The news was good for the art market after one of the most successful mixed owner sales in history at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. The sale week got off to a shaky start when Christie’s Evening Sale had much of their sale unsold and a horrible ‘bought in’ rate was not what the market expected, even given the Eurozone issues with the world economy. Only 55% of the works were sold by value and there were feelings in the auction room of a return to the horrific sales of November 2008. Yet Sotheby’s Evening sale was in stark contrast as over 87% of the works sold by value and the whole sale fetched almost $200m. This was a great result for both of the auction houses as well as the rest of the Art trade who breathed a huge sigh of relief.
So, what was the major difference between the two sales? In one word: estimates. Sotheby’s had been cautious and focused on only the very best that they could find and kept estimates as low as possible. Christie’s on the other hand took some very big gambles with large estimates, one on the Degas sculpture, Petit Danseuse de Quartorze ans, and another on the Giacometti sculpture, Femme de Venise VII. Both of these works, together with many others around the $1-2m level failed to find buyers. Given that the Degas was estimated at $25-35m it left a gaping hole in the sale and underlines the issue with offering overpriced works at auction. Where buying privately is better for sellers is that the final price can always be negotiated down from a list price. At auction the opposite is true so one has to take a gamble with a low reserve to gain interest and focus potential bidders in the preview. That said there were a couple of great prices achieved at Christie’s – notably the Brancusi, Le premier cri, (my personal highlight of the sale season) which was underbid by Larry Gagosian and fetched almost $15m including premium, as well as the Magritte, Les Vacances de Hegel, which made over $10m.
Perhaps the most interesting result of Sotheby’s nerves before the sale was found in their private sale of the Matisse bronze: they sold the whole set of four for, apparently, $100m to a private collector without risking the auctioning of the bronze. It seems that even auctioneers are leaning towards private sales, as auctions are considered too risky in this time of economic uncertainty. Sotheby’s highlights all ‘performed’ well and following the disaster at the Rockefeller the night before we were all somewhat stunned by the prices achieved. Sotheby’s front entrance was crawling with Union workers (there is an ongoing pay dispute between art handlers and the Sotheby’s CEO, Bill Ruprecht) screaming at the auction goers for attending but that put no one off bidding, and seemed almost a catalyst for great prices. The top prices were for the super-rare Klimt, Litzlberg am Attersee, over $40.4m and Picasso’s very expensive L’Aubade which made over $23m. Given the vast price paid for Klimt’s equally stunning Kirche in Cassone (also a restituted work) in February 2010 there were keen underbidders for Litzlberg too, resulting in a price that was a little over what most had thought it would fetch.
One big surprise was the success of the Caillebotte, Le Pont d’Argenteuil et la Seine, which I thought expensive at $9/12m yet it made over $18m having been up at auction in 2008 and sold for only $8.4m! The reason for the low price it made in November 2008 was probably due to the extraordinary circumstance of the sale which took place immediately following the nightmare with the financial markets in the fall. Anyway, someone has made a lot of money out of the sale of this work and one cannot take away the fact that it is a staggering picture, one of Caillebotte’s best.
Overall Sotheby’s Evening sale saved the day and though the general feeling was relief had it not been for the quality of their works the week might have been a very different story. The Day Sales were fairly good but the Sotheby’s sale was the inferior and thus struggled with high estimates and a bulky catalogue containing a fair few re-offered pictures at unreachable reserves. The Herbin on the front cover was a great picture and they did have one or two absolute gems such as the Gonzales, L’Alcôve, which went for only $218,500 including premium from a super low estimate of $100,000/150,000. The Christie’s sale was better and had a couple of great works such as the Paul Klees, Varsalah and Komische Alte, which together made over $1m including premium. A great Lieberman that might have suited the Evening Sale made over $800,000 and overall the successes were at and around the low estimate. Neither day sale was a great measure of the middle market since they weren’t terribly good collections of works. That said, it must have been tough to attract pictures for sale in this economic environment, especially at auction.
Sotheby’s and Christie’s Contemporary sales
The Evening sales were both superb with Sotheby’s breaking $300m and Christie’s making over $260m, the Clyfford Stills and Gerhard Richters at Sotheby’s and the exceptional Roy Lichtenstein at Christie’s were great, great examples of Classical Contemporary art at its finest. The prices they fetched were warranted.
Sotheby’s offered several works by Clyfford Still from the City of Denver to benefit the Still Museum in Denver. Each was fresh to the market and important – the record setting 1949-A-No. 1, which made over $60m, was a true masterpiece by one of the great American painters. Still’s work will always be sought after since he was not prolific and his works form the cornerstone of the great collections worldwide: even the Tate in London has a beautiful Clifford Still amongst its permanent collection.
With the sale of the Matisse Bronzes, the Still’s and the other works from charitable foundations it seems that charitable contributions are not coming so readily in this economic malaise: ensuring that there is some very good kit on the market now – especially in the contemporary field. Roy Lichtenstein’s I Can See the Whole Room…and There's Nobody in It! fetched a final selling price of over $43m. A big price but this was a very influential piece of POP art, the first of his cartoon-like images which turned the idea of art/design/iconography on its head in the 1960s.
Both auction houses rightly leaned on the unfathomed desire amongst buyers for iconic, classical Modern art. The new names and faces so often seen at the big auctions in recent years weren’t represented: the market is getting pickier about brand new Artists going straight to auction which is a good sign for gallerists in this brave new world!