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Gloom at the Top: Why Megabucks Auctions Are Broken (and how to fix them)

The thrill is gone. For several of the highest-estimated properties in the recent series of Impressionist, modern and contemporary sales at Sotheby's and Christie's, the "auction fever" of yesteryear has given