Not 24 hours after the muted response to the collection of A. Alfred Taubman, which barely broke its low estimate with a $377 million sale Wednesday, Sotheby’s bounced back somewhat with a competent if at times dull $306.7 million Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale Thursday night, with the sales tally going firmly over the low estimate of $275.6 million. The respectable haul brings the house’s Imp-Mod total for the week up to $575.8 million, and quells some fears that Wednesday’s lackluster sale was a sign of an overall market downtick, and not just a rejection of the former Sotheby’s owner’s taste and buying habits.
Though it was not an all-out bonanza either: The sell-through rate was a tad low at 77 percent, as 11 of the 47 lots failed to get snapped up. And the four works that went for over $10 million all sputtered after about a minute of bidding, just scooting past their low estimates.
The sale did see a new record for a Blue Period Picasso, as La Gommeuse sold for $67.4 million, making it the eleventh-most-expensive Picasso sold at auction.
(Though it seems La Gommeuse drowned out other works by the artist—bidders passed on five other Picassos on offer.)
The night’s other record was the closest the night came to a pleasant surprise. James Ensor’s Les Poissardes Melancoliques, the second in three consecutive Ensor lots, went way over its high estimate of $5 million as six bidders spun its price upward, with a final price of $7 million, with the buyer’s premium, eclipsing the previous record for an Ensor at auction by $600,000.
Other lots that attracted some energetic competition among bidders were Vuillard’s Atelier de Couture de Madame Vuillard, which went for $1.9 million, over a $800,000 high estimate, and Van Gogh’s Le Bebe Marcelle Roulin. The latter work, which had been estimated to sell for $3.5 million to $5 million, pitted Sotheby’s specialists Patty Wong and Oliver Barker (who was bidding on a cellphone with a strange sunburst decal) against each other, as they drove the price up to a final figure of $7.6 million.
Even a brief glimpse of lots blowing past their high estimates was a welcome sight after the deadened room Wednesday night. And it helped that no other eight-figure lot struck out like the few that did at the Taubman sale. On Thursday, Van Gogh’s Paysage Sous Ciel un Mouvement went for $54 million over a low estimate of $50 million, Monet’s Nympheas went for $33.9 million, and Malevich’s Mystic Suprematism (Black Cross on Red Oval) went for $37.8 million. Nothing too impressive here, but hey, they sold.
“I think we were thrilled to handle the Taubman collection, but that was a large collection—there were 77 lots offered in one evening whereas tonight was a very tightly curated 47 lots,” said Jeremiah Evarts, the head of evening sales at Sotheby’s. “So it was a little easier to predict what was going to happen tonight.”
The normalcy of a regular evening sale after a single-collection occasion was also welcome because of the diversity of provenances. For instance, nine of the works came from the legendary collection of Louis and Evelyn Franck, and earned a total of $98.5 million. Two of the most successful lots, La Gommeuse and Nympheas, came from the collection of William Koch, the brother of David and Charles Koch, the billionaire G.O.P. kingmakers who have in the past funded Tea Party candidates with what’s said to be blank checks. (A gigantic sign outside of Sotheby’s announced the inclusion of works from the Franck collection; the Koch brothers were not mentioned.)
William Koch didn’t seem to be in attendance, but his twin brother David was there. At the end of the cocktail hour, he stood by the entrance to the sale room, waiting as the last of the guests took to their seats. Someone was explaining to him the black-tie formalities of the previous day’s sale. “Yesterday they had caviar and Montrachet and they couldn’t get anyone into the auction.”
Eventually, he took his seat in the front row, and filed out after the last of the Koch-given lots had sold.
“I thought they did a great sale—and I was looking after my brother’s interests,” Koch said outside the sale room.
When asked why he didn’t bid on anything, he said there was nothing that interested him.
The New York sales continue on Sunday with the 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale at Phillips.