After a bleak Impressionist and modern sale Monday night, where a lack of bidding led to a dismal sell-through rate of 66 percent, Sotheby’s silenced both critics of the house and art-market doomsayers with a tight and lively $242.2 million contemporary evening auction Wednesday, firmly above its low estimate total of $201.4 million, with only two passes during the 42-lot affair. As work after work attracted robust bidding from the specialists on the phones and collectors in the room, the propulsion of success led Sotheby’s to achieve a final sell-through rate of 95 percent.
“We saw a fundamentally different sale room tonight than in the last few months,” chairman Oliver Barker said after the sale.
Indeed, the cheery atmosphere at Sotheby’s York Avenue headquarters was nearly unrecognizable, given the sense of despair that set in as Monday’s sale sputtered and crash landed. Works soared past high estimates, causing the room to be consumed by applause, clapping that would continue to echo through the building as specialists celebrated long after the final lot was sold. The sense of a crisis averted was palpable.
No work came close to matching the blockbuster lot at the Christie’s postwar and contemporary sale Tuesday—a Basquiat that went to Japanese collector Yusaku Maezawa to the tune of $57.3 million, a new record for the artist—but a few managed to land in eight-figure territory.
Tonight, Cy Twombly’s Untitled 1968 (New York City), 1968, went for $36.6 million, Francis Bacon’s Two Studies for a Self Portrait (1970) went for $35 million, and another Twombly, Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version V), 2004, went for $15.4 million. (Though it should be noted that neither Twombly work came too close to its reported—otherwise upon-request—estimates. Simon de Pury and his wife, Michaela, were the winning bidders on the Bacchus work that the house thought could go above $20 million, and when ARTnews asked after the sale if they got it at a good price, Simon said, “Oh, yes, absolutely, a great price.”)
The major artist record of the night was for Sam Francis, as his Summer #1 (1957) went for $11.8 million to Eli Broad, who outlasted four other bidders to capture the work. When approached by the seventh-floor elevators leaving the sale, Broad explained that he had “five, maybe six” works by Francis already, but came to Sotheby’s looking to leave with another.
And it appears that after dropping $80 million on Tuesday at Christie’s, Maezawa isn’t stopping: tonight, while on the phone with specialist Yuki Terase, he picked up Adrian Ghenie’s Self-Portrait as Vincent Van Gogh (2012) for $2.6 million, and Christopher Wool’s Untitled (1990) for $13.9 million.
The sale’s success was rooted in the careful consideration of the works chosen, the modest pricing compared to years past, and less reliance on risky guarantees: there were just twelve such lots, and seven of them were guaranteed with an irrevocable bid. Neither of the two lots that failed to sell were among those guaranteed, sparing Sotheby’s any painful buybacks.
The sale felt ebullient from the opening salvo, when bids for the Ghenie from seven different prospective buyers lit up the room, Barker juggling all of them as they nudged up the price way past the $300,000 high estimate. By the time Maezawa claimed the work, it had hammered at $2.15 million—applause on the night’s first lot.
“It’s a good start!” Barker exclaimed.
A Calder from the collection of Alfred H. Barr Jr. attracted a slew of bids as well, including some from dealer Adam Lindemann, who showed up tonight after opting not to watch the record-breaking Basquiat he owned for 12 years go on the block at Christie’s. (After I told him that the Basquiat looked quite good in the auction house’s viewing galleries, he responded, with a sigh, “It looked better in my living room.”) The Calder mobile went for $8.3 million, more than double its high estimate.
The Bacon diptych—“It’s two for the price of one!” Barker, in salesman mode, told the crowd—initiated a tussle between specialist Alex Branczik and a young collector with a mohawk-like haircut wearing a velvet smoking jacket who was nestled toward the back of the room. He managed to bid as high as $30.5 million, only to drop out after Branczik went to $31 million, where it hammered. When reached at the elevators (he left after losing the lot) the collector, who appeared to be European but declined to identify himself, said, “It’s very disappointing, but yes, I didn’t get it.”
Broad also had to fight a phone bidder, this time represented by Impressionist and modern cohead Simon Shaw, to secure the Sam Francis he had come to get. As the bidding inched higher and higher, Broad on several occasions shook his head in defeat, only to be goaded by Barker hard enough that he eventually mouthed the words “one more.” After mouthing “one more” a few times, the new artist record was achieved.
The sale continued in that vein, with all but one of the remaining lots finding buyers, even if the hammer prices often landed short of the low estimates. This long stretch of successful sales kept the juices flowing in the room, so much so that Philippe Ségalot and David Zwirner were bidding furiously on the third-to-last lot—Jean Dubuffet’s Vache a l’herbage (1954)—and driving it up to $4.9 million. What’s more, the final lot of the night—Christian Marclay’s Boneyard (1990)—set an auction record for the artist.
“All the rumors of the demise of the market were premature!” a downright jolly Zwirner told ARTnews after the sale wrapped. “I was very impressed by the energy here tonight. And congratulations to Amy!”
Ah, yes, the night also served as a coming-out party for Amy Cappellazzo, the former Christie’s chairman who came on board after Sotheby’s gambled and purchased her advisory firm, Art Agency, Partners, for up to $85 million. She was working the phones on the auctioneer’s far left side (a few feet away from Sotheby’s CEO, Tad Smith, who seemed to watch her most of the night) and secured a number of works for her clients, including David Smith’s Zig I (1961) and Franz Kline’s Elizabeth (1961).
It was not a bad way to start a tenure at Sotheby’s.
“It was a really strong sale, and it showed that the whole week just…crescendoed,” said Simon de Pury, putting his signature emphasis on the last word. “And it will bring confidence back to the consignors who were on the fence after Monday.”
After chatting, de Pury took the elevator down to the main lobby, where he was greeted with a bro-hug from the actor and collector Leonardo DiCaprio, who had watched the sale from his usual perch in the skybox, leather newsboy cap affixed to his head.
“Good day, huh?” DiCaprio said to de Pury.
Can’t argue with that, Leo.
The New York sales conclude with the Impressionist and modern evening auction at Christie’s Thursday night.