Sotheby’s kicked off New York’s contemporary art auctions this week with a modest sale, led by a $44.97 million Mark Rothko painting from 1951, that saw new records for Jasper Johns, Glenn Ligon, Robert Ryman, and Jean Dubuffet. However, despite the house’s best efforts, the sale fell below its high expectations, with a grand total of $343.7 million that (with premium subtracted) fell below its presale estimate of $323.1 million to $418.7 million.
The Rothko—from the Schlumberger Collection and not seen in public since 1970—saw five bidders and jumped from an opening bid of $28 million to its hammer price of $40 million over the course of five minutes. The evening’s second-highest lot, a record-making Johns flag, saw four and hammered for $32 million ($36 million with premium) after six minutes, both of them low-key affairs that drew hesitant applause. The previous record for a Johns at auction was $28.6 million.
(The Rothko buyer, a phone bidder, was on something of a spending spree, also picking up a black John Chamberlain for $1.27 million and a Louise Bourgeois for $1.81 million.)
Besides those lots (and an abstract Gerhard Richter from 1991 that sold for $21.4 million to an Asian gentleman in the room at lucky number 8), the evening was a tepid affair, with auctioneer Oliver Barker frequently calling out enthusiastic chandelier bids to no avail, only to be saved at the last minute by a single bid, usually by phone, that took the lot.
This was the case with a surprising number of works, among them: an early Warhol self-portrait that sold for $3.25 million, a pistachio-colored Warhol Liz that sold for $31.5 million, a late Warhol “fright wig” self-portrait that sold for $11.4 million, a gray and black Rothko work on paper that sold for $3.53 million, a Jeff Koons wooden sculpture that sold for $8.01 million (and whose buyer also picked up a little Chamberlain for $941,000), a 1995 Ryman that sold for $6.2 million, and a very late Basquiat that sold for $5.77 million.
All of those lots carried some form of guarantee or other insurance against failure, their single bidders likely having been involved in the lots coming to Sotheby’s in the first place.
This was also the case with the record-setting $15 million Ryman, from 1961, and its single bidder, New York and London Dominique Lévy, seemed slightly annoyed that she had to buy the thing.
Dealer David Nisinson marveled that Sotheby’s went through the trouble of expanding its ability to guarantee works this season, “when it looks like Christie’s still just blew them out of the water. That’s what happens when you have a billionaire
owner whose whole life now is about the art world,” referring to Christie’s owner François Pinault.
“I think a lot of people were waiting for tomorrow night,” he said.
The more lively lots were at the lower end of things, adviser Amy Cappellazzo winning a set of photographs by Matthew Barney from the Sender Collection, with strong underbidding from Philippe Ségalot, for $377,000.
Perennial auction favorite Warhol fell into the single-bidder vortex too, with the exception of his 1974 portrait of Brigitte Bardot, which had Nicholas MacLean as its underbidder before selling to one of its two phone bidders for $11.6 million. There was even a notable Warhol pass, Little Electric Chair, which was bought in at $6.8 million despite another having recently sold at Christie’s “If I Live…” sale in May for $10.5 million. It was one of 11 lots, of the 78 on offer, that failed to find a buyer.
The major pass of the night was Jeff Koons’s Moon (Yellow), a massive yellow wall-hung party balloon that is said to be from the collection of Damien Hirst. A pink version of the work was included in the artist’s recent retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York.
That failure came up during the press conference (during which specialists expressed their displeasure with the sale by referring to it as merely “strong,” as opposed to something more along the lines of “outstanding” or “incredible”).
“We believe in this work,” said Alex Rotter, the house’s co-head of contemporary art worldwide. “We believe in Jeff Koons. This has nothing to do with his work. We’ll find a home for it. We always do.”
Paula Cooper director Steve Henry noted after the sale that quality works that were “new to the market” understandably did well—Glenn Ligon’s record-breaking $3.97 milllion white painting, Untitled (I Was Somebody) (1990/2003), being a prime example—but said that the estimates probably were too high in many cases. “There’s a lot of pressure on these people to bring high results,” he said.
The fall contemporary auctions continue tomorrow night at Christie’s.