This round-up of the coverage of last night’s Postwar and Contemporary Art Sale at Christie’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.
The near universal response to Christie’s $450m Postwar and Contemporary Evening sale was one that tried to balance the mammoth total with the dead room. Christie’s expertly managed sale saw 96% of the 71 lots sell leaving little or no room for doubt that the auction house would make sure its merchandise transacted in one way or another.
This disconnect between strong totals and weak market temperature is being explained in a number of different ways from surrounding economic and political uncertainty to estimates getting beyond appetites to thinning ranks of potential buyers. All or some of these may be true (and we’ll try to address each of them below,) but there is a question that takes precedence.
Why did Christie’s bring so much art to auction after a year of sales that were substantially lower than the previous peak years of 2014 & 2015? A $450m evening sale would have fit in those years but seems out of place today. Indeed, the Christie’s sale dwarves its competitors at a time when there’s a lot of talk in the market about how thin the collector base is at the top end of the market.
Luckily, we don’t have to guess. Christie’s provided us with not one but two explanations. Now we just have to choose between them. At the press conference after the sale, Christie’s CEO Guillaume Cerutti gave us the first explanation. The newly installed CEO seems to have been tasked with renewing Christie’s drive to dominate the Contemporary art market as it has since 2012.
When Cerutti addressed journalists he left no doubt that Christie’s main corporate concern is projecting strength, as The Art Newspaper’s Dan Duray quotes him:
“If we needed the proof of the strengths of the art market, we have it,” said Christie’s new CEO Guillaume Cerutti at a press conference after the sale. “If we needed the proof of the strength of Christie’s, we have it. If needed the proof of the strength of our teams we have it.”
The last time Christie’s put its foot on the accelerator like this, it ended with the CEOs of both Sotheby’s and Christie’s sitting on the sidelines. At Christie’s, it also resulted in the departure of the firm’s long-serving head of Contemporary art. The young team who inherited the department seemed to be signaling in the press conference that they stacked the sale as proof of their business-getting prowess. Nate Freeman captured this in ArtNews:
“I had a lot of people saying to us, ‘Are you going to make it without Brett?’ ” said Loic Gouzer, who last month was named Post-War and Contemporary chairman, sharing that title with Alex Rotter, a rainmaker who Christie’s poached from Sotheby’s last year. “We miss him a lot, but we’re also very happy that we can do it by ourselves.”
Whether it they were operating under a corporate mandate or picking up a career gauntlet, the sale did seem to be dogged by a surfeit of material. At the press conference, Alex Rotter sent a message to those keeping score that the Siegel collection had already tallied $116m which should cover the global guarantee expected to be somewhere in that neighborhood.
Had Christie’s stuck to the Sanders/Siegel estate, the sale might have been more focused. Loic Gouzer told those gathered that the Zadig & Voltaire collection had made $16m but its title lot, Death in America by Steven Parrino was one of the few works to fail.
The collection of mostly recent work being re-sold did little for the market and the collection’s title—offered during a time of political and cultural turmoil in the United States by a European auction house whose executives are primarily European—angered at least one very prominent collector. A $434m without that friction would have been no worse than last night’s event. The increased focus for Christie’s team might have more than made up for it.
That brings us to the three big explanations for the sale’s disconnect. The two top lots achieved huge prices but both the Bacon triptych and the Twombly painting sold without heat or excitement. Despite its extraordinary condition and quality, the Twombly may have been too much of connoisseur’s picture to be a break-out bidding opportunity. Nonetheless, the bidding fizzled resulting in a $52.88m sale. Larry Gagosian took the picture home. It was hard to say that he was happy judging by the quote he gave Judd Tully:
“That was a pretty good sale,” said Gagosian as he exited the Rockefeller Center salesroom, “but it was a rough day for the world and we’ve got bigger problems than buy-ins.”
On the Bacon, the sale had only three telephone bidders. But the result was anything but lackluster. Three small portraits made $51.7m which only seemed light in the context of the expectations Christie’s broadcast through the estimates. The New York Times asked Ivor Baraka who thought the work was not presented to its best light:
“The Bacon could have done a bit better,” said Ivor Braka, a private dealer based in London. “Because it wasn’t glazed, it lacked luster” [and] that demand was all the more measured because of some ambitious estimates.
Nate Freeman got a similar comment:
“It was a great sale, just the prices were too high,” said Hauser & Wirth partner Marc Payot
Though Duray heard a different spin on the sale:
“You saw in the Bacon, the Twombly, the star pieces, [with a] very good depth of interest,” said Harry Blain[…]. “You saw people coming in and coming to a reasonable level rather than going crazy. That’s good for the market and that’s good for the artist.”
Blain may be one of the few participants who felt those top sales showed depth of interest. Most others accepted the fact that the top end of the market is not as populated as it was two years ago. The Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Crow spoke to one veteran:
Art lawyer Thomas Danziger said the “air may be thin at the top” as a few pieces struggled to draw bids.
Judd Tully got the same from Philippe Ségalot:
“It’s tough,” said Segalot as he left the salesroom, referring to the auction atmosphere, “it’s not the same market as it was a couple of years ago.”
