This recap of the coverage of Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern Art Evening sale is available to AMMpro subscribers. Subscribers get the first month free of charge. Feel free to subscribe and cancel before you are billed.
One of the key complaints that led to the activist investment in Sotheby’s was that the auction house had fallen behind its rival Christie’s in putting on the all-important Contemporary art auctions. This week, coming off last season’s surprise triumph with the Wilkes Basquiat and a year after the equally defiant success with the Ames estate, Sotheby’s finally posted a Contemporary Art Evening sale total that was only 10% behind Christie’s.
Nate Freeman of Artnews picked up on this statistic given out at Sotheby’s post-sale press conference by auctioneer Oliver Barker.
If you compare contemporary to contemporary and remove the $450 million from the total, Christie’s totaled $338.6 million, just a bit higher than the total at arch-rival Sotheby’s tonight.
To be fair to both sides, Sotheby’s posted $302.7m without the Ferrari Formula 1 car bringing it just into the same 3-handle as Christie’s. But considering this season was dominated by estates which Christie’s outbid the competition for, Sotheby’s sales total is a validating triumph for the entire team.
It sure didn’t feel like that during any of the week’s Contemporary auctions. Across the board, the sales were characterized more by the monotony of a highly managed sale where works mostly get gaveled to a pre-arranged bidder. Sotheby’s Gregoire Billault acknowledged this when he pointed out that Sotheby’s had achieved a remarkable four New York Contemporary Evening sales in a row with a 90% sell-through rate. Billault is responsible for that hawk-eyed management but he certainly had help from Sotheby’s COO Adam Chinn and the ever-watchful Amy Cappellazzo. All four of whom have been running the shop these last four sales cycles.
With the close sale management comes some risks. Art auctions share a bit with fashion shows. They’re highly stage-managed events that serve both tactical goals (making sales) and strategic goals (creating a brand identity and status.) The danger facing the auction houses is that these heavily managed sales—which may be the right move at this moment in the art market cycle—will ossify into the kind of Potemkin-village events that fashion shows have become.
The runway shows were once a way that designers got stores to book orders. They were hard-nosed sales events. Now a fashion show has very little to do with what is made and sold in stores. If you ask anyone to take the pulse of the Evening sales this week, they’ll tell you they were boring, disappointing affairs with only a few brief moments of excitement (the Leonardo once-in-a-generation event notwithstanding.) Take a look at the Evening sale numbers and you see a very different story.
To add to the cognitive dissonance, the Contemporary day sale totals suggest a raging market that is not really evident in the marquee events of the evening. One problem is simply the estimates. Year upon year of strong Contemporary art sales make it hard to bring lots to market without estimates that are anything more than aspirational. At the top end, there’s also a lack of market leadership. No one looks to Warhol or Bacon or Twombly or Rothko or Richter or, even, Christopher Wool to set new record prices and sale volumes. That leaves the Evening sales lacking in excitement even with a certain built-in disappointment.
Judd Tully captures this failure of market leadership perfectly in his report for The Art Newspaper:
The sale’s biggest-ticket items failed to spark much competition, however. Warhol’s fantastic blue-grounded Mao (1972), executed in silkscreen ink and pencil on canvas was hammered down on a single bid, nudging it into the $30m-$40m estimate range with a final price of $32.4m. Sotheby’s had sold another, equally large version for $47.5m in November 2015. Warhol wizard Jose Mugrabi said as he left the salesroom, “It was a fair price for a good painting, and I think a very good buy.” Pressed to comment on that precipitous drop, Mugrabi maintained his trader’s wits, adding only, “The price of today is a fair price.”
Meanwhile, the search for the works of undervalued historical masters and emerging blue chip artists like Mark Bradford and George Condo continues in the days sales, often at prices that would argue for inclusion in the evening events.
This is part of what David Zwirner is getting at when he talked to the Financial Times:
“If you take the Leonardo out you would have had a very solid sale that would not feel frothy,” said David Zwirner, a gallery owner in New York. “The market is very strong but sane. When it gets insane, then you have to worry about froth. I can’t think of an irrational result [on Wednesday] that really surprised, forget the da Vinci. And we won’t see too many Da Vinci’s trade in our lifetime.”
The emphasis on branding events has another downside. One complaint about the presence of the Leonardo in the week is that it was a distraction that might have repulsed bidders. The more likely occurrence is that Christie’s team was monomaniacal about their triumph to the detriment of some of the other lots that might have needed more careful selling.
The argument for that comes in the form of two very similar lots from Louise Bourgeois. Early in the gathering cycle, Christie’s and Sotheby’s competed for a Louise Bourgeois spider that hangs from the wall. Christie’s won the lot much to Sotheby’s chagrin. But the folks on York Avenue got their competitive juices flowing and beat the bushes for another nearly identical version of the work. It’s true that Sotheby’s lot had a slightly more appealing curlicue and came with a photograph of the artist with the work. But in most other respects the works were identical even down to the $10m estimates.
On auction night, two lots before the big event, Christie’s sold their spider on a single bid for $11.56m. The next night, Sotheby’s Asian grandee Kevin Ching got in a bidding war that yielded a final selling price of $14.6m. The $3m difference isn’t going to make or break either house. And there’s a good argument to make that there weren’t that many bidders for the spiders and Sotheby’s not split the market but also just came up with the better piece. Maybe they hustled harder. Maybe Christie’s was keeping their eyes on the bigger prize. Either way, the top of the art market has become as important as theater as it is as business.
Da Vinci sale propels auction houses to $2bn week (Financial Times)
Phillips and Sotheby’s deliver healthy totals for contemporary art (The Art Newspaper)