NEW YORK—Sotheby’s had a record-breaking sale of modern and contemporary art in Amsterdam on March 8, when it auctioned off the BAT (British American Tobacco) ArtVenture Collection, formerly known as the Peter Stuyvesant Collection, one of Europe’s most highly regarded corporate art collections.
The sale realized a total of E13.6million ($18.6million), far above the E4.4million/6.3million estimate. Works by Martin Kippenberger, such CoBrA (Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) artists as Karel Appel, and Zero artists (a Dusseldorf movement that worked with experimental materials such as fire, nails and papier-mâché), all soared well above their estimates. Of the 161 lots, all of which were completely fresh to the market, according to Sotheby’s, only four went unsold, yielding a sold-by-lot rate of 97.5 percent. The auction was 99.6 percent sold by value.
The top lot was Kippenberger’s painting Dinosaurierei, 1996, depicting a baby dinosaur inside a cracked egg, which sold for E1.1million ($1.5million), more than three times its E200,000/300,000 estimate. That work was followed by Tête tragique, 1961, an abstract painting by Appel, which sold for E492,750 ($671,150) against an estimate of E120,000/180,000. French artist Simon Hantai’s oil and gouache ³M.C.2² (Mariale), 1962, sold for E480,750 ($654,806), triple the estimate of E100,000/150,000.
Work by Zero artists such as Jan Schoonhoven and Günther Uecker, which had proved extraordinarily popular at Sotheby’s recent London sale of the Lenz Collection (ANL, 2/23/10), also appeared among the top lots here. Schoonhoven’s white painted papier-mâché on wood Kwadratenreliëf met diagonalen (Square Relief with Diagonals), 1968, sold for E456,750 ($622,116) against an estimate of E100,000/150,000, and Uecker’s Grosser Schnee, 1970, made of nails and acrylic on canvas laid down on wood, sold for E336,750 ($458,670) against an E80,000/120,000 estimate. Lili ou Tony, 1965, a sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle made of painted polyester resin, tissue, wire mesh and collage—one of the artist’s first “Nana” sculptures celebrating women—sold for E408,750 ($556,738) on an estimate of E200,000/300,000.
The BAT Collection originated in the late 1950s, when Alexander Orlow, managing director of Turmac Tobacco, which made the popular Peter Stuyvesant brand of cigarettes, decided his workforce needed something to cheer them up. His solution was to buy art—generally big, colorful abstract paintings—and in 1960 he commissioned 13 European artists to make works on the theme of “joie de vivre” to hang in the production halls of the company’s factory in Zevenaar, the Netherlands. The experiment was so successful that the following year Orlow invited William Sandberg, a former director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, to expand the collection. Over the next 50 years, the collection grew under the supervision of a series of former Dutch museum directors.
In 2000, Turmac was acquired by the British American Tobacco Company (BAT), and the art collection renamed the BAT “ArtVenture” collection. But there was not to be much in the way of artistic venture in store. In June of 2006 the company announced that the Zevenaar factory would close, resulting in the loss of 570 jobs, so that its European production could be concentrated in Germany and Poland. That left the more than 1,400 works in the art collection, valued at some $35million, in need of a new home.
Jan de Ruiter, the mayor of Zevenaar, supported by Martijn Sanders, chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Future of the Stedelijk Museum, looked for a way to buy the collection and keep it in the area, possibly as a wing of the museum, but they could not reach an agreement with BAT. Instead, the collection went on the block at Sotheby’s.