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Sotheby’s $296.6m sale of Impressionist and Modern art last night demonstrated the strength and weakness of the new model marquee sale. All three auction houses have adopted a hybrid model of selling that involves securing work with a mix of direct and third-party guarantees. In effect, a large portion of any visibility auction is now pre-sold in the weeks and months leading up to the sale. The auction itself gives a broader range of buyers the opportunity to weigh in.
Last night, we saw that most of the early deals were decent deals and the transactions went off as expected. This makes for strong sales totals, Sotheby’s $296.6m is up 71% year over year as the auction house is only too happy to tell you, which convey the idea of a healthy market. It also happens to make for a fairly uneventful sale night. Without the prospect of drama, fewer onlookers and see-and-be-seeners show up.
At both Christie’s and Sotheby’s, there were strong sales totals that resulted from a drawn out auction amid empty seats. Sotheby’s Helena Newman tried to liven up the event with her musical voice and operatic manner (and a sequined dress that seems to be one of the several she has for her nights on the podium.)
“The sale seems quite strong, actually,” said Wentworth Beaumont as he raced out of the salesroom to take a call.
That perception was echoed in part by other close observers, including the private New York dealer Mary Hoeveler who took a broader brush and said, “it was just like last night at Christie’s that when fresh and rare, historically important works came up, people are willing to pay for it but when it was lower quality, people were indifferent. The market is much more selective now,” added the advisor who bought a record setting work at Christie’s on Monday evening but declined to identify it, “it’s really a question about the material, not the price.”
Where there was bidding last night, Asian buyers made a big difference. Sotheby’s Simon Shaw said, “Asia was clearly a major story – we had seven different buyers spanning China, Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong, and many more under-bidders.” But other buyers also had an impact.
The top lot, a Chagall, went to a Russian buyer, according to Judd Tully:
It sold to the telephone manned by Irina Stepanova, Sotheby’s managing director, Russia, for a record breaking $28,453,000 (est. $12-18 million). The underbidder’s phone line was manned by Patti Wong, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia.
The night before, Artnet News’s Eileen Kinsella spotted one paddle number accounting for $91m, or nearly 20% of the sale total, wielded by Christie’s Asia head Rebecca Wei. At Sotheby’s, Patti Wong did the honors with an occasional assist from Kevin Ching.
Here’s Artnews’s Nate Freeman narrating their buying binge:
After losing the night’s star lot, Wong came back with a vengeance, securing one work after another only to yell out the same paddle number after. Monet’s Les Glaçons, Bennecourt (1893-1894) hammered at $20.5 million for Wong’s client with the paddle L0016 after she fended off offensives from Sotheby’s Asia CEO Kevin Ching and Impressionist & modern art senior vice president Melissa Post. With the advance,the price became $23.4 million. The same paddle then purchased […] later in the sale, Monet’s Les Arceaux de roses, Giverny (1913) for $19.4 million. As the sale wound down, Chagall’s Le Grand Cirque (1956) came up on the block, and Wong had to beat back a feisty James Mackie as he tossed out bids of small increments, forcing her to move up by a few hundred thousand dollars each go-around. The back-and-forth continued for long enough to get rushed by Newman, and Wong finally caused Mackie to pause at $14 million, where it hammered. Again, the paddle number was L0016, and that client will end up paying $16 million with fees. It’s now the second most expensive Chagall sold at auction. During the post-sale press conference, Newman was asked whether it was possible for a single paddle number to be used for two different collectors, and she responded that it was “highly unlikely.”
As usual, Judd Tully kept track of the profit and losses realized by some of the sellers:
Rene Magritte’s late and relatively large-scaled “le Banquet” from 1956-57 served as a palette cleanser to the Zweig entrees, featuring a darkened parkland of trees marked with a blazing, setting sun piercing the center of the 29 ¾ by 47 5/8 inch canvas with a red bullseye. It sold to another telephone bidder for $13,626,000 (est. $12-18 million) and last sold at Christie’s New York in May 2007 for $6,760,000.
Edgar Degas’s brilliantly composed and widely exhibited equestrian composition, formerly in the collection of John Hay Whitney, “Avant la course” from circa 1882-88, executed in oil on paper and laid down on board in a cradled panel, realized a disappointed $2,415,000 (est. $3-5 million). Zweig acquired it at Sotheby’s New York in November 2009 for $4,376,000.
It’s easy to get caught up in the idea that Asian buyers saved the sale but the truth is many other bidders were already satisfied with their pre-arranged purchases. The problem with the sale was a recurring one for the category. Once again, buyers revolted against the estimates often waiting until Helena Newman signalled a work would sell at a price well below the low estimate. Sometimes the bidders got a bargain, others times new blood came into the bidding and bought at or near the low estimate.
Here’s Kelly Crow talking to a non-Asian buyer who was still in there bidding:
Afterward, art consultant Fred Leeman of PHC Fine Arts N.V. said, “It felt like a really strong sale, but without the Asians, maybe it could have been a disaster, no?”
Mr. Leeman and others from Europe and the U.S. put up a worthy fight, though. Bidding on behalf of a Dutch client, he took home a $1.6 million Edgar Degas pastel depiction of “Three Dancers” on green paper that was sold by heritage-preservationist advocate Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel. The ballerinas were only expected to sell for up to $1.2 million. His same client also won a $1.6 million Gustave Caillebotte garden scene.
Asia Dominates Top End Trophies at Sotheby’s (Judd Tully)
Sotheby’s Pulls in $269.7 M. During Modest Imp-Mod Sale, Led By Record $28.5 M. Chagall (ARTnews)
Asian Trophy Hunter Drives Sotheby’s Sale (WSJ)