The much-anticipated first Evening sale of the Peggy and David Rockefeller estate posted an dramatic record for a single-owner sale with $646m in sales against an array of art mostly reflecting the Rockefeller’s personal tastes after the numerous gifts of other works to various museums but mostly the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
From the moment the sale was announced attention has been split between the art itself (and how it would perform in the marketplace;) the value of the Rockefeller name in an increasingly global art market that often values art differently from previous eras; and, the inside baseball conjecture about the deal Christie’s struck and what strategy it would pursue to cover the substantial cost of putting on the sale of the century.
On all three points, the results last night were somewhat different from what seasoned professionals might have expected—and what the chatter running up to the event was predicting. For all of the attention lavished on the sale as an epoch-making event, few participants felt the need to show up at Rockefeller center. The event was well-attended but the bidding mostly took place on the telephone, another reminder that the global art marketplace has changed the nature of even the biggest, most glamorous events.
Even if the sale was a little glamour and drama deficient, it was hardly anything but a huge success. Just think about the gamble that Christie’s took six years ago when the deal for the Rockefeller estate was first negotiated. The art market in 2012 had yet to see the updrafts of 2013-15 when nine-figure prices became less of an outlier and more of an objective.
The New York Times believes the guarantee was $650m and doesn’t tell us that the negotiations took place in a different era:
Christie’s defeated its rival Sotheby’s by guaranteeing the Rockefellers’ estate a minimum total price of $650 million, according to a person familiar with the terms of the deal. That is a large gamble for an auction house since it has to cover any shortfall, though Christie’s was able to shift some of the risk to outside investors.
According to other persons with direct knowledge of the talks, Christie’s first offered $400m for the collection but was bid up over $700m. The Rockefellers’ representative also negotiated an option to either take the guarantee or accept some other form of advantage, presumably part of the buyer’s premium. In the end, the fiduciary chose the sure thing over maximizing the estate’s yield.
The $646m made last night means Christie’s is fairly certain to cover the guarantee and probably some of the extensive marketing costs of presenting the collection in four major capitals around the world. But the announcement before the auction began that Christie’s had accepted third-party guarantees on 13 of the 44 lots suggests the auction house was approaching the sale with the same sort of caution. Seven of the evening’s top ten lots had third-party guarantees that would have cut into Christie’s contribution to the total guarantee.
In cases like the Rose-period Picasso and Matisse odalisque, taking the guarantee seems to have been smart sale management. On the Monet Nymphéas, Gauguin’s Wave and Flowers in a Vase, Christie’s seemed to leave some money on the table by hedging their bets.
The Picasso young girl offers an interesting case study in the sale. Many expected the Picasso and the Matisse odalisque to sell for far more than the low estimate guidance. The Matisse attracted some bidding but not enough to ignite the kind of determined competition seen over the Monet Nymphéas. The Picasso seemed to be the subject of some confusion between the auctioneer, Jussi Pylkkanen, and at least one of his specialists whom he repeatedly looked to and wait for a bid from.
Apollo Magazine’s Susan Moore had this take on the bidding and the overall feeling of the evening:
Despite all this, however, it was a strangely underwhelming evening. Firstly, it was odd to see so many empty seats in the saleroom. Then there was the mass of Christie’s personnel crammed into three sets of telephone banks who seemed to be less staff than staffage given that so few of them used a telephone at all. They were almost as redundant as the audience, who barely seemed to raise a paddle. The time it takes to draw out bids from those on the telephone is enough to flatten any fizz. Eight lots were knocked down for less than their published estimates – in the case of the Seurat, a mighty $10m less. But the real damp squib came with the much-anticipated top lot: Picasso’s Fillete à la corbeille fleurie of 1905. Despite Mr Pylkkanen’s sterling efforts to drum up interest, the Rose Period canvas attracted only one bid beyond the $100m its guarantor had already pledged. It changed hands for $115m, including buyer’s commission.
In the end, the work presumably sold to the guarantor whom many assume is a seasoned market participant with a deep stake in the Picasso market. Before the sale, the presumed guarantor was freely predicting a final price for the painting that was multiples of what was paid last night suggesting the new owner will now have to take possession of a problematic painting. Others chimed in with similar beliefs. So the failure of the top lots does put a question mark over the very top of the market going into next week’s various owner sales.
The lackluster (if we can call $115m lackluster) performance of the Picasso, of course, puts everyone in a delicate position which Christie’s Impressionist and Modern Head of Evening sale, Jessica Fertig tried to gamely put a positive spin upon. The Art Newspaper’s Sarah Hanson quotes her take:
“We know our purchaser is thrilled to own it”, Fertig says.
Many buyers last night were clearly thrilled to own the works they won. But bidding patterns don’t necessarily validate the assumption that all the works benefitted from being sold as Rockefeller works, a sentiment expressed by a former Christie’s executive to the Wall Street Journal’s Kelly Crow:
After the sale, art adviser and former Christie’s auction executive Doug Woodham said the fact that Mr. Rockefeller—scion of one of the greatest Gilded Age fortunes—owned these works had likely boosted their sale prices by as much as a third.
Before the sale, a Chinese advisor was skeptical of the quality of the Monet Nymphéas and yet it outperformed expectations and the broader Monet market to become the artist’s top price. As a US-based private dealer points out, the work is stamped, making it even more remarkable that it set a record price. This may be a good example of the value of the Rockefeller provenance.
Yet, even within the Monet market, there were an array of prices. The exterior of the Gare St.-Lazare seemed to underperform expectations with a final price of nearly $33m despite the fact that nine other examples of the work in series are all in major museums. This would seem to be an example of a work that might have performed better in a various owner sale where its other attributes would have been more self-evident.
Then, again, tastes have changed in the Monet market where earlier Impressionist works now hold a relative value lower than the later Modern works like the Nymphéas. Nonetheless, the Monet scene of the Seine at Lavacourt from the same period outperformed estimates to make nearly $16m.
There were other indications that the prices were more localized than simply whether the works had been owned by the Rockefellers. The strong showing by the two Gauguin works is a case in point. Many observers seem to have formed a personal attachment to the Gauguin wave painting which was validated in the bidding that put the non-Tahitian work on a price par with the Monet of the Gare St.-Lazare. Even the Flowers in a Vase painting which was bought quite recently relative to the age of the collection turned into one of the sale’s best performers making more than twice the high estimate to yield $19m. When it was last auctioned in 2006, the work was bought in, picked up in the after sale by a major dealer and flipped to Rockefeller for solid profit.
It would be hard for anyone to argue that the performance of one obscure work was attributable to the Rockefeller provenance but why it became the most dynamic lot of the sale is anyone’s guess. Judd Tully, writing for ArtNews, gave it a try:
Less known but thoroughly rare and unquestionably top-rated, Armand Seguin’s Les delices de la vie (circa 1892–93), a stunning four-panel screen in oil on canvas and laid down on board, depicting a rather hedonistic dance hall scene, sold for a record $7.7 million (estimated at $1 million to $1.5 million) to Geneva-based art adviser Thomas Seydoux. Exiting the ticket-entry-only salesroom, Seydoux described the painting as “a wonderful piece, really rare and of a high quality that’s hard to find.” He was less impressed with the overall tenor of the auction, noting, “It seemed lacking in fire power. There are great results on paper but it was a bit slow”—a sentiment shared by several other expert observers.
Several observers had predicted stronger performances for the several Pointillist works the Rockefellers owned. The subtle Signac and Seurat seascapes may have been more the victims of changing tastes as witnessed by the strong price achieved for the Signac Antibes work with a more vibrant palette. But the clear fact is that the Rockefeller provenance did nothing for the Seurat that ended the sale. The small painting of a man breaking rocks was acquired in 2006 for $1.36m; last night it limped through for a half-price bargain of $732,500.
Another way to look at this question is to ask whether the Rockefeller sale prices tells us anything about the broader market at large. At least one Morandi collector scoffed at the original estimate on the 1940 work in the collection suggesting the price was a Rockefeller premium. Morandis trade on the colors and composition more than dates, yet this early, dark and somewhat awkward work fetched twice the going rate for some of the most appealing works.
The buyer told Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina that his bidding was more about new attention to Modern market than the Rockefeller provenance:
“That’s what rational exuberance looks like,” said Marc Glimcher, president of Pace Gallery, who won a still life by Giorgio Morandi for $4.3 million, an artist auction record. “There’s a lot of great new energy in the Impressionist and modern art field from all over the world.”
To this, we can add Jussi Pylkkanen’s observation recorded by Apollo Magazine, that a substantial number of new buyers were bidding in the sale:
As Pylkkanen commented after the sale: ‘about 20 per cent of the auction went to newish buyers who we did not necessarily believe would participate at this level.’
Given the spotty nature of the sale, we can either conclude that the new buyers are skeptical of the Rockefeller estimates—much of the aggressive bidding took place on lower value lots—or we can believe that where newer tastes and Rockefeller provenance coincide, there were opportunities for fireworks.
One dealer button-holed by Artsy’s Nate Freeman looked at the underbidders as a telltale of market appetite:
the Upper East Side dealer Emmanuel Di Donna—himself a former Sotheby’s global vice chairman—said that during the fight for the Monet, when you combined all the bids, “there was $400 million of available money for a picture like that.” “Clearly, there’s a lot of depth in the market, if that many people were bidding at the level,” Di Donna said.
But that’s at the $50-70m level which has been a bit of a wasteland for the art market since 2015. For the most part, the top of the market has broken into the stratospheric top with the occasional nine-figure work and the very active $5-20m range. The Rockefeller sale hasn’t really told us much about that dynamic. Next week we will learn a great deal more.
Until then, let’s close with a brief tour of the market denizens’ take on the Rockefeller sale. They range from the potted to the preposterous. Art lawyer Thomas Danziger clearly had rehearsed his reaction. Here he is in Bloomberg:
“The Rockefeller name was clearly bankable in the auction room”
And, again, in the Wall Street Journal:
“Christie’s literally took this sale to the bank,” he said.
Sotheby’s former Imp-Mod rainmaker, thinks the Rockefeller provenance has double appeal. Here is what she told Bloomberg:
“What you can’t underestimate is the history of the pictures, the premium to be paid for what’s essentially American royalty,” said Melanie Clore, London-based art advisor and co-founder of Clore Wyndham. “If you are a new collector it’s a great validation and if you are an old collector it’s part of your history.”
Meanwhile, a former titan of finance and an active collector of Contemporary art is cheered by the turn toward the 20th Century:
“It’s really fabulous,” said the collector Donald B. Marron, who referred to the works’ provenance as the “Rockefeller premium.” “It’s nice to see things that are modern, rather than contemporary, bringing good prices.”
Finally, the long run-up to the sale might have exhausted even the most indefatigable of art market hypebeasts:
“There’s resistance at the top level,” said Brett Gorvy, co-owner of Levy Gorvy gallery in New York and London, adding that the results for Picasso and Matisse were disappointing “after so much hype.”
Pulled From Rockefeller Walls, Picasso, Matisse and Monet Fetch Big Prices (The New York Times)
Rockefeller heavy-hitters pull in $646m for charity at Christie’s (The Art Newspaper)