The trend of cooler bidding that has defined these New York sales continued Tuesday night at Christie’s postwar and contemporary art evening sale, where notable flops and a few withdrawn lots accounted for a tepid $331.8 million haul, just over the $320 million low estimate. Even with a few artist records, some decent eight-digit lots, and a sell-through rate at a passable 80 percent, the solid but modest total after similarly mixed results at the other two major houses, Sotheby’s and Phillips, could be a sign of a market downturn. For instance: The same outing last year at Christie’s, which had 72 lots to this Tuesday’s 66, collected a mammoth $852.9 million total, still the highest gross at an auction in history. After the sale tonight and the much-hyped “Artist’s Muse” sale the night prior, Christie’s only brought in $823 million.
“We’re still well on our way to a ‘billion-dollar week,’ ” Brett Gorvy, chairman of postwar and contemporary, assured reporters during a post-sale press conference. He didn’t mention that this past May, the house breached the billion-dollar mark 33 lots into its postwar sale, en route to a total haul of $1.4 billion for the week. Christie’s will hold its contemporary-art day sales today and its Impressionist and modern evening sale Thursday, and they will have to together bring in $177 million to reach that magic billion-dollar figure. Regardless, the distance between the two seasons will be significant.
“I don’t think there’s a correction in the market,” Gorvy went on. “I think it’s just about the objects—we went into the season with less of these $40 to $50 million objects.”
Indeed, the sale had exactly zero $40-million objects, and settled for a woebegone top-seller list that included a pretty stellar Lucian Freud, The Brigadier (2003–04), that barely beat its on-request estimate, selling at $34.9 million; a heralded Lucio Fontana oval work that flatlined early in bidding and went for $29.2 million (it was guaranteed at $25 million, so it beat that figure at least); and a rare, enormous Louise Bourgeois, Spider, that gained plenty of interest from buyers and even more from tourists taking selfies with it outside of the Christie’s headquarters in Rockefeller Center. But it sold for only $28.2 million, well below the $35 million high estimate.
There were some flashes of joy amid the mundane proceedings, not least that the Bourgeois became the highest-selling work by a female postwar artist, beating out a Joan Mitchell that went for $11.9 million at Christie’s in May 2014. This sale was a record for Bourgeois, and there were also records through the night for works by Richard Pousette-Dart, Fontana, Claes Oldenburg, Mario Schifano, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Joe Bradley.
Yet these accomplishments were overshadowed by the curiously low price paid for Andy Warhol’s Four Marilyns, the lot leading the sale and plastered on the house’s dumbbell-heavy catalogues. Just two years ago, Larry Gagosian bought the same work at Phillips on behalf of a client, the Russian collector Mikhail Fridman, for $38.2 million. Then, eight months ago, Fridman flipped the piece to Kemal Has Cingillioglu, this time for $44 million. Cingillioglu put it up for auction, at which point Christie’s set the high estimate at $60 million.
After all that, it sold for just $36 million.
“When things come back to auction quickly, sometimes that affects their desirability,” Gagosian said upon exiting the auction, where he purchased Jeff Koons’s Balloon Swan (Yellow) for $14.7 million but did not bid again on the Warhol he had previously purchased.
When Tico Mugrabi—who, with his brother and father, own somewhere in the region of 800 Warhols, more than any other collectors on earth—was approached following the sale and asked why it didn’t even break the low estimate of $40 million, he said, “It’s the third time it came to auction in the last few years, that’s why!”
“Frankly,” Gorvy said of Four Marilyns, in the press conference, “It was a fantastic buy tonight for the buyer.”
And then immediately following that underwhelming sale (to a private collector buying on the phone), two other Warhols with high estimates in the eight figures crashed and burned on the podium, with auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen imploring David or Tico Mugrabi to make a bid to save his hide, but they did not. They were passes.
“They were overpriced,” Tico said later, shrugging.
All of this could make one forget that the evening had started out on a bright note, with all of the first nine lots—mostly work by Alexander Calder and David Smith from the collection of Arthur and Anita Kahn—going for well over their high estimates. Calder’s Vertical out of Horizontal went for a whopping $9.6 million, nearly five times its low estimate.
And there was an exciting amount of bidding in the room, which made for, at times, a scene as lively as we’ve seen this week. David Nahmad stayed with the Fontana until $25.8 million before conferring with his sons and dropping out. Marc Glimcher of Pace Gallery chased one of the Calders relentlessly but, alas, to no avail. Philippe Ségalot grabbed a Christopher Wool for $17 million. And with the hammer about to hit, making dealer Per Skarstedt the winner of Richard Prince’s Every Window in the Place, Gagosian stuck up a hand to raise the lot another $100,000. Maybe it was a Prince-esque prank that forced Skarstedt to give up some pocket change, as indicated by the ear-to-ear grin Gagosian gave his rival dealer as he did it. With no other choice, Skarstedt went up another $100,000, and secured the Prince.
But by the end of the drawn-out auction, the winds had left the sails and the last four lots passed before the half-empty room.
“It was very mixed,” said collector Eli Broad, after it all ended. “It’s based on the quality of the work.”
In some cases was the quality just not there?
“It was not,” he clarified.
When John McEnroe, the collector and former tennis star with a reputation for outbursts on the baseline, was asked if he had purchased any work at the sale, he glared and offered a single word, defiantly.
“No!” he said.
The New York sales continue Wednesday night with the contemporary art evening sale at Sotheby’s.