Now that the Macklowe collection is finally on the auction block, we can see that it has already filled one important role. In a market awash in cash waiting to be spent there has been a dearth of high quality supply. The Macklowe collection’s undisputed level of taste has brought a surprising number of other competitive works to all three auction houses. The market has found itself in an interesting moment. After a period of relative indecision where few of the most sought-after works were sold by the owner’s discretion, we now have a flood of really good works available just when, almost coincidentally, buyers are as flush as they ever have been.
The aggregate low estimate of the Evening sales in the next two weeks is approaching $1.5 billion. Almost a third of that is the Macklowe collection. Beyond reviving animal spirits at the top of the market, the sales also offer the opportunity for a renewed focus on some artists whose markets may have lost focus like Jeff Koons, Willem de Kooning, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke.
It’s been more than seven years since the Koons retrospective at the Whitney, Centre Pompidou and Guggenheim Bilbao. As major museum events with a well-established artist often do, the exhibition had been an important fulcrum in the rise of the artist’s market prices. There was the orange balloon dog that set a record $58.4 million for the artist in late 2013 (even if the buyer could barely be considered dealing at arm’s length). That asterisk was erased six years later when Robert Mnuchin raised a paddle for one of his clients on the Rabbit setting a record $91 million price. But since that remarkable moment, no Koons work has sold for more than $10 million.
Facing the issue of Koons’s cooling market head on, Sotheby’s sees an opportunity. The auction house has put the artist’s Baccarat crystal set as the first lot in the auction. The stainless steel example from the Luxury and Degradation series has been conservatively estimated at $900,000. Sotheby’s has already accepted an irrevocable bid even though examples of the ice bucket from the series have sold for 40% of that low estimate. The ice bucket isn’t a component of the Baccarat set but, for comparison’s sake, look at prices for the entire Jim Bean train from the same series. The whole Turner Train sold for $33.7 million in 2014; the engine alone made only $1.7m two years ago. That’s a 20-to-1 differential which would price the Baccarat set at $7.4m which is always possible but probably not going to happen. Nevertheless, Sotheby’s has put the work in the tone-setting run of the first few lots, so they clearly hope it will sell for a lot more than the low estimate.
A better example is the Aqualung, a bronze version of the underwater breathing apparatus that was so meticulously crafted that it looks light enough to wear. In many ways, the Aqualung tracks the Koons market over nearly two decades. In May 2002, one sold for $1.76 million at Phillips. The month before Koons’s retrospective opened in New York another example sold in 2014 for $11.6 million; however, the Macklowe’s example is priced to attract bidders at $8 million. This strategy isn’t without its drawbacks as some collectors have been more than a little miffed to see works by other artists similar to their own priced below what they paid.
Another artist’s market that has seen dwindling sales because of a high price level has been the large abstract “squeegee” paintings made by Gerhard Richter. Half a dozen of these works have sold for more than $30 million with the most valuable one reaching $46 million in 2015.
The Macklowe’s Richter abstract is close in date, size and color palette to a work that sold in 2012 for $21 million which we can use to orient the work in the broader pricing around these paintings. For example, in May of this year, Anne and John Marion’s red Richter abstract made $23 million. It was a six feet tall instead of the Macklowe’s eight feet. It also sold in 2012 for $16.8 million. Applying the same 43% rise in price to the Macklowe comparable would get you around $30 million, a respectable all-in price.
Sotheby’s put a $20 million low estimate on the Macklowe Richter abstract and accepted an IB, presumably near that level. But firm had an interesting experience with Ronald Perelman’s Richter last year in Hong Kong. They were able to put a $15.4 million low estimate on the work; that attracted bidders; and the final selling price with premium ended up being $27.4 million. If the Macklowe’s painting performed as well, the final price paid by the new owner would be more than $35 million which is among those top Richter prices.
The Macklowes’ second Richter is a photo painting from 1966 of a collector with a dog. This work also carries an estimate that should spark bidding. One reason is the sheer lack of comparable works in the auction record. One has to go back to 2006 to find a work of similar size and subject matter in Tante Marianne which made $4.4 million.
Sigmar Polke, Richter’s friend and rival, was also collected in depth by the real estate couple. Three Polkes are included in this first Macklowe sale. One is a silver-nitrate painting from 1979; another is a kitsch-y take on Pop art (more Richard Prince than Roy Lichtenstein) from 1982; and the final, most highly estimated one, is a Rasterbild from 1966 depicting a landscape with palm trees. Not as lush or vivid as the jungle-scene raster painting that twice set a record price for the artist—first making $9.2 million in 2011, then $27.1 million in 2015—the palm trees are already estimated at a level (and carry an irrevocable bid) to land among the top four Polke prices once the premium and overhead fees are paid.
The Macklowes also went for late de Kooning paintings. This sale has a work from the 1970s and a work from the stylistically distinct later period in the 1980s. The 1983 work with bold blues and reds against a generous amount of white space has a $10 million low estimate. Several works from 1983 have been sold in the last decade. In 2016, one made $9.8 million. The year before another made $8.6 million. Both of these feature a section with yellow pigment. In 2014, another slightly smaller work in the same colors as the Macklowes’ sold for $4.5 million.
Moving just six years earlier in de Kooning’s oeuvre has a significant effect on price. The Macklowes’ 1977 painting, suffused with the artist’s signature fleshy pink tone underneath bold reds and black, is estimated at $12 million. The highest price paid for a work from this year and of this size was $21 million in 2016. The year before, someone paid $11.3 million for another that ticked the same boxes. It hasn’t all been steady growth in this market. Phillips sold a third work fitting the same parameters in 2018 for only $8.3 million.
Tomorrow we’ll conclude our deep dive into the Macklowe collection by looking at the lots from artists like Christopher Wool, Mark Grotjahn, Rudolf Stingel and Tauba Auerbach. Then we’ll look at lots by artists whose work trades infrequently like Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, Brice Marden, Jasper Johns and Robert Irwin; the Macklowe sale will be closely watched by the private market as it establishes public reference prices for private negotiations.