This report on the Christie's October 6th sale by Colin Gleadell features important details on impressive annual returns and unsold Picassos that you won't find anywhere else. The report 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.)
First reports of Christie’s $342 million 20th century sale on Tuesday night gave a lot of space to the innovative technology, commentary and music which, in an effort to entertain, distracted from the focus required to really absorb the content of what was on offer and to follow the bidding process.
Guy Jennings of the Fine Art Group and a veteran former Sotheby’s/Christie’s modern art expert and auctioneer said he appreciated how difficult circumstances are but that “this is serious business and should not be trivialized.” Some of the trimmings, he thought, were “unhelpful.” The commentary that Joan Mitchell’s market was “on fire” just after her painting had sold below the low estimate, for instance, was clearly written in anticipation of a stronger result, and not a reaction to the actual result.
The reports also rightly focussed on the $31.8 million T. Rex and the minimal bidding for the top lots by de Kooning, Twombly and Rothko sold by Ron Perelman (prices include the buyer’s premium, estimates do not). It’s worth adding here that two of the withdrawn lots— a mediocre Matisse at $8-12 million (it cost $834,000 in 2002), and a standard Brice Marden at $12-18 million—were also from Perelman’s collection, as reported by Bloomberg, and the two that Christie’s could not find a guarantor for.
With a rush of late third party guarantors (the sale took just six weeks to assemble, so a rush was to be expected) there were 16 works guaranteed to sell with a combined low estimate $165.5 million or a substantial 60% of the pre-sale low estimate of $277.250 million (excluding that dinosaur). Of the 14 third party guarantees, only half hit their estimates and none exceeded them.
So it was a thin night for the guarantors, including Christie’s which struggled to sell two works which they guaranteed in house and sold below estimate—Frank Stella’s six part Benjamin Moore Paintings (1961) at $8.8 million and Vija Celmins’ rare seascape drawing Untitled (Ocean) for $3 million. The seller of the Celmins did okay, though, having bought it in a day sale in 2013 for $1.7 million. A third work, Egon Schiele’s 1910 watercolour, Liegendes Mädchen in dunkelblauem Kleid, which was bought on a single bid below estimate for $1.47 million, had no guarantee according to the online catalogue, was then given a house guarantee by Christie’s, which converted to a third party guarantee just moments before the sale—too late and too tricky for our commentators to prepare an illuminating aside.
Christie’s also backed a rare fauvist seascape by Emil Nolde, which they estimated to break the artist’s record at $6-8 million. But for a long time there appeared to be only one bid at $6 million. “What are we doing?” the auctioneer implored repeatedly until he was rewarded with a winning bid at $6.1 million.
It must have been a challenging night for auctioneer Adrien Meyer in his rather alien white box setting. Behind him a Monet of white cliffs appeared upside down throughout the bidding. On the house guaranteed Celmins we could hear Christie’s Giovanna Bertazzini conversing with her bidder. “All I want to hear is your bid” intervened Meyer in case of any embarrassment—and the problem was put right.
Despite the negatives, however, the sale succeeded in bringing home the bacon with a total landing right in the middle of its pre-sale estimate. A remarkable achievement in these uncertain times, and considering Europeans were probably half asleep by the time the sale ended at 3:15 am for them. Eight of the nine unsold lots in the sale were among the last twenty.
The sale got off to a great start with the first example to appear at auction from Damien Hirst’s widely trashed 2017 exhibition, “Treasures from the wreck of the Unbelievable,” at Francois Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Just how little attention the market pays to the critics was evident first, when most of the pieces in the show sold for between $500,000 and $5 million, and second at Christie’s when the crustaceous bronze Mickey (as in Mickey Mouse), attracted multiple bids from London, New York, Illinois and Hong Kong taking it way beyond the $700,000 low estimate (presumably related to cost), before selling for $2.3 million.
The Hirst buyer, bidding through Christie’s contemporary specialist Raechel White Young, went on to pick up Picasso’s 1956 painting of a dark and menacing rooster, La Poule (1941), being sold by the Springfield Museum for a mid-estimate $4.35 million. Picasso’s roosters don’t usually perform that well in Impressionist sales—so it was likely a contemporary art buyer who won it. A mouse and a rooster? I’m sure they’ll be very happy together.
Well placed to follow the Hirst was a powerful Magritte gouache featuring a blazing tuba, La decouverte du feu (1959). The Magritte market has been so strong that good examples are guaranteed to attract bidding, and this work was guaranteed by a third party. Last sold in Paris in 2009 when it fetched $567,536, the red-hot tuba tripled that amount for the vendor selling near the top estimate to a New York bidder for $1.6 million. Magritte also did well for Miami collector, Norman Braman, whose foundation was selling an early work, Le nu couche (1928)—a take on Manet’s Olympia, which saw a three way battle between two phone bidders in New York and one in London—the latter buying it within the estimate for $6.87 million. Braman bought it in 2000 for $708,505.
Also pleased must be art advisor David Nisinson, who bought Cecily Brown’s I Will Not Paint Any More Boring Leaves (2), 2004—a take on Baldessari’s 1971 script painting, “I will not make any more boring art”— in 2011 for $846,000, either for himself or a client. After a bidding competition between New York and Hong Kong at Christie’s, it sold to the New York phone for $5.1 million—that’s an impressive average annual gain of 22%. Ironically, in April, Nisinson mischievously posted Brown’s recent comment to the Financial Times that, “no work by a living artist should be over $1 million,” on Twitter. He and several others obviously thought that could be a bit boring too.
Another Nisinson-related sale was Sam Francis’ Blue Composition, 1952, which the catalogue helpfully connected to the artist’s first encounter with Monet’s waterlily paintings and which Nisinson bought—again for himself or the same client—in 2010 for $1.76 million. It sold this week for $3.2 million.
Christie’s had no waterlilies, but more than a handful of impressionist and post-impressionist works by Monet, Sisley and others to stir into the mix. Apart from the record-breaking Cezanne watercolour, however, this category did not shine as the quality was not there. Most competition came for a vivid 1890 vase of anemones by Renoir—bought in 2002 by London dealer, Richard Green for $911,500. Now being sold by the heirs of his clients, Indianapolis collectors Richard D and Billie Lou Wood, it was estimated to make a potential loss at $800,000 but attracted bids from three different telephones in Hong Kong and one in London (I’m guessing Green) before selling to a U.S. bidder for $2.8 million.
The biggest money spinner of the night, predictably, was Picasso with six sales totaling $50.5 million. The only unsold Picasso was a 1924 still life featuring a guitar that had a $7-10 million estimate. The catalogue omitted reference to the previous occasion when this work had been at auction. In 1997, it was offered by Sotheby’s as part of the Evelyn Sharp collection with a $3-4 million estimate, where it was unsold and presumably bought for less after the sale.
An outstanding flop of the night was Jeff Koons’ stainless steel Dolphin (2007)— the first from the edition of three that was begun in 2007 and completed in 2013 to be offered at auction. But, estimated at $2-3 million it sank without trace with no bids at $1.5 million. Even the fact that Kylie Jenner owns a small inflatable version did not inspire any enthusiasm.
The biggest percentage gain of the night was for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s MP (1984), a portrait of his friend Michael Patterson, which had been acquired in 1993, before the Basquiat market really took off, for just $77,300, and sold for $4.6 million. That’s a 38% per annum gain. More people should hang on to their art for longer.