NEW YORK—Sotheby’s opened the spring sales for contemporary art on May 9 with the second round of sales from the collection of dealer Allan Stone, who died in 2006. The first auction of contemporary art from Stone’s collection had been held by Christie’s in 2007 (ANL, 11/27/07). With estimates pitched at reasonable levels, the 42-lot event surpassed expectations, as 39 lots sold for $54.8 million (estimate: $34 million/47 million).
The standout result was for John Chamberlain’s crushed-car sculpture Nutcracker, 1958, which sold to a representative of the Gagosian Gallery for a record $4.8 million (estimate: $1.2 million/1.8 million). The gallery has recently signed Chamberlain, previously represented by Pace, to its stable of artists. Gagosian also bought a small, untitled work by Chamberlain, dated 1961, for $662,500 (estimate: $200,000/300,000).
The other notable feature of the sale was the group of 18 works by West Coast artist Wayne Thiebaud, 17 of which sold, mostly above estimate. Top price, and approaching a record, was $4 million (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million) for his classic Pies, 1961, bought by a private American phone bidder against the Nahmad family of art dealers in the room. Spiraling past estimates were his Four Pinball Machines (Study), 1962, which sold to a European collector on the phone for $3.4 million (estimate: $700,000/900,000); and Various Cakes, 1981, which sold to California’s Berggruen Gallery for $3 million (estimate: $1.2 million/1.8 million). Other buyers in the room who picked up lower-priced Thiebauds were the New York galleries Acquavella and Luhring Augustine, as well as art adviser Barbara Guggenheim.
Less Exuberance at Mixed-Owner Sale
Estimates were less universally attractive at Sotheby’s mixed-owner Part One sale on May 10, where the total proceeds, $128 million, fell just within the estimate of $121 million/174 million by virtue of the commission. Although 49, or 84.5 percent, of the 58 lots were sold, 19 of these were sold at hammer prices at or below the low estimates.
The top lot was Andy Warhol’s Sixteen Jackies, 1964, effectively 16 separate works assembled as one by publisher Peter Brant, who was the seller. The estimate of $20 million/30 million might have been thought high, considering another 16 Jackies, which Warhol himself had presented as a single work—and was therefore considered more desirable—sold at Christie’s New York in November 2006 for $15.7 million.
However, with Warhol dealer-collector Jose Mugrabi underbidding to $17 million, the work sold to a phone bidder for a hammer price of $18 million ($20.2 million with commission; estimates do not include commission).
Also aggressively estimated was Jeff Koons’s Pink Panther, 1988 at $20 million/30 million. Only one Koons has been estimated that high, the much larger Balloon Flower (Magenta), 1995–2000, which fetched a record $25.7 million at Christie’s London in June 2008. However, another edition of Pink Panther had set a record for Koons back in 1999, and Sotheby’s found a third-party guarantor to make an irrevocable bid for this, the artist’s proof, which was being sold by publisher Benedikt Taschen. At the sale, auctioneer Tobias Meyer fielded a $15 million bid from Patti Wong, head of Christie’s Asia, and announced he could sell at that price, an indication to buyers that the reserve—the undisclosed mininum selling price—had been met. However, despite the underestimate price, no one was enticed to bid above $15 million and the work was knocked down to Wong for $16.9 million including commission—still the third-highest price for Koons at auction.
Other high estimates were placed on Mark Tansey’s Shades, 2001, which had an irrevocable bid/guarantee and appeared to sell on a single-commission bid—presumably to the irrevocable bidder, described by Sotheby’s as “Private European,” for $3.4 million (estimate: $3 million/4 million), and Ed Ruscha’s Honey…I Twisted through more damn traffic to get here, 1984. This painting was looking for a massive markup over its 1998 auction price of $107,000 at Christie’s Los Angeles and was estimated this time at $3.5 million/4.5 million, an estimate virtually unheard-of for Ruscha’s work, other than pieces from the ’60s. It attracted no bids.
The really strong results in the higher price range came for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s late painting Eroica, 1988, which will now be added to the stock of Basquiats held by Jose Mugrabi, who bought it for $5.9 million (estimate: $3.5 million/4.5 million), and for Warhol’s Shadow (Red), 1978, which was sold to an American collector for $4.8 million, against an estimate of $700,000/900,000—which was tame, considering that Sotheby’s had sold another “Shadow” painting last November for $4.2 million. Mugrabi was the underbidder on both occasions.
Price comparisons at this sale give several insights into current market dynamics. Basquiat’s Eroica, for example, was last sold in May 2000 by Sotheby’s New York for $643,750, thus it brought an exceptionally good return. But a 1960s Sam Francis, sold to a Japanese buyer at Sotheby’s New York in November 1989 for $990,000, and then at Sotheby’s New York during the slump in May 1993 for $288,000, could not find a buyer close to that 1989 level and was unsold (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million).
Astute buys during the recent credit crunch are beginning to yield some returns. Warhol’s Statue of Liberty, 1986, which was sold below estimate at Christie’s New York in November 2008, for $2.2 million, sold this time around for $3.4 million (estimate: $3 million/4 million).
Lower down the price scale there were also positive signs: Art adviser Philippe Ségalot outgunned the opposition to buy Felix Gonzalez Torres’s paper stack Untitled (Aparición), 1991, for $1.6 million (estimate: $600,000/800,000); Rosemary Trockel’s wool work Made in Western Germany, 1987, sold for a record $962,500 (estimate: $500,000/700,000); and three small but classic works from the 1940s and ’50s by Jean Dubuffet, from the collection of Dodie Rosekrans, exceeded estimates, selling for $1.1 million (estimate: $500,000/700,000; $1.1 million (estimate: $600,000/800,000); and $722,500 (estimate: $400,000/600,000), against some underbidding from the Nahmad family.
Dealers who bought works by artists they represent included David Zwirner, who purchased Luc Tuymans’s Easter, 2006, for $962,500 against little competition (estimate: $800,000/1.2 million), and Thaddeus Ropac, who bought Gilbert and George’s We Are, 1985, for $422,500 (estimate: $350,000/450,000), without competition. Leaving a commission bid was the Colby College Museum of Art, which met some competition in buying David Smith’s steel sculpture Voltri-Bolton II, 1962, for $3 million (estimate: $2 million/3 million) for its new sculpture gallery.
Among the major unsold works—possibly, as some observers pointed out, because there were better examples at Christie’s—was Tom Wesselmann’s Great American Nude #37, 1962 (estimate: $2.5 million/3.5 million), and Warhol’s round Jackie, 1964, from the Rosekrans collection (estimate: $3 million/4 million).
The $128 million evening sale total could be compared either with Sotheby’s May 2006 $128.7 million total, just before the boom, when 11 records were broken, or its November 2008 $125 million total, which came in at about half the mid-estimate level. Or, again unfavorably, it could be compared with last May’s over-estimate $190 million total. But including the Stone sale, and a healthy day sale at a mid-estimate $59.5 million that saw record prices for Fred Tomaselli, Tony Cragg, Kara Walker and Machiko Edmondson, Sotheby’s brought in an overall $242.4 million for the week—just $1 million short of last May. Some of the high estimates in the evening sale produced results that looked less than positive. But this did not signify a weak market, just a selective one.