The report on Sotheby’s October 28th Live-Stream Evening sale includes details on works that made a profit for their sellers and a number of surprising works that were sold at a loss . It 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.)
On top of numerous successful modern and contemporary art sales in Hong Kong, Paris and London since the end of July, Sotheby’s mounted its final putsch before the U.S. election yesterday with two sales from it New York headquarters, hoping to garner as much as $344.3 million without the additional buyer’s premium.
The resulting total $283.9 million including the premium, may have been disappointing, but as we shall see, many estimates were set as if normal conditions prevailed. (Prices include the buyer’s premium, estimates do not)
To achieve that much with a high sell-through rate of 97%, even below estimate, was, as Oliver Barker might have said, an ‘extraordinary’ achievement— his most used adjective of the night to describe the works of art he was selling. But then again, he was acting up for over 1 million viewers.
Launching with a contemporary art sale given an estimate of $128.2 million-$184.2 million for 41 lots, the sale made $142.8 million including buyer’s premium after five lots were withdrawn and two were unsold.
Among the withdrawn lots were a 1957 Clyfford Still with a $12 million-18 million estimate, and a 1987-8 Brice Marden with a $10 million-15 million estimate which were part of the much disputed sell off by the Baltimore Museum of Art and had carried third party guarantees which must have been rescinded.
The sale opened with the customary selection from today’s hottest emerging artists. Barbershop (2015) by Jordan Casteel had the highest estimate yet for the artist at $400,000-$600,000, following the record $668,000 set in London in February and mustered a mid-estimate $564,500. Matthew Wong-fever continued apace with a highly decorative painting of trees that sold six times over the estimate for $1.7 million. The Wong was one of just three to sell for multiple times the low estimate during the sale. A portrait of Albert Einstein by Andy Warhol doubled predictions selling for $2.3 million, and a large sculpture of a crying giant by Tom Otterness—his largest ever at auction— sold for a double mid-estimate price of $1.2 million.
Altogether, 24 of the 41 lots carried guarantees with a low estimate value of $80 million or over 50% of the low estimate for the whole sale.
Four of the top six estimated lots (including a group of three 1950s Alfa Romeo cars) were guaranteed and Sotheby’s had a financial interest in a somber Rothko Untitled (Black on Maroon) which carried the highest estimate of the evening of at $25 million-$35 million. The Rothko was last at auction in 2013 when it sold for $27 million to Dominique Levy. Sources believed she was buying for the financier David Martinez. In any event it changed hands again, at which point Sotheby’s took a financial interest. But whether this backstory put bidders off or it was too depressing a painting for these depressing times, it attracted no bidders.
A 12-foot horizontal aluminum stack from 1980 by the minimalist sculptor Donald Judd, last on the market in 2011, when it made a below estimate $2.8 million was looking for a small return now with a little help from the barely seen MoMA Judd retrospective, which closed soon after it opened this year because of the pandemic. Back with a $4 million-$6 million estimate, it was withdrawn before the sale due to lack of interest.
Another Judd was a 14-foot 1978 vertical blue stack, also with a $4 million-$6 million estimate but without a guarantee. It had been bought by the seller from the Lisson gallery in 1979 for $27,000. Unfortunately for the elderly Swiss owner, he consigned it to the Gagosian Gallery for art fairs in Hong Kong and Basel where it was overpriced at $12 million and didn’t sell. This probably didn’t help its prospects, but it did sell within estimate for a premium inclusive of $5.2 million.
There was clearly active bidding prior to the auction, as numerous lots by Ed Ruscha, Gerhard Richter, Alex Katz and a table designed by Carlo Mollino that was being sold by the Brooklyn Museum with a record $2 million-$3 million estimate, acquired third party guarantees in the lead up.
Most lived up to the guarantors’ expectations. The Richter abstract was bought 18 years ago for $239,700 and sold above estimate for $4.6 million; the Katz’ double portrait, The Red Band, sold above the estimate for $3.2 million– one of the highest prices for the artist, and the Mollino table doubled estimates to sell for a record $6.2 million– leading Sotheby’s to assign Italian design as the major highlight of the sale.
Record estimates are a sign of confidence, but don’t always have that affect. In addition to the early lots, a very long basket hanging sculpture (S.67) by Ruth Asawa— still riding the wave stirred by David Zwirner and the artist’s estate gatekeeper, Zwirner director Jonathan Laib, carried an equal record estimate of $3 million-$5 million. But maybe that wave has crested. Last night S.67 (1952) fell short of the artist’s $5.4 million record and sold within the estimate for $4.2 million.
Also subject to a late guarantee was a 1959 kinetic work, La Luega de la Luz, by Venezuelan, Paris-based artist Jesus Rafael Soto, which carried an estimate of $700,000-$900,000. The last time Soto’s work had this high an estimate was in 2012 when a different work fetched the record $1.1 million. Soto’s work has since sold for more on the private market. In 2015, Perrotin took on representation of the artist’s estate and last year Hauser & Wirth presented a solo show of his work, “Vibrations” in New York. But tonight La Luega de la Luz appeared to sell to the guarantor without competition for $830,700.
Although the market remained strong for female abstract expressionist and color field painters– Helen Frankenthaler and Lee Krasner– and classic minimalist Frank Stella, some works, as was to be expected, made a loss. An Yves Klein blue monochrome bought in 2016 for $3.3 million sold for $2.1 million (or $2.6 million including premium), so the owner lost $1.2 million in four years. A Warhol Statue of Liberty, bought in 2016 for $3.7 million, sold at $2.5 million– a similar loss. A white Lucio Fontana with a single cut that fetched $4.3 million in 2014 achieved just $3 million including premium.
In the end, this was a fairly mixed performance that stood up in the final count, but betrayed pricing issues for vendors that may not improve in the months to come.