If the French-Israeli telecommunications entrepreneur Patrick Drahi, who bought Sotheby’s in June in a deal worth $3.7 billion, needed proof that auctions are unlike any other business, he got a clear introduction to that reality during this week’s unpredictable sales.
On Tuesday night, Sotheby’s saw a 40 percent drop in its Impressionist and modern art sales compared with the equivalent sale last May. By Thursday, the auction house was heartened by the $270.6 million total of its contemporary art sale — though that, too, was 28 percent lower than the spring total.
To drive home the fickleness of the salesroom, Christie’s, on Wednesday, achieved an auction high for an Ed Ruscha work, fetching $52.5 million for the Prince of Pop’s 1964 word painting “Hurting the Word Radio #2.” The following night, Sotheby’s, on the other hand, couldn’t even manage to sell Mr. Ruscha’s egg yolk on silk, “She Gets Angry At Him,” from the collection of the designer Marc Jacobs. Ultimately, the auction house brought the piece back to the block as the last lot of Thursday evening — and sold it for $1.7 million, below its $2 million low estimate.
“The art business is not something you can equate to any other business,” Helly Nahmad, a New York dealer, said. “They’re not selling stocks and bonds here. They’re selling fine art.”
This week’s sales provided ample evidence of why the art market continues to defy predictions and to confound those looking for results they can count on. This auction season was buffeted by uncertainty around geopolitical trends. Collectors held onto their best material but, at the same time, buyers were still willing to pay top dollar for the best works that did emerge.
The auction houses suffered in the absence of any major estate sales. On the other hand, they benefited from the seemingly insatiable appetite for blue chip works of contemporary art.
In the end, as in recent years past, dealers, collectors and the auction houses themselves were able to end the week trumpeting the results as proof of a resilient market.
“A lot of people bidding a lot of money on a lot of paintings,” said Marc Glimcher, president and chief executive of Pace Gallery. “It was a strong sale. Everybody’s happy.”
Mr. Drahi, who took Sotheby’s private in a surprise deal — and recently appointed Charles F. Stewart from Altice USA as his chief executive — is expected to try to streamline Sotheby’s, paring down costs at the auction house and emphasizing digital development.
But art experts also caution that applying standard business practices has been tried before and may continue to prove challenging. The particular alchemy of the auction world depends on personal relationships with collectors, on auction specialists with years of expertise and on the serendipity of a live sale in which bidders decide — often in the heat of the moment — to go to the mat for the same object.
That type of frenzied excitement was evident on Thursday night at Sotheby’s, as bids came fast and furious for Kerry James Marshall’s “Vignette 19” park scene of 2014, propelling the final price to $18.5 million — well over the high estimate of $7. 5 million. (Though shy of the painter’s top auction price of $21.1 million last year for “Past Times,” bought by Sean Combs.)
Four bidders also competed for Mr. Marshall’s 2013 painting, “Small Pin-Up (Lens Flare),” which sold to the Los Angeles dealer Stavros Merjos for more than twice its low estimate: $5.5 million.
Mr. Marshall’s mentor, the late printmaker and painter Charles White — who last year was the subject of a MoMA retrospective — also had a big night, his first in a Sotheby’s evening sale. Mr. White’s poignant and impressively large 1953 charcoal drawing went for $1.8 million against a low estimate of $500,000, setting a new auction high for the artist.
Called “Ye Shall Inherit the Earth,” the drawing shows Rosa Lee Ingram, an African-American woman who became an icon of the social justice movement. In the late 1940s she was accused, with her two sons, of killing a white sharecropper. All three were sentenced to death, but after a public outcry, the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
The strength of these artists Thursday night was emblematic of a growing interest at auction in artists of color. An abstract painting by Norman Lewis, “Ritual” from 1962, sold for $2.8 million, a record at auction for the artist’s work. Works by Mark Bradford brought strong prices at both Christie’s ($7.54 million) and Sotheby’s ($5.8 million). Last month at a Phillips sale in London, a sculpture by Simone Leigh set a new auction high for the artist at more than $215,000 on a top estimate of about $74,000.
“African-American art is strong at the moment,” the dealer Christophe Van de Weghe said. “The auction houses have struggled to find good material. People don’t want to sell their paintings. But when the auction houses find good things, they fly.”
At the same time, the more obvious trophies were also in high demand. Three abstract paintings went to Asian bidders. Willem de Kooning’s large-scale abstract, “Untitled XXII” — which was sold by the New York art dealer Bob Mnuchin and had never before been offered at auction — went for $30.1 million, having been guaranteed by a third party to sell at $25 million.
Similarly, Clyfford Still’s 1946 “PH-399,” not seen on the market since 1970, sparked a 15-minute, three-way telephone battle before falling for $24.3 million to the same collector as the de Kooning. It had been estimated at $12 million to $18 million.
And Mark Rothko’s bright orange abstract, “Blue Over Red,” from 1953, sold for a solid $26.5 million, on a low estimate of $25 million, despite having been unloved by some visitors at the auction preview.
The different results at Sotheby’s and Christie’s contemporary sales made clear how dependent auction houses are on the quality of the consignments they are able to corral each season. All but four of Sotheby’s lots were successful, with 70 percent selling for hammer prices above their low estimates. The previous evening at Christie’s, 40 percent of the material sold below estimate.
“Maybe they had a more interesting mix of things,” said the art adviser Nancy Whyte, speaking of Sotheby’s.
At Phillips earlier on Thursday night, the total results were healthy, if not exactly effervescent: $108.1 million, up slightly from May’s sales.
“Everyone is a little apprehensive at the moment,” said Frances Beatty, a New York-based art adviser. “Art is very easy to buy, but not so easy to sell.”
One of the most remarkable signs of nervousness in the current market is the fact that auction sales of works by the American graffiti artist and designer KAWS ($70.6 million) were higher in the first half of 2019 than those of the art market powerhouse Jean-Michel Basquiat ($65.6 million), according to Artnet’s latest Intelligence Report.
The Phillips sale included Mr. Basquiat’s red-dominated 1981 canvas, “The Ring,” showing one of the artist’s trademark boxers in polka-dot shorts triumphantly holding a spear above his head. Guaranteed to sell for at least $10 million, the painting went to the art adviser Abigail Asher for $15 million, with fees.
It is also easy to lose perspective on the astronomical sums buyers continue to lay out for items that will hang on the wall. While a season without $100 million artworks may qualify as muted in today’s overheated market, buyers are nevertheless continuing to pay $10 million for a 1977 Warhol silkscreen of Muhammad Ali, as one did at Christie’s on Wednesday night, or $27.6 million for Monet’s “Charing Cross Bridge,” which one collector did on Tuesday.
All in all, the week attested to the vagaries of the art market, which can simultaneously seem as volatile as tech stocks and as reliable as United States Treasury bonds.
“It was steady,” said Hugo Nathan, a London art adviser. “No froth, no excitement, but robust results.”
“The auction houses did a great job with what they had,” he added, saying that “this might be the pattern for a year or two.”
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