This report on the Sotheby’s market re-opening Evening sale for June 2020 by Colin Gleadell is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
Sotheby’s breakthrough $363 million sale on Tuesday night sparked much immediate reporting (not least from AMM), but bears deeper inspection now that the rush to publish first is over and sleep deprivation has been put behind.
Starting with the Ginny Williams collection, it was significant on many different levels. It drew attention to this undoubtedly insightful collector/dealer who focussed on women artists – not at the time that they were making, but later in the 90s. So she was at the spearhead of revisionism. And she bought mostly from other dealers. The top lot, Lee Krasner’s Re-Echo, 1957, which sold for $9 million over a $4/6 m estimate, was bought from Robert Miller in 1991 when there was little resale market for her work. In that year, the market was in recession and only one painting of hers went to auction. That was also from 1957 but slightly smaller, and it sold below estimate for $71,500. Krasner has more recently been feted with museum exhibitions all over Europe and has been riding a crest of resurgent interest typified by the rehang at MoMA in favor of diverse artists.
In a similar category is Helen Frankenthaler who, since her estate was taken over by Gagosian in 2012, has been experiencing a price resurgence, most clearly in this sale with a painting Williams bought in 1993 for $818,500 (a record then) and which now sold for a new record $7.9 million . And then there is Joan Mitchell who is also benefitting from an uptake in Asia. At the Williams sale, where there were three examples, interest appeared to be all American, and not flying far over their quite reasonable estimates ($4/7 million compared to her record $16.6 million). With further examples coming up at Phillips tonight and Christie’s on July 10, there is no shortage of supply to excite demand.
It was also notable that Sotheby’s had guaranteed the whole Williams collection before the pandemic, so were confident they could sell with sensible estimates; and that ten of these lots attracted third party guarantees just before the sale – signifying a desire not to just want a painting, but a belief that a quick profit could be made in the middle of the worst health and economic crisis anyone living in the West, at least, has experienced. As even in times of war, some people just get richer—and these days it’s hedge funders and the new providers, like Jeff Bezos, who have an interest in art.
Retaining some semblance of normality in which live contemporary auctions raise the temperature from the word go, Sotheby’s kicked off its mixed owner contemporary sale with a red-hot artist, Matthew Wong. It was a timely consignment, leaked to The Canvas by an interested party, by Allan Schwartzman, Sotheby’s former advisory director who left the company in May. Wong’s The Realm of Appearances, 2018, was by far the largest painting by the artist to appear at auction and carried a $60/80,000 estimate—in itself far ahead of original prices at Karma, where it was acquired. Wong’s following in Asia was reflected when three different representatives in the Hong Kong office bid the painting up in $50,000 increments to $1.15 million when they were all knocked out by what auctioneer Olly Barker called ‘a very generous bid’ of $1.5 million from New York’s Brooke Lampley ($1.82 million with premium). A second work from the same consignor, described as ‘an important private American collection’, was Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s ‘Cloister,’ 2016. The acquisition was made just as the artist was experiencing an institutional breakthrough with a show at the Serpentine Gallery in London (2015) and further exhibitions at the Kunsthalle Basel and the New Museum in New York in the pipeline (2017), and her prices were soaring from $10,000 six years earlier to S100,000 and more. The artist’s prices have levelled off now and Cloister sold more conservatively just above estimate for $524,000 but will have seen a tidy return.
If Schwartzmann was also the source for that, he leaves the company a few million richer and also providing Sotheby’s with some much needed revenue.
Generally, though, this was more about offering blue chip art in a potentially risk-averse climate. A pre-COVID 19 consignment was Francis Bacon’s relatively late but still masterful 1981 Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, which the owner, Hans Astrup, had been asking over $100 million for, before consigning to Sotheby’s where it sold, armed with a lengthy appraisal by the Bacon scholar Michael Peppiatt, within a more reasonable estimate for $84.5 million—perhaps not as much as the earlier triptych of Lucian Freud which Elaine Wynn bought for $142 million in 2013, but on a par with the price of the last two later triptychs to be sold at auction (2008 and 2014).
Another was the collection of the late Hunk and Moo Anderson which sold out without guarantees but much as estimated for $66.3 million. It was interesting to note how the Andersons, like Williams, bought mostly from dealers.
From Marlborough (also the original source of this auction’s Bacon) there was a Rothko work on paper, bought in 1972, which sold for $8.3 million and a rare 1947 Clyfford Still, also bought in 1972, that sold for $28.7 million. Those were the days for this gallery, currently experiencing internecine warfare. From Martha Jackson they bought a Diebenkorn in 1970 that sold for $9 million and a classic 1956 abstraction by Sam Francis, Deep Blue, Yellow Red bought in 1969, which sold above estimate for $8.9 million, the second highest price for the artist at auction. The record $11.8 million was a for a larger 1957 painting which sold to Eli Broad in 2016. Although the buyer this week’s example is not yet known, the underbidder was Francis Outred, the former Christie’s head of post-war and contemporary art in Europe, and now an independent adviser. Outred believes that second generation Abstract Expressionist painters like Francis, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler, are now coming into their own, and with good reason.
