Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A Dreary Night for Contemporary Art at Sotheby’s

The declining effects of the current economy are more evident as auction houses like Sotheby's continue having declining sales . Please read an article by Carol Vogel of the NY Times regarding Sotheby's most recent auction struggle.


Published: November 11, 2008
In a salesroom overflowing with collectors like the actor Steve Martin, the financier Eli Broad and the fashion designer Valentino, Sotheby’s barely managed to sell $125.1 million worth of contemporary art on Tuesday night, well below the low estimate of $202.4 million.

“It was a half-price sale,” said Mr. Broad, who went on his first shopping spree in several years. In less than 90 minutes, he dropped more than $8 million (including Sotheby’s fees) on works by Ed Ruscha, Jeff Koons, Robert Rauschenberg and Donald Judd.

Bidding was fairly sparse throughout the night — of the 63 lots offered, 20 failed to sell. But some art was coveted. The evening’s star was an Yves Klein wall relief from 1960 featuring the artist’s signature rich saturated blues. It was being sold by Magnus Lindholm, a Swedish collector, and was estimated at more than $25 million. It brought $19 million, or $21.3 million with fees: under the estimate, but still hefty.

(Final prices include the commission to Sotheby’s: 25 percent of the first $50,000, 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1 million, and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)

“At the right level, the market exists,” said Tobias Meyer, the head of Sotheby’s contemporary art department worldwide and the evening’s auctioneer. “But the audience is smart and seasoned.” He said prices had rolled back to 2006 levels.

But when Mr. Meyer and Sotheby’s experts were putting together Tuesday night’s sale, it was summer and the world was a far richer place. So was Sotheby’s, which agreed to financial deals that might have seemed sensible months ago but made for what must have been an expensive evening for the house.

Philip Guston’s “Beggar’s Joys,” for instance, went on the block with a big guarantee, an undisclosed sum promised the seller, in this case Donald L. Bryant Jr., a New York collector.

Mr. Bryant, watching the auction in a skybox above the salesroom, looked intent when his work came up for sale. Executed in 1954-55, the abstract canvas of lush reds and pinks attracted only one bidder, Mary Zlot, a San Francisco art adviser. Prices have soared since 1996, when Mr. Bryant paid a record $1.7 million for the work at Christie’s in New York. Sotheby’s experts estimated it would bring around $15 million. So confident were they that it is said they gave Mr. Bryant a guarantee of around $18 million. In the end, Ms. Zlot paid $9 million, or $10.1 million with fees.

Another big-ticket item, and the cover image of the sale’s catalog, was “Half Face With Collar,” a comic-strip painting from 1963 by Roy Lichtenstein, but it was one of the evening’s many casualties. Gian Enzo Sperone, an Italian dealer, was the seller. Estimated at $15 million to $20 million, it had no takers. Sotheby’s is thought to have guaranteed it for about $15 million.

Mr. Sperone wasn’t the only dealer selling work that Sotheby’s had guaranteed. Anthony d’Offay, a London dealer, was parting with several items, like Cy Twombly’s “Untitled (A Painting in Two Parts) (Bassano in Teverina),” a 1986 abstract Roman landscape that was estimated at $4 million to $6 million. Two bidders went for the painting, which sold to the same telephone bidder who bought the Klein. The price was $4.2 million, or $4.7 million including Sotheby’s fees. Mr. d’Offay was also selling Jeff Koons’s “Wishing Well,” a mirror with an elaborate gilded wood frame. It was one of the more popular works, with four bidders wanting to take it home. Mr. Broad succeeded in outbidding them, paying $2.1 million, under its $2.5 million low estimate.

It was obvious throughout the evening that Sotheby’s had worked hard to persuade sellers to lower their expectations. Many works sold, therefore, but for well below their estimates. A 1991 painting by Lichtenstein, “Interior With Red Wall,” brought only $6.2 million, or $7 million with commission, from a lone telephone bidder. It had an estimate of $8 million to $10 million. Tom Wesselmann’s “Great American Nude #21,” a 1961 Pop collage, seemed like a bargain when it sold to a telephone bidder for $3.6 million, or $4.1 million with fees. It had been priced at $6 million to $8 million.

Last season, the market could not get enough of Richard Prince’s nurse paintings. (One at Sotheby’s in London this summer fetched $8.4 million, a record for the artist at auction.) Several more are at auction this week. On Tuesday night, “Everglade Nurse,” a 2003 image in which the nurse’s seductive eyes stare from the canvas, was estimated at $4 million to $6 million. A telephone bidder was able to snag it for a mere $3 million, or 3.4 million with fees.

There was no bargain to be had when it came to a painting by John Currin. Dean Valentine, a Los Angeles collector, was selling “Nice ’n’ Easy,” a 1999 painting of two Renaissance-inspired nude women that Sotheby’s had priced at $3.5 million to $4.5 million. Three people bid, and it sold for a record price of $5.4 million.

Two minor works by Damien Hirst, both made last year, were up for sale. After his landslide auction in London in June, observers wondered whether the Hirst appetite would subside. “Ethionamide,” a dot painting, went without a bid. Its estimate of $1 million to $1.5 million seemed expensive. But “Midas of Phrygia,” a round, gold canvas dotted with butterflies, brought $700,000, or $1 million with Sotheby’s commission, from an unidentified buyer, well below its $1.2 million to $1.5 million estimate.

Buyers were clearly careful about parting with their cash, wondering if better bargains were around the corner. “I don’t think we’ve reached the bottom yet,” Mr. Broad said as he was leaving Sotheby’s after the sale. “We may be close.”

No comments: