The Thursday before Sotheby’s Saturday-night-in-Las-Vegas sale of 11 Picasso works from the Bellagio’s eponymous restaurant, Brooke Lampley was feeling more than a little “trepidation.” MGM Resorts International, the corporation that had bought Steve Wynn’s Mirage Resorts in 2000—including Wynn’s pet art-cum-luxury-dining-experience restaurant at the Bellagio decorated with a number of significant works by the Modern master—had decided to cash out on the art market gains of the last 20 years. But there was nothing about the sale that required Sotheby’s to transport a substantial portion of their senior staff, including Principal Auctioneer Oliver Barker, CEO Charles Stewart, Lampley, David Schrader who runs private sales and Gregoire Billault, Chairman of Contemporary art plus a host of other client-facing personnel to Las Vegas.
The Sotheby’s road trip wouldn’t necessarily lighten the effort that went into making sure the Picassos sold. The traveling circus would increase it. In addition to navigating the many allures and distractions of Las Vegas, the Sotheby’s team still had to get the bids. But this time they would be doing it without a New York showing and no real expectation that bidders and buyers would come to a viewing in Las Vegas. Yes, Sotheby’s would benefit from the 20-plus years the works had been on view at the restaurant. But how many Bellagio diners really sat beneath the art and thought, some day I’m going to own that Buste d’homme!
In fact, there would be every reason to expect that Sotheby’s hard-nosed owner Patrick Drahi, so notorious for his cost controls, would have preferred to sell the art in New York. Folding the top works into a Sotheby’s Modern Evening sale would have been the most conservative and potentially profitable approach to making money from the MGM consignment.
“We chose to prioritize client engagement over sales,” Lampley reflected on the Monday after the sale. “And it worked.” The sale made $109 million dollars while Lampley and her colleagues found that many of the bidders in the room were stoked.
“Known and highly developed clients bid because of the live experience,” Lampley said.
Sotheby’s was able to create a unique client experience with a weekend of events putting relationship managers in close contact with Sotheby’s clients, especially those from California and Texas who were willing to make a weekend trip to Vegas for something familiar but different. According the Lampley, the bidding in the auction room Sotheby’s recreated at the casino was a mixture of MGM’s whales and many of Sotheby’s less-engaged clients who were enthusiastic participants at the Bellagio sale in a way they might not have been at a New York Evening sale.
It wasn’t just that the works were, as Lampley put it, “meaningfully associated with an alluring site.” (She means Vegas, baby.) “It was a useful case study in how to re-imagine our core business.” (She means auctions.)
Despite the risk involved, Sotheby’s got what it paid for. Or, maybe, the sale paid for what Sotheby’s got. It’s not a secret that Sotheby’s long-term goal is to leverage their brand beyond the art world to become a broader-based luxury retailer of some kind. The Vegas sale, like the Sotheby’s International Realty brand, helps associate Sotheby’s name in the mind of the luxury-aspiring consumer.
Picasso’s fame might actually be bigger than Sotheby’s brand; but even there, the auction house got a boost from this sale. But none of that would have happened if the auction had not come off as a visible success.
Lampley was right to be nervous a few days before the sale. The MGM material wasn’t exactly stand-out Picasso work. The lots were surely valuable but none necessarily strong enough to attract attention so far from a marquee auction event.
The best lot, which was also the top lot in the sale both by estimate and ultimate selling price, Femme au béret rouge-orange, was a small 1938 portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter that made $40.4 million over a $20 million estimate. Not to denigrate Wynn’s taste or market acumen, but a comparable work from the artist’s estate sold three years earlier in London for $68.5 million. And three years before that, another not dissimilar work from 1938 had made $67.4 million in New York.
Some of the other top works in the sale, two still lives from Picasso’s occupation years in Paris during World War 2 and two late works, were estimated aggressively suggesting Sotheby’s had offered MGM a significant guarantee with little margin for error.
As the sale opened, Barker revealed that Sotheby’s had accepted Irrevocable Bids on three of the 11 lots, that’s more than a quarter of the sale. More often than not, third-party guarantees are a measure the auction house needing to hedge against tepid interest. Here, Sotheby’s used IBs “judiciously,” Lampley said, as “sale inciting instruments.” And it seemed to work. Lots 3, 8, and 9 all got extra bids. Although lot 8, the Buste d’homme had to be sold for a hammer price below the low estimate, the only lot in the sale to struggle like that.
Even with that close call, Sotheby’s was able to exceed the low estimate of $70.5 million by 32% to make a hammer price of $93.1 million. The value of to Sotheby’s messaging of having a “white glove” sale was made clear by the speed with which Lampley produced a pair of white gloves and presented them to Barker so quickly after the final hammer.
So what’s the lesson for Sotheby’s? Will this add a regular sideshow of satellite auctions to the already moveable feast of the global art world? Lampley isn’t suggesting that Sotheby’s is now going to stand up auctions in resort towns around the world. Her colleague David Schrader has led the way in building out pop-up locations for Sotheby’s private sales group. But Lampley points out that pop-ups are about bringing art to where people are. The Picasso sale was aimed at finding a way to cut through the competing noise and bring the people to the art.
Though she cautions the formula isn’t an easy one. It requires the auctioneers be sensitive to the site and material. “This is about creating an optimal client experience,” Lampley said. “Everyone is focused on deepening client relationships because that means deepening engagement.”