When last we left the art market—just a few short weeks ago in London—the story was all about the hunt for new talent with collectors making aggressive bets on the “next big thing” artist. Had the top of the art market become dormant, or had it simply retreated into the secrecy of the private market on WhatsApp?
Perhaps we were all left with the wrong impression because the auction houses seem to have been saving their highest value works for November in New York.
At the apex of value this season is the first tranche of the $600m+ Macklowe collection. Sotheby’s has put about two thirds of the value of the collection in this first sale. The high-profile divorce isn’t the only show in town these next two weeks but it is the main event. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what’s on offer and how to think about whether the auction will have any excitement.
The two top lots are A+ works from Alberto Giacometti and Mark Rothko both carrying estimates of $70 million or more. The fate of Sotheby’s guarantee for the whole collection doesn’t rest solely on these works—but they will carry a lot of the load. No wonder Sotheby’s is has accepted an Irrevocable Bid on each work. Indeed, Sotheby’s has already accepted 18 third-party guarantees on the 35 lots in an effort to lock in a significant portion of the sale.
Irrevocable bids aren’t sales, though. And some of the top lots could see action above the IB. Of the 7 casts of Giacometti’s Le Nez (and one artist’s proof), the foundation has one; four of the works are in museums, including the Osaka City Museum, the Hirshhorn in Washington, the Guggenheim in New York and the Ludwig in Cologne; and there are three, including the Macklowe’s work, held privately. Similarly distinctive works like Chariot and the Pointing Man were acquired, for $100 million and $141 million respectively, by a savvy buyer at a similar point in the economic cycle five and six years ago. That would suggest the IB will see some competition.
The Rothko will be a slightly different situation. At the low estimate, No. 7 will be the third highest price paid for a Rothko at auction once Sotheby’s adds its buyer’s premium and overhead charge to the sale. The quality of the work isn’t in question; but the structure of Rothko’s market might prevent this one from going higher.
It is easier for buyers to bid when a significantly higher price has been established. Otherwise, the work on offer has to be viewed as much more desirable than any previously available works. For example, a year and a half ago (not much time in art-market years) Donald Marron’s Rothko, Number 22 from 1957 was reported to have sold privately for $70 million. To advance beyond that price will require significant new entrants to the Rothko market or the belief that the Macklowe work is an unrepeatable opportunity. Considering that the Rothko is something the Macklowes bought early in their collecting careers, 35 years ago, that may very well be the conclusion a bidder comes to.
In a similar vein, prices for Cy Twombly’s most sought after works have been affected by the turnover of his collectors like Marron. Twombly remains an enigmatic artist to many collectors—even more so at these levels. The more valuable of the Macklowe’s two Twombly works in the sale is the large-scale 2007 untitled painting of peonies that comes from a suite of six works. Eli Broad owned one of the series. It is now in his namesake museum in Los Angeles. Another is owned by the Brandhorsts. Estimated at $40 million, and without third-party backing, this Twombly can be viewed against the 2005 work that sold in 2017 for $46 million.
The other Twombly is a 1961 work carrying an $18 million low estimate and an irrevocable bid. That price looks very aggressive next to the $7.9 million sale in 2005 of a similar-sized 1961 work, though prices are generally twice what they were 15 years ago. But it looks cheap when set against another 1961 work on offer at Christie’s with an unpublished estimate said to be in $30 million range. Market gossip says Christie’s has a backer at that level. Christie’s work is significantly larger and comes from the collection of a storied market maven. Twombly nerds say the Macklowe work is the better one to own.
The Macklowes liked to collect in depth. Despite the near disappearance of Andy Warhol works from the top of the art market, Sotheby’s is selling two of the Macklowes’ Warhols with hefty price tags. Nine Marilyns has an IB against a $40 million low estimate. That number doesn’t seem out of bounds when looking at the far more colorful Four Marilyns sold at Christie’s in 2015. That work was sacrificed at a slight loss from an ill-fated bet placed two-and-a-half years before. Earlier this year, Two Marilyns sold for a solid $15 million price. That picture is a much smaller work compared to the Macklowe’s. But a single, smaller White Marilyn sold for $41 million in 2014. So much will depend upon the depth of the Warhol market today.
In 2006, the Macklowes had pounced on a market opportunity to buy David Pincus’s example of Warhol’s 16 Jackies at Christie’s. Pincus had a good eye. His Rothko set the record $86 million price for the artist in a 2012 auction. Six years earlier, his Jackies were also a prize. The Macklowes paid $15.7 million for them. Another five years on, Peter Brant tried to capitalized on the interest in Jackies by assembling his own version of the work. He didn’t quite get the score he was looking for but it did make $20.2 million at Sotheby’s. This market history makes the $15 million low estimate and irrevocable bid on the Macklowe 16 Jackies something of a curiosity.
There’s more to look at in the Sotheby’s Macklowe sale. Tomorrow we’ll look at some of the artists like Jeff Koons and Christopher Wool whose markets the Macklowe’s work might help re-ignite. There’s also interesting examples from Willem de Kooning, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Philip Guston, Robert Ryman, Agnes Martin and Brice Marden to look at.