Involved in selling one of the top lots (though he is not saying which) that attracted multiple bids, Outred says he was impressed with Sotheby’s marketing and broadcasting, which reflects new owner, Patrick Drahi’s interests in the technology sector. One company Drahi has shares in, Cheddar, the video news network, was involved in the broadcast.
Also at the upper end of this sale was a painting by Vija Celmins, the deeply resonant Night Sky #7, from 1997. Although not stated in the catalogue, it was being sold by the telecom lawyer and Met trustee, Aaron Fleischman. Fleischman is better known outside the arts as the man who sold Barack Obama his Washington house in 2016 when the former President stepped down, but he has an impressive collection and managed to negotiate a record breaking $6/8 million estimate and a very favourable guarantee, offset before the auction by a third party. As it happened, the painting barely met that estimate and sold to the guarantor for $6.6 million including premium – still a record, but Sotheby’s, who probably forwent the seller’s commission to get it, will not have seen any upside either.
A small 1940s bronze by David Smith did well, doubling estimates to sell to Lampley’s bidder for S1.7m. Hauser & Wirth, which represents Smith’s estate, were not involved in the sale, they said, but took the opportunity to remind AMM and its readers that they open a VR show of Smith’s spray paintings on July 7th. “The result confirms the resilience of Smith’s market and the appetite for our forthcoming VR exhibition,” said director Neil Wenman.
It was notable how few works had been at auction before. Best performer in this context was a 1982 Basquiat head on paper that cost $398,000 in 2000 and sold for a Basquiat work on paper record $15.2 million – though it was not the buyer at the previous auction that reaped the reward, as one report suggested. It changed hands in the interim.
Worst performer was probably Anselm Kiefer’s Der Olberg, 1981, which had sold above estimate at Christie’s for just over $1 million in 2015 and was back as property of Sotheby’s, or at least something which Sotheby’s had a financial interest in. This time it sold on its low estimate on a single bid for $980,000 including premium. But if it was a hardship sale, it did not experience a precipitous loss.
Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern sale was comparatively weak realizing $62.8 million (including the premium) against a premium less $56.6/80 million estimate—so strictly just below the estimate. Three paintings by Picasso contributed $18.8 million to the $62.8 million total garnered for 22 lots. The most valuable could be cited as a hardship sale. Sent for sale by the David Lloyd Kreeger Foundation to boost its ailing revenue, Tete de femme endormie, a 1934 painting of Marie Therese Walter it had a house guarantee and a $9/12 million estimate. Kreeger has acquired it for a mere £4,500 in 1960 so won’t complain at his guaranteed payment after it sold within the estimate for $11.2 million to Sotheby’s Hong Kong team. Another Picasso, a dark, surreal femme assise from 1929, had been bought in 2002 for $3.6 million and returned just $4m (hammer) to the seller courtesy of another Hong Kong bidder who might have been the guarantor as the bid was on the low estimate. Compared to the contemporary sale, there was much more material being recycled from previous auctions, some even less profitably. A Signac bought in 2017 for $4.1 million sold for just $3.6 million
Apart from Picasso, the backbone of the Impressionist and modern sale was a collection of Latin American surrealist art which was described as ‘Vanguard Spirit…from an Important Estate.’
Those familiar with the Latin American market, which has been finding its way in to bolster mainstream Impressionist and Modern art sales in recent years, knew that this was Isaac Lif, the founder of Radiocentro in the Dominican Republic who died last year. Radiocentro made its money from the import and distribution of household appliances, and with the money, Lif built a collection of over 200 works—of varying quality according to some experts—which Sotheby’s will sell over the next two years. The first batch in these sale made a strong impression with 10 works selling for $26.6 million, five of them for record prices. The stand-out was Cuban artist, Wifredo Lam’s Omi Obini, 1943, from his most sought-after series of jungle paintings which had a record breaking $8/12 million estimate. It sold to Sotheby’s London private client director Fergus Duff, who speaks Portuguese and has been playing a prominent role in Asia. The same client also paid a double estimate record $6.2 million for Spanish Mexican artist, Remedios Varo’s ‘Armonia’, 1956. Another of Duff’s clients paid a record $2.7 million for Cuban artist, Mario Carreno’s Cortadores de Cana, 1943, against competition Jessica Lee, a Sotheby’s director in Hong Kong. The currently troubled city is home to a strong contingent of wealthy Cuban exiles. Further Asian interest in Latin American surrealists was demonstrated when Yuki Terase, head of contemporary art in Hong Kong, bought Leonora Carrington’s elegant procession of elongated figures and animals, Tuesday, 1946, for an upper estimate $1.1 million. Lif bought it in 1988, from the renowned Edward James collection for a quadruple estimate record $132,000. James, said to be the bastard son of Britain’s Prince of Wales, was a major patron of the surrealists and had a second home in Mexico. Also from the Edward James collection in 1988, when it cost Lif a double estimate record $154,00, was French/Argentine Leonor Fini’s ‘Personnages sur une terrace,’ 1938, which set a new record $980,000. The flow of records for female Latin American surrealists was completed with the French/Mexican Alice Rahon’s 1960 and painting, ‘Los cuatro hijos…’, which Lif bought in 2008 for $74,500 and was now sold for $512,000.
I haven’t done the math on these, but my impression is they will not put investment minded collectors off Latin American surrealism.