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Exit Speculators: Sotheby’s Day Sale Appears to Show Healthy Market

An Israel Lund untitled work from 2013 being offered at the Sotheby's Contemporary art day sale in New York. COURTESY SOTHEBY'S

An Israel Lund untitled work from 2013 sold for $12,500, inclusive of fees, at the Sotheby’s Contemporary art day sale in New York.

COURTESY SOTHEBY’S

The day sale at Sotheby’s yesterday, which included lower-value lots from the Steven and Ann Ames collection, appeared to show a healthy market, observers said. With over 500 works on offer, it totaled $80.2 million, exceeding its overall high pre-sale estimate, and had a solid 85.9 percent sell-through rate. The Ames material alone brought in $8.5 million, bringing the full Ames haul, including higher-value lots sold earlier in the week, to $131 million. Sotheby’s guaranteed the Ames collection for $100 million, a deal that, as we noted after the evening sale, has paid off.

Over at Art Market Monitor, Marion Maneker points out that the entire run of day sales this past week, “where the real business of the art market is conducted,” were down less than the overall market, and that in contemporary art day sales Phillips had the smallest drop over last year—7 percent—with Sotheby’s down 18 percent from its November 2015 contemporary result.

Sotheby’s day sale saw 13 auction records for artists, including Amy Sillman, whose painting P, from the Ames Collection, sold for over seven times its low pre-sale estimate to make $504,500 (all prices cited are inclusive of auction house fees). Paintings by Sillman are relatively rare to market, and the two that came up from the Ames Collection—the other one, Untitled, made $175,000 (estimate: $60,000–$80,000)—were exceptional.

“Many had the impression that it was all speculators in the market because that’s what was most visible, and being written about,” said art advisor Benjamin Godsill, who attended the Sotheby’s sale. “But the results yesterday showed that there are real collectors out there stretching to acquire things that will have special meaning to them. We saw that the market is healthy. People are buying, and they are spending considerable sums.”

Godsill said he felt heartened not only by the sale of works like the Sillmans, but by the performances of tough conceptual works like a wall text piece by Laurence Weiner, ONE BEHIND THE OTHER ONE ON TOP OF THE OTHER ONE IN FRONT OF THE OTHER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE, which sold for a within-estimate $118,750.

The sale also saw a notable result for an unusual work by Gerhard Richter. Richter is best known for his paintings—earlier in the week, an abstract Richter from the Ames collection, A B, Still from 1986, sold at Sotheby’s for $34 million, and a painting of a fighter jet, Dϋsenjäger (1963), went for $25.6 million at Phillips. The piece at Sotheby’s day sale, Kugel I (Sphere I), from 1989, was a polished stainless steel sphere just three inches in diameter. It came on the block with an estimate of $3,000 to $4,000 and blasted past it, to sell for $35,000.

Another lot from the Ames Collection, however, stood as testament to the fact that the frenzied bubble that created a fierce market for so-called “zombie formalist” painters just a few years ago has burst—and those speculators on the emerging-market end that Godsill referred to would seem to be scarce. Nowhere was that burst more evident than with lot 525, an untitled Israel Lund painting from 2013. The painting is from a series that notched highs of $150,000 at auction during the bubble’s peak, in mid-2014. As Bloomberg’s Katya Kazakina reported in May of that year, an individual painting by Lund sold for a 1,500-percent gain over what a buyer paid for the work when it was first offered at Lund’s debut exhibition at Lower East Side gallery Eleven Rivington in 2013—just $7,500.

But now, the value of these works has come full circle. The Lund that was slotted into a late, forgettable place in the Sotheby’s day sale was estimated to go for just $6,000 to $8,000, and sold for $12,500.

It’s a remarkable drop in value, but one that matches that of several other young artists who saw prices for their work skyrocket over the course of roughly a year, from the fall of 2013 into the fall of 2014. A sale two months ago of works by emerging artists at Phillips, for example, showed that the market for artists such as Lucien Smith and Hugh Scott-Douglas had crumbled. One of Smith’s “Rain Paintings” that sold for as much as $372,000 in 2014 went for just $16,250 at Phillips’s “New Now” sale, and another one of his works failed to sell. A work by Scott-Douglas that was bought by the collector Niels Kantor for $100,000 went for $30,000. Kantor told Bloomberg’s Kazakina that he gave the work to Phillips to sell because “I feel like it can go to zero. It’s like a stock that crashed.”

Because the Lund is a part of the Ames Collection that Sotheby’s acquired in full, it had to be offered at auction, regardless of whether the market would treat it kindly—a batch of circumstances that, looking at things after the fact, shed light on exactly how the demand for work by Lund and his peers has diminished. It seems unlikely that such a work would be purposefully slotted into a sale at Sotheby’s, given the artist’s recent performance. Similar Lund works up for sale failed to find buyers during sales at Phillips New York in March 2015; at Phillips London in April 2015; and Christie’s New York in May 2015. More recently, a work from the same year and of the same size sold at Sotheby’s contemporary curated sale in September for $10,625, and another, at that Phillips “New Now” sale the same month, for $10,000.

This was not always the case. The sagas of five of the nine works shown in Lund’s debut show at Eleven Rivington in summer 2013, all of them around 44 x 33 inches (Lund is now represented by David Lewis gallery), illustrate the rollercoaster ride that is the Israel Lund market. Here is what provenance research tells us about the fates of those five:

One of them was acquired by a private collector, changed hands, and was then sold at Christie’s London in July, 2014, for 84,100 pounds, or $144,352. Another was acquired by a private collector, then sold on to another, and then sold at Christie’s New York in May 2014, for $125,000; a third was bought by a private collector, and then sold at Phillips New York in September, 2014, for $87,500. A fourth was acquired, and then offered for sale in December, 2014, at Tajan auction house in Paris with an estimate of €35,000–€50,000 (or $37,525–$53,607), and failed to sell. Four months later, it went on the block at Sotheby’s, New York, and sold for $25,000. 

The fifth work acquired from that 2013 show at Eleven Rivington, that we know about, was purchased by a private collector, then sold on to another, who put it on the block at Christie’s New York in November, 2014, where it sold for $50,000 to Steven Ames. Ames passed away this past March and his estate went to Sotheby’s. The Lund painting went on the block yesterday at Sotheby’s with an estimate of $6,000–$8,000, and sold for $12,500, just $4,000 more than their original primary market price.

Perhaps Steven and Ann Ames added this work to their collection simply because they liked it. But if they happened to buy this particular Israel Lund with the intention to flip it, the end result would have almost certainly been a loss. Such is the market.

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