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Christie’s Contemporary Sale Falls Far Short of Expectations

Even before Christie’s sale of Postwar and contemporary art took place on Nov. 12, Brett Gorvy, the house’s deputy chairman, Americas, said that he thought prices could be about 30 percent below the estimates, which were set during the summer.

NEW YORK—Even before Christie’s sale of Postwar and contemporary art took place on Nov. 12, Brett Gorvy, the house’s deputy chairman, Americas, said that he thought prices could be about 30 percent below the estimates, which were set during the summer. On average, his prediction was not far off: The sale total of $113.6 million fell far short of the $227 mil­lion/321 million estimate, and though 51, or 68 percent, of the 75 lots sold, by value the auction was only 55 percent sold.

The biggest casualty of the evening was Francis Bacon’s full-length Study for Self-Portrait, 1964. Aggressively estimated at $40 million/60 million, it was passed without a bid at $27.5 million. The painting was owned by New York collector George Weiss, who acquired it privately in the 1990s for less than $3 million, and reportedly was to have had a guarantee, but when the paperwork was not completed at the eleventh hour, Christie’s opted—wisely, in retrospect—to let it run without one, according to sources familiar with the transaction. In the end, only 27 out of the 39 guaranteed lots, carrying a combined low estimate of around $100 million, were sold, bringing just over $55 million with premium.

The other major lots to go unsold were Brice Marden’s Attendant 5, 1996–99, also aggressively estimated at a record-breaking $10 million/15 million; Lucio Fontana’s Concetto Spaziale, Festa sul Canal Grande, 1961, from the estate of Paulo Marinotti, the former owner of the Palazzo Grassi in Venice (with an unpublished estimate of $12 million); Gerhard Richter’s diptych Ozu, 1986 (estimate: $10 million/15 million); and Peter Doig’s early Pine House (Rooms for Rent), 1994 (estimate: $4.5 million/6.5 million). The consignor of the Doig, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum board president Jennifer Stockman, had a guarantee, and so was protected from the downturn in the market. Stockman also consigned Richard Prince’s Lake Resort Nurse, 2003, which she had bought from Gladstone Gallery in 2003, when prices for Prince were below $100,000. The painting sold for $3.3 million (estimate: $5 mil­lion/7 million) to fashion designer Valentino Garavani. Another work consigned by Stockman, Donald Judd’s horizontal Untitled, 1967–69, sold for $386,500, also far below its $500,000/700,000 estimate.

A Night of Highs and Lows

This was an up-and-down sale, in which there were moments when all thoughts of a recession were cast aside. The auction started on an up note, when Tom Wesselmann’s pastel Study for Great American Nude #20, 1961, sold for a record $986,500 (estimate: $600,000/800,000) to dealer Jose Mugrabi. Then, after a number of works by previously red-hot artists Subodh Gupta and Prince and a Takashi Murakami sculpture consigned by collector Adam Lindemann had sold either far below estimate or not at all, a magisterial abstract painting by Richter soared above its unpublished $10 million estimate to sell for $14.9 million. Then, after two works by Louise Bourgeois made their estimates, selling to dealer Ivan Wirth of Hauser & Wirth, Zurich and London, the auction hit a hot streak.

First, Pharmacy, a Joseph Cornell box with glass containers stuffed with found objects, which had once belonged to Alexina “Teeny” Duchamp, wife of Marcel Duchamp, according to the catalogue, soared to a record $3.8 million on an estimate of $1.5 million/2 million. Then a rare early painting by Yayoi Kusama, No. 2, 1959, sold for a record $5.8 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million) after a bidding war between dealer Robert Mnuchin and art adviser Philippe Ségalot, in which the latter won out. Ségalot then purchased Alexander Calder’s standing mobile Ostrich, 1941, for $1.8 million, more than double its $600,000/800,000 estimate.

But after that, the sale went flat, with a string of unsold works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichten­stein, Richter and Joan Mitchell. Ségalot raised the temperature again toward the end, paying a record $1.05 million for Robert Irwin’s early canvas Untitled, 1963–64 (estimate: $700,000/1 million), and $2.2 million, another record, for Paul McCarthy’s sculpture Michael Jackson, 2002 (estimate: $2 million/3 million).

In between there was the much-publicized sale of 16 Abstract Expressionist drawings from the collection of Kathleen and Richard Fuld, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art and the former chief executive of bankrupt financial firm Lehman Brothers, respectively. The works were offered with a reported guarantee of $20 million, and 13 of them sold for a combined $13.5 million.

Three were sold to dealer Matthew Marks, who sat with Louisa Stude Sarofim, the chair of the Menil Foundation, Houston. Some of the drawings made decent returns on the prices the Fulds had originally paid: Arshile Gorky’s Study for Agony 1, 1946–47, bought in 1996 for $370,000, sold to Marks for $2.2 million (estimate: $2.2 million/2.8 million), and Agnes Martin’s egg-shaped drawing Untitled, 1963, bought in 1999 for $76,700, sold for $386,500.

Other works in the sale also realized good returns even if they sold below estimate: collector Aby Rosen bought Jeff Koons’s Buster Keaton, 1988, in 2006 for $2.7 million, and it sold now for $4.3 million. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich also did well, selling the large Jean-Michel Basquiat painting Untitled (Boxer), 1982—which he had bought in 1999 for around $2 million—for $13.5 million (estimate: $12 million/16 million), the second-highest auction price for the artist.

Speaking to ARTnewsletter after the sale, Gorvy said he thought Christie’s had gone a long way to meet the expectations of buyers and sellers. Some of the consignors, he said, had “no great need to sell,” and so would not reduce their reserves sufficiently. And some people did not buy, he added, because “they didn’t want to be lone bidders.” Gorvy said most of the strong prices were paid by “obsessive older collectors. There were no new buyers at the sale.” Looking back, he points to May 2007 as the last time there were multiple bids for works at the highest level. By November 2007, he said, “issues in the market became apparent when we were selling top lots with only one bid.”

Looking ahead, Gorvy said that “persuading people to sell” would be Christie’s biggest challenge. “We might see some dumping of fashionable art by people who don’t understand the loss in value. We haven’t felt the impact of any distress selling yet. The sales will be smaller and more tightly edited for quality. There will be hardly any guarantees. We will be going back to basics.”

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