Sotheby’s hybrid Evening sale of small works and Impressionist and Modern masterworks was an uneven success with some real surprises as the two sales tallied £127.9m for the Impressionist and Modern sale + £20.9m for Actual Size, the small works sale or £148.9m ($187.7m) combined. On a hammer basis, Actual Size failed to reach the low estimate while the Impressionist and Modern sale just reached the low estimate. The sell-through rates were 65% and 74% respectively for Actual Size and the Imp-Mod sale.
These numbers may reflect the state of estimates—especially when they are undergirded by actual buyers who took positions pre-sale with irrevocable bides—which are quite high and require a fair bit of work for the specialists to rally bidding interest. With estimates peaking, there are two likely outcomes for the category (Impressionist and Modern works, not small ones.) The first is for sales to tread water until the specialists find another group of works that are perceived to be undervalued. The second is for sales to migrate toward the private market now that valuations are fairly stable and well known. Buyers and sellers prefer to sell privately as long as they have confidence in pricing. Auctions are a venue necessary for price discovery.
Both of these trends could easily take place at the same time. Art Basel’s strong sales reports suggest the private market is charging back which might also hasten other changes.
Sotheby’s hybrid sale also highlighted another looming issue: the global sales calendar. Having successfully converted New York from a two-week sales venue to one week for the semi-annual sales, the auction house ecosystem is now putting the London sales under pressure. The immediate issue is London’s tripartite schedule with sales in February, June and October. Although those sales are not equally weighted, the February and June dates have long been inconvenient once the global auction cycle fell into place.
Earlier this year, the London sales were successfully moved to March from February giving the specialists more time to source lots after the Winter holidays which relieves some pressure on the auction house staff. Ideally, to some, the June sales would evaporate to be replaced by a big auction week in London some time in late September. That would create some even spacing between the sales and some breathing room between the New York and London sales. Getting there is the hard part. Right now, it looks like Frieze week will be elevated to a more prominent and inclusive sales event, especially after the success of Frieze Masters and the other non-Contemporary art fairs that take place now in early October.
The other calendar issue that Sotheby’s sale also brought into focus is the question of the Impressionist, Modern, Post-War and Contemporary categories. The Actual Size sale saw strength in two works that were fully outside of the Impressionist and Modern categories as now defined. The top lot in the small works was an Old Master still life by Ambrosius Bosschaert that made nearly £3m. Lucien Freud, Piero Manzoni and Ed Ruscha also did well in what was ostensibly a Modern-themed auction.
All of that suggests the dividing line between Modern and Post-war may no longer be helpful. It may seem too far to sell Kandinsky alongside Basquiat. But there’s definitely room to move the brackets on these sales categories or create Evening sales of exciting lots from across the categories while still holding Day sales by category all in one week.
The main story of Sotheby’s dual sale was that not only could Kandinsky carry an auction—his two works accounted for 42% of the Imp-Mod sale’s total—but that there was strong Asian interest in the painter. The top lot, Kandinsky’s Painting with White Lines from the almost holy year of 1913, was bought by Hugo Nathan (for a client) who had to sit out a few bids while Sotheby’s Patti Wong drove the price higher bidding for an Asian client.
Wong also bid upon and won the Bosschaert in the Actual Size sale making it the most expensive lot in the sale and providing yet another reminder of the breadth of interest coming from Asian buyers. It hasn’t been widely recognized that Asian buyers are interested in names like Bosschaert and Kandinsky.
Colin Gleadell, writing on Artnet, says the Kandinsky with white lines was guaranteed (possibly by Ronald Lauder) for £27m before selling to Nathan for £33m:
Kandinsky’s previous auction record was $23.3 million, set at Christie’s New York last year for a large 1935 painting, Rigide et Courbe. But for a key comparison with another painting from this vitally important period in his career, we have to go back to the peak of the 1990 art market boom, when his Fugue (1914), from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, sold at Sotheby’s for $21 million. (Accounting for inflation, that figure is equivalent to $39.3 million in 2017—still less than tonight’s record-setting Kandinsky.)
Others report that the quality of the work on offer, a rare one to come to market, may have more to do with its failure to keep up with inflation.
Judd Tully points out that the evening’s other Kandinsky was no less of a star:
Another standout offering, something of increasing rarity in this material starved market, Wassily Kandinsky’s iconic composition in blazing colors, “Murnau-Landscape with Green House” from 1909 and scaled at 27 ½ by 37 ¾ inches that sold for a record £20,971,250/$26,442,649 (est. £15-25 million). The painting was included in the important traveling exhibition organized by Tate Modern and the Basel Kunstmusuem, “Kandinsky: The Path to Abstraction” in 2006-2007. It has been cloistered in the same family collection since the 1920’s. At least four other related works from the same year (1909) have appeared in the past ten years at auction, including “Studie fur Improvisation 8” that sold for $22.3 million at Christie’s New York in November 2012.
Beyond Kandinsky there was a great deal of anticipation around the sale of Joan Miró’s Constellation which had a £30m whisper number as an estimate but, it would appear, only a £20m or so irrevocable bid. It remains unclear whether the £21.7m bid in the room for the work was the irrevocable bid or a topper but the sale was watched intently by some who know where the other privately held Constellations are and may even have discretion over a couple of them. Here’s Gleadell:
as dealer Bill Acquavella watched intently, there appeared to be only one bidder for the work: the guarantor. Although there were no fireworks, the picture sold for £24.6 million ($31 million)—a record in pounds nonetheless. The work last sold at auction (though not to the consignor) in 1984 for £407,000.
That last number ignores the midway price signal of $5.6m paid for Stanely Seeger’s Constellation in 2001. A work seeing a six-fold increase in value over 16 years can’t be considered a laggard but it might keep some of those other Constellations off the market for a while yet.
The next lot among the top works was a Giacometti statue that made almost £18m. Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina says the seller was Leon Black:
Another highlight was Alberto Giacometti’s elongated sculpture of a female nude that went for $22.6 million. The seller was billionaire Leon Black, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.
Sotheby’s Brawny Night (Judd Tully)