard Opfer Auctioneering Inc. in Maryland for $425, quite a shrewd bargain for that buyer/flipper. Another Archipenko, the 41 5/8 inch high bronze, “Blue Dancer,” conceived in 1913 and cast in 1964-65, sold to another telephone bidder for $1,932,500 (est. $1.5-2.5 million). It was backed by a third party guarantee and previously sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 1997 for $680,000.
The success of the Diego Giacometti library which made $6.3m and was the tenth most valuable lot in the sale seemed to stump a number of observers. But the Giacometti furniture market has been raging for the last year or more. Christie’s held a €32.7m sale of Hubert Givenchy’s collection in March and Sotheby’s will hold a sale of 27 lots in Paris later today.
But what Tully knows that others don’t is that the library was acquired just last year during the Design Miami Fair in Basel for €2m.
Sotheby’s Solid Night (BLOUIN ARTINFO)