This round-up of the reporting on the November Impressionist and Modern Evening sales is available to AMMpro subscribers. The first month of a monthly subscription is free which makes it easy to subscribe and cancel before you pay.
There’s a market impression forming that the combination of high expectations and the armature of third-party guarantees is creating a successful but muted art market. With so much effort going into pre-selling works at auction to meet the estimate demands of sellers, the auctions this week themselves have begun to feel anti-climactic.
The Ebsworth sale at Christie’s is a case in point. The $317m total made the sale a solid success but the room felt muted with a fair number of empty seats, hardly the gala evening event befitting a collection of Ebsworth’s reputation. Maybe it was the shadow of the Rockefeller sale or the market hangover or simply the spreading presumption of a tougher macroeconomic environment in the future. Whatever the underlying cause, the numbers told a different story from the bidding where most works sold without excitement.
The New York Times’s Scott Reyburn got this quote from one dealer who has been on both sides of the equation:
“It didn’t fly, but it was pretty solid,” said Philippe Ségalot, a private art dealer based in New York, referring to the auction.
The Wall Street Journal had a different take that might need a grain of salt to be taken with it:
“The fact that so many of these evening-sale lots are now guaranteed gives people the misleading impression that big auctions are riskless propositions, but that’s clearly not the case,” said art lawyer Thomas Danziger.
It’s hard to believe anyone thinks auctions are riskless. But a single-owner collection with a global guarantee is a substantially different market proposition than individually guaranteed lots.
Christie’s continuing strategy of owning the top of the market puts it in a somewhat more conservative position than other houses. Having made the big commitment on Ebsworth—said to be a $300m guarantee—and assumed the risk of the sale, Christie’s becomes far less invested in achieving greater upside than assuring the coverage of potential losses. Thus, the biggest lots last night were backed up with guarantees.
Ironically, the two late guarantees announced from the podium were on lots that saw some of the rare aggressive bidding. Jasper Johns’s Gray Rectangles, universally recognized as a ‘tough picture’ due to its subtleties and grey expanses even though the work has the rare imprimatur of two collectors (Ganz and Ebsworth) with noted taste, got a late third-party backer got bids albeit only to half a million above the low estimate.
Judd Tully caught up with the buyer of the other work that took a late guarantee but still saw bids that drove the hammer price 45% over the low estimate.
Ebsworth bought a second Hopper from Zierler, the watercolor Cottages from North Truro (1938), for $65,000 the same year he acquired Chop Suey. At Christie’s, it sold to Abigail Asher of Guggenheim Asher Associates for $3.49 million (estimate $2 million–$3 million). “It’s a beautiful object in a large sheet size and hard to find,” Asher said as she bounded out of the Rockefeller Center salesroom. “We were prepared to go much higher.”
Speaking of Hopper, the night’s biggest lot saw competition but perhaps less than many had hoped. As we tried to point out earlier, there’s good reason to view the $70m low estimate on Hopper’s Chop Suey to have been quite low compared to prices Ebsworth was offered for the work in the past. But not everyone sees it that way. Again, here’s Reyburn:
“Really, $100 million for a Hopper? I don’t know how they come up with these valuations,” said Howard Rehs, a New York gallerist specializing in American art, who, like other dealers, expressed incredulity at some of the estimates put on works in a “gigaweek” of Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips art auctions that could raise at least $1.8 billion.
That the painting did come quite close to achieving a nine-figure result (before the third-party guarantor got a $4m discount for having made the early commitment) suggests the valuation wasn’t so far-fetched. What is far-fetched is this quote gathered by Kazakina:
“‘Chop Suey’ is an icon and it belongs in a museum,” said Heinrich zu Hohenlohe, a dealer based in Berlin who attended the auction. “As a dealer I see this as an opportunity, of course. As a citizen of the world, I see it as a cop-out.”
Unless this dealer believes there ought to be a commission that goes around seizing works for museums and apportioning them among them around the world, the suggestion that any work of art “belongs in a museum” is fatuous and self-serving. Coming from a dealer it just smacks of envy. It is true that Ebsworth had promised his art collection to two museums and only partially fulfilled those commitments. But a museum is no better steward of the work or likely to loan the work than many collectors, including Ebsworth who just loaned his de Kooning to David Anfam’s Ab-Ex show in London last year.
That de Kooning, Woman as Landscape, sold after a brief exchange of bids between Alex Rotter on the phone with a client and a bidder in the room who offered $58m only to be topped by Rotter’s client. Jussi Pylkkanen made a few attempts to buy time and bring in more bids but the trail was going cold. Rotter got a late commitment from another client willing to pip the other bidders at $61m. It worked.
Those kinds of hesitant bids, especially in the room, were on full display during the sale of the third most valuable lot in the sale. Here’s how Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina described the winner:
Jackson Pollock’s 1950 “Composition with Red Strokes” fetched $55.4 million against an estimate of $50 million to $70 million. The price didn’t surpass his auction record is $58.4 million from 2013. The buyer was Swiss art dealer Doris Ammann, who also won a wooden sculpture of a hen by Alexander Calder for $8.4 million.
Ammann won that bidding more because she got her bid recognized first. The bidding opened at $42m on a telephone and was countered with $45m in the room. As Pylkkanen widened his eyes imploring another bid from the room, Loic Gouzer countered with a slightly chopped bid. The spotter to Pylkkanen’s left was trying to recognize Dominique Lévy who had raised her hand flicking her index finger to signal a chopped bid as well. Was she thinking $47m like Gouzer’s client? Or was she trying to get $48m or $49m? We’ll never know because Ammann made the $50m bid. But what’s important for our purposes in trying to gauge the market is that several bidders existed in the high forties but none other than Ammann once a 5 handle appeared.
Is that a cautious market or a disciplined one? It is hard to tell but on thing is certain. The market is not euphoric or filled with the sense that these works presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity which is somewhat odd given Ebsworth’s stature as a collector with a trenchant eye.
Kazakina also got this comment on the sparse competition:
“Shallow bidding creates opportunities,” said Skarlet Smatana, director of the George Economou Collection in Athens, who was a buyer at the sale but declined to identify what she purchased. “There were a few important opportunities tonight at low estimates.”
That may be the final comment on the sale. As with the rest of the market for some time, lower value works get more attention and competition. Ebsworth’s interest in American art has clearly limited the upside of much of his collection. That market remains an opportunity for collectors and there were clear signals that buyers were looking at under-appreciated artists with new eyes.
The action often felt particularly intense at the lower price points and for some of the less well-known names. A painting by Francis Criss, Melancholy Interlude (1939), sold for $348,500, more than double the high estimate. Similarly, Suzy Frelinghuysen’s Composition (1943) sold for $552,500 against an estimate of $120,000 to $180,000. And Leon Polk-Smith’s Black Over Red(1960) leapt to $336,500 compared with an estimate of $50,000 to $70,000.
Hopper Painting Sells for Record $91.9 Million at Christie’s (New York Times)
$92 Million Edward Hopper Highlights Christie’s Auction (WSJ)
Record-Smashing $91.9 M. Edward Hopper Buoys On-Target ‘American Place’ Sale at Christie’s, with $317.8 M. Total (Artnews)
Hopper’s ‘Chop Suey’ Sets Artist Auction Record at $91.9 Million (Bloomberg)
New Auction Records for Hopper and de Kooning Lead Christie’s Booming $318 Million Barney Ebsworth Sale (Artnet)