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what seemed, during the proceedings, like a fruitless grind especially after the night's lead lot by Egon Schiele was withdrawn from the sale.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.
Sign up to Art Market Monitor Premium today
You need a membership to AMMpro to view this article and other exclusive content daily.
You can register today for $90 per month—with your first month free!—or for $756 per year (no free trial period.)
If you already have an account, sign in here: