By Lance Rehs
It began with Christie’s tongue-in-cheek “Bound to Fail” Contemporary art auction. The top lot of the evening was a sculpture by Mauritzio Cattelan titled Him. The work, a wee-representation of Hitler kneeling in prayer, was the center of a bidding battle and ultimately went to an anonymous phone bidder at a price of $17.1M (Est. $10-15M). Following closely was Koons’ One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank, which may or may not be self-explanatory… it was literally a fish tank with a basketball suspended in distilled water… One ball… One tank… $15.2 million… Unsurprisingly, the work carried an “estimate on request” and further, Christie’s was quick to capitalize on that fact when reporting the overall results; I’ll come back to that point shortly… Rounding out the top three was Bruce Nauman’s title inspiring work Henry Moore Bound to Fail which found a buyer at $6.9M (Est. $6-8M); interestingly the lot was one of ten to go in with a third-party guarantee so technically, it was Impossible to Fail. Overall, the results looked good… 38 of the 39 works sold and the sale totaled $78.1M; according to Christie’s published reports as well as a few other online publications, the high end of the pre-sale estimate range was $81M, so they were close… Let me take a step back and address the Jeff Koons lot featuring an estimate on request. The funny thing about that is Christie’s left that lot out of the pre-sale estimate range and that makes the published results quite inaccurate. Truthfully, the lot should have carried an estimate of roughly $10-15M (selling for $15.2M) which would have elevated the pre-sale estimate range to $69.3-96M, making that $78M total far closer to the low end than the high end… Further, when we account for the buyer’s premiums, the sale’s total actually falls a bit short of the estimate range, but still a far way off from “failing.”
Turning to what is now being considered the “barometer” of the art market… the Post-War & Contemporary sales. Backtracking to Tuesday, Christie’s offered up their selection and going in, there was a bit of concern. Sotheby’s was coming fresh off a poor evening showing with the Impressionist & Modern sale and all of the media that day cried weak sales in a thinning market… Relief finally came as the star lot of the evening, Basquiat’s massive Untitled (1982), was scooped up by Japanese collector Yasaku Maezawa who made headlines when he went on a bit of a “shopping spree.” Not only did Maezawa snatch the Basquiat for $57.2M (Est. in excess of $40M), but he went on to take home 4 other works that evening including a Richard Prince for $9.6M, a Jeff Koons for $6.8M, a Calder for $5.7M and a Bruce Nauman for $1.7; a staggering total of $81M worth of art… and that’s not including what he bought the following evening at Sotheby’s. Behind the Basquiat was Rothko’s No. 17 which attracted one bidder at $32.6M (Est. $30-40M) followed by Clyfford Still’s PH-234 at $28M (Est. $25-35M). While a handful of lots barely hit their low estimate, the overall results were still fairly strong as they totaled $318.4M (low estimate – $281M); that is a 52% drop from last year’s sale, a consistent signal that collectors are not parting with their prized possessions.
Finishing off the series of sales was Sotheby’s Contemporary Evening auction which was led by Cy Twombly’s Untitled (New York City), a chalk-like depiction of blue loops on a gray background from his celebrated “Blackboard” series, at $36.6M (Est. in excess of $40M). Francis Bacon’s Two Studies for a Self-Portrait soared passed its $22-30M estimate as it found a buyer at $34M; it is one of two self-portraits by Bacon which incorporate the double image format (the other sold last year for $22.4M). Rounding out the top 3 was another Twombly at $15.4M, well short of the $20M low estimate. Interestingly, this work was one of 4 in the sale that were part of a payment swap; last November, collector Daniel Sundheim purchased a Twombly for $70.5M and set a new record for the artist in the process. Sotheby’s dug themselves into quite a hole as they also agreed to give the seller most of the buyer’s premium($7.8M) on top of the hammer price while at the same time, allowing Sundheim to pay for it with other artwork from his collection. That turned out to be 7 total consigned works as payment (the other three were offered for sale in February in London), hoping to secure a combined price that was in excess of the record setting Twombly. The doings of the deal were so opaque,
I honestly do not know if they ended up making any money or took a loss… What I have uncovered is that Sotheby’s regularly puts itself into tightpositions just so they can be associated with selling a particular work by a particular artist and that has led them to report a $22.3M loss for Q1 2016. Among the other swapped works were Christoper Wool’s Untitled (P.119) which is now part of Maezawa’s collection after he shelled out $13.9M. Additionally, Maezawa purchased Adrian Ghenie’s Self Portrait as Vincent Van Gogh which was only estimated to bring $200-300K but climbed to $2.6M as 5 bidders tried to outlast him. With these two purchases, Maezawa’s two day total reached $98M! In the end, the Evening sale totaled $242.2M (low estimate – $201.4M) with only 2 of the 44 works failing to sell (95%), more than $100M less than last year.
The week as a whole was down considerably ($1.13B this year vs. nearly $3B last year) yet as I have stressed, this is due to the specific works that are being offered to an increasingly selective and knowledgeable buyer pool. The bottom line is buyers are aware of which works are stellar and which are average and they are unwilling to pay an astronomical price simply because Sotheby’s or Christie’s is offering a work as part of their Evening Sale series.
This article was provided by Rehs.