If those sensible explanations didn’t work for you, there was no shortage of participants wanting to peddle the absurd notion that a less than 2% drop in the Dow Jones had somehow spooked a population of buyers who primarily generate their wealth outside of financial markets. Here’s what Andrew Fabricant, perhaps too quick to want to get quoted, tried to push on Nate Freeman :
“The sale did extremely well, but when it comes during a down day in the market, it affects people psychologically,” said Fabricant. “When it comes to the Twombly or the Bacon, I don’t think anyone who’s bidding is worried about when their next car payment is coming in—but it does have an effect, just psychologically.”
Fabricant may have been defending his wife’s sale but others chimed in with this non-starter:
“If Wall Street hadn’t taken a dive, there would have been fireworks,” said David Benrimon, a New York dealer. “While the sale was strong over all, it did change the mood among American bidders, and these contemporary sales are about Americans.”
Nor was this dubious line of thinking confined to dealers. The Wall Street Journal swung in the opposite direction somehow seeing a non-correlated swing into art:
The hundreds of collectors who packed into Christie’s Rockefeller Center salesroom didn’t look rattled by the day’s drop in the broader financial markets; they appeared content to sink their fortunes into art instead.
Norman Braman sat next to Jeffrey Dietch as the art advisor set a new record for Robet Gober but one could hardly suggest that the nearly $6m he spent was a risk to his car-dealership fortune. Other wealthy collectors were present and willing to stick it out to acquire what they considered important works but the prices were at a much lower level as Kelly Crow captured:
Iowa venture capitalist John Pappajohn said he hoped to win by “holding out” in his seat long after dozens of fellow bidders left for dinner so he could bid on a couple of rock pieces by Isamu Noguchi. Alas, he said, “the competition went higher than I thought it would,” and he went home empty-handed.
The sale’s last lot, Noguchi’s 1958 “Garden Elements,” sold to a phone bidder for $4.7 million, tripling its high estimate.
One of the big absences at Christie’s was any substantial bidding or buying by Chinese. Rebecca Wei landed the big Rudolf Stingel self portrait said to be Francois Pinault’s own property. She got a bargain for her client when she bid just over $9m and won against a $10m low estimate. Not far from Wei at the phone banks was newly installed LA presence for Christie’s, Jackie Wachter, who bid on several works making her the night’s best imitation of Chinese wrangler Xin Li who was quiet all night.
The evening did have an interesting market gauge in the form of three Andy Warhol works. The Warhol market has been dormant for some time now. Sales of the artist who once dominated Contemporary auctions have been few and far between. The usual supporters of the artist’s work have also declined to participate.
But Christie’s had three very different works by Warhol on offer. The biggest was the soup can with can opener that had been sold in 2010 for $23.88m and was reported to be consigned by a noted Turkish collector. It sold for an adjusted $27.5m suggesting the third party guarantor acquired the work in bidding. The less than $4m change in price over seven years may offer a clue to the dormant Warhol market where prices have reached a substantial plateau.
Does that mean there are no buyers anymore? The Siegel’s high-quality double Last Supper provided a very good tell. Not only did it bring the Mugrabi family back to the bidding from a prolonged strike, but the work showed there were determined buyers for a high quality example of the artist’s work. Dan Duray describes the sale:
Andy Warhol’s Last Supper (1986), painted the year before the artist died, which hammered at $16.5m ($18.7m with fees), twice its high estimate, after a fight between at least five bidders, with the dealer Nicholas MacClean the underbidder.
The next lot was a 1978 double self portrait by the artist that sold for a very solid $4.1m. It is being suggested that the buyer was art addict Valentino Gravano.
Before we throw up our hands complaining that the art market is just the usual suspects trading pictures among themselves. Judd Tully reports that the surprisingly active sale of one of Steven Cohen’s works, which he acquired from the Glenstone Foundation, was driven by a new face:
Basquiat made another curtain call with the menacing, uniformed figure, “La Hara” from 1981 in acrylic and oilstick on wood panel that sold in the salesroom for an estimate topping $34,967,500 (est. $22-28 million).
“I work for a collection,” said the elegantly attired, British accented woman as she exited the salesroom immediately after her winning bid, declining to further identify herself or her client.
The widely exhibited early work formerly resided in the Glenstone Foundation based in Potomac Maryland.
Finally, a collector got in touch to fill in a blank on Tully’s report of the first lot:
The marathon began with Louise Lawler’s striking, 30 by 40 inch Cibachrome photograph, “La Lecture, 1924, Femme au Livre 1924, Positioned together, Tous les Deux, ensemble, New York from 1985,” showing a pair of Fernand Leger paintings in an otherwise unidentified living room that made $175,000 (est. $70-90,000).
The living room belongs to Leonard Lauder.
Christie’s comes out strong with $400m contemporary sale (The Art Newspaper)
Christie’s Super-charged Night (BLOUIN ARTINFO)
Contemporary Art Buyers Cautious After Wall Street Dips (The New York Times)