It was a somewhat rocky start to the New York sales Wednesday night at Sotheby’s, as the lots from the estate of its former owner A. Alfred Taubman—breathlessly hyped due to the $500 million guarantee plunked down by the house to win it from its arch-rival Christie’s—often sold at below or barely over their low estimates, with some big-ticket lots not selling at all. The final total came to $377 million, inching past the low estimate for the sale by a few million and casting doubts on whether the auction giant can make back its record investment with the rest of the Taubman sales.
The overall sell-through rate for the auction was a healthy 89.6 percent by lot, with 69 of the 77 lots finding buyers, but a full 22 of those 69 lots—almost a third—sold for below their low estimates, even with buyer’s premium figured in. (Estimates are calculated sans premium.)
Though the sale was not without its bright spots: Frank Stella’s Delaware Crossing (1961), a gigantic canvas that loomed over the proceedings on the stage, broke the artist’s auction record by hammering at $12 million to a phone bidder at the other end of a call with Claudia Dwek, a deputy chairman for Europe, bringing it to $13.7 million with the buyer’s premium. Stella’s just-opened retrospective at the Whitney perhaps buoyed the high sale.
One of the last portraits produced by the ever-destitute drunkard Modigliani was the sale’s only other unassailable smash hit, going for $42.8 million, over an on-request high estimate said to be $35 million. Such a sale may bode well for the primo lot of next week’s slew of sales: Modigliani’s Nu couché (Reclining Nude), which will lead The Artist’s Muse sale on Monday at Christie’s with an estimate of $100 million.
The sale began innocently enough, with the last bit of the cocktail hour lorded over by the triumvirate of Sotheby’s board chair Domenico de Sole, Sotheby’s CEO Tad Smith, and Taubman’s son, William. (“I’m looking forward to the sale,” de Sole said. “I don’t have a comment, but you can get a drink, though,” Smith said. “And caviar!” Taubman said.) And then everyone sat down, with Jose, David, and Tico Mugrabi on one side, and Joe and Helly Nahmad on the other.
“Alfred Taubman once said that his greatest regret is that he wouldn’t be there for the auction of his own estate,” said Smith, introducing the sale. “So we saved him a seat.”
After the Stella and Modigliani lots sold for over their high estimates, the next marquee work on offer was Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXI (1976), which for decades hung in Taubman’s Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, mansion next to the Degas and Léger also in the sale. After some back and forth among bidders on the phone (few lots sold to paddle-wielders in the room), it stalled at $20 million before crawling up to a hammer price of $22 million, or just $100,000 shy of the low estimate at $24.9 million with the premium.
That lukewarm reception was a sign of things to come. About 30 seconds after Oliver Barker started the bidding on a Degas pastel with a high estimate of $20 million—Femme Nue, de Dos, se Coiffant (Femme se Peignant), from around 1886–88—he was hanging on the figure of $11.5 million before a silent, unconvinced room. The lot failed to sell, and nervous tittering buzzed through the crowd.
Three lots later, another showpiece arrived, Picasso’s Femme Assise Sue une Chaise (1938), with an estimate of $25 million to $35 million, but despite a last-second bump in the form of a bid by fashion designer Valentino and his longtime partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, it sold for $5 million below its low estimate. A final eight-digit clunker: Jasper Johns’s Disappearance I (1960), which had carried an estimate of $15 million to $20 million. It went unsold.
“I think that they perhaps pushed the boat out a little too far, which means you have to have high estimates,” said David Nash, who headed the international Impressionist and modern division at Sotheby’s while it was owned by Taubman, and who now co-owns the New York gallery Mitchell-Innes & Nash. “The estimates had to catch up with the guarantee, and perhaps this intimidated a lot of people. There was little opportunity to buy anything, in the sense that the estimates were already so strong.”
“I don’t think this is particularly related to the state of the art market at large,” he added.
Though Sotheby’s scored a coup in beating out Christie’s for the Taubman sale, that good cheer could evaporate if it falls well short of the $500 million guarantee (there are three more sales in the next week and a half, but none contain big-ticket works like those that were on the block tonight). Beyond that, perhaps there was some lingering distaste over the fact that Taubman left the auction house’s top perch en route to the slammer for his role in a price-fixing scheme. Or maybe it was just the market’s disapproval of the tastes of a Midwestern shopping-mall baron who was said to prefer picking up bargains to chasing (and spending on) masterpieces.
Whatever it was, by the end of the sale, David Mugrabi could be seen mouthing the word “embarrassing.” Maybe Alfred Taubman wouldn’t have wanted to be there for the auction of his own estate after all.
The New York auctions continue Thursday with the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s.