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Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale: A Return to More Reasonable Levels

Sotheby’s part-one sale of contemporary art on Nov. 11 realized $125 million against a presale estimate of $203 million/280 million.

NEW YORK—Sotheby’s part-one sale of contemporary art on Nov. 11 realized $125 million against a presale estimate of $203 million/280 million. The total was comparable to that of the contemporary sale in November 2006, although the sell-through rates at that auction were much higher. This time, 43, or 68 percent, of the 63 lots were sold. That sold-by-lot rate was the highest of the week, as was the sold-by-value rate of 71 percent.

As evidence of Sotheby’s efforts to lower reserves, 37 lots sold below estimate; 4 sold within estimate, and 2 above. Auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer looked casual and relaxed, considering the uphill battle facing him, and he proved adept at coaxing bids from the assembled company, though the more seasoned collectors were prepared to bid at what they expected would be more reasonable levels than in the recent past.

The first sale in the room was the third lot of the evening, following a phone sale and a buy-in. Gerhard Richter’s Mirror Painting (Blood Red), 1991, went to Gap founder Don Fisher, who won the work for $1.3 million against bidding from the phones (estimate: $1.5 million/2 million).

Then came John Currin’s Old Master–style Nice ’N Easy, 1999, consigned by Hollywood producer Dean Valentine with a guarantee and a record-breaking $3.5 million/4.5 million estimate. At least three bidders vied for the painting before it landed with a telephone buyer for $5.5 million.

This was followed by Jeff Koons’s gilded mirror Wishing Well, 1999, from the collection of U.K. dealer Anthony d’Offay, who fortunately had also secured a guarantee. The lot sold for $2.1 million, well below its estimate of $2.5 million/3.5 million, to Los Angeles collector Eli Broad.

Broad went on to buy Ed Ruscha’s Desire, 1969, for $2.4 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million); Robert Rauschenberg’s small Combine Bantam, 1959, for $2.6 million (estimate: $3 million/4 million); and Donald Judd’s stack sculpture Untitled (90-14 Bernstein), 1990—which last sold in 2006 for $2.7 million—for $1.1 million (estimate: $2 million/3 million).

Broad has been predicting a correction in the market for years, and his art foundation’s chief curator, Joanne Heyler, told ARTnewsletter they had recently been offered a Ruscha “liquid letter” painting like the one they purchased, for $8 million.

Another frequent bidder was fashion designer Valentino Garavani, who snapped up two paintings by Andy Warhol: a large 1981 dollar sign for $2.1 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million), and Portrait of an American Indian (Russell Means), 1976, for $1.3 million (estimate: $1.5 million/2 million). Two more late Warhol paintings sold below estimate—one, the large Camouflage, 1986, went for $2.6 million to London dealer James Mayor (estimate: $3 million/5 million). Thereafter, however, sales proved even tougher for an artist considered to be a bellwether of the contemporary market—only 23 of the 70 Warhols on offer at all three houses that week found buyers.

Money was there, but at a different level, and it was choosy. There were no offers for several of the highest-estimated paintings, including Roy Lichtenstein’s Half Face with Collar, 1963, from the collection of dealer Gian Enzo Sperone (estimate: $15 million/20 million) and Lucian Freud’s Naked Portrait Standing, 1999–2000 (estimate: $9 million/12 million).

But there were bids for a rare large Yves Klein sponge relief, Archisponge (RE 11), 1960, which sold for $21.4 million. The price, though below the unpublished estimate of about $25 million, was the second-highest on record for the artist.

Another top-selling lot was Philip Guston’s Beggar’s Joys, 1954–55, an abstract work rarely on the market, which last sold in 1996 to collector Donald Bryant for a record $1.7 million. This time around it fell short of the $15 million estimate, but still fetched a record $10.2 million, selling to San Francisco art adviser Mary Zlot, speaking on her cell phone, who was seated in the third row next to actor and collector Steve Martin and his wife, Anne Stringfield.

As Meyer’s eye roved the room for interested bidding, it was often caught by Daryl Wickstrom, Sotheby’s Hong Kong–based head of business development, Asia. Waving the same paddle number, Wickstrom came to the rescue on five lots by American artists, securing each below estimate. For his client, he bought Lichtenstein’s Interior with Red Wall, 1991, for $7 million (estimate: $8 million/10 million); two works by Willem de Kooning, Untitled VI, 1985, for $4.6 million (estimate: $5 million/7 million) and a work on paper, Figures in a Landscape No. 1, 1976, for $1.8 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million); Koons’s painting Cheeky, 2000, for $4 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million); and Tom Wesselmann’s Still Life #58, 1969–72, for $2.4 million (estimate: $3 million/4 million). This last price, though below estimate, was indicative of the rise in the market for Wesselmann’s work, this piece having last sold at auction for $149,000 in 2000.

Among the dealers buying in the room was Larry Gagosian, who acquired Lichtenstein’s Study for New York State Mural (Town and Country), 1968, for $3.9 million (estimate: $4 million/6 million). Gagosian also bought two works by Richard Serra, an early flat lead work, Folded/Unfolded, 1969, for $722,500 (estimate: $600,000/800,000), and the later upright 12-4-8, 1983, for a record $1.7 million (estimate: $2 million/3 million). Dealer Ivan Wirth supported his artist as well, buying two early Louise Bourgeois sculptures: Forêt (Night Garden), 1953, for $3.3 million (estimate: $3 million/4 million) and Clamart, 1968, for $3.4 million (estimate: $3.5 million/4.5 million).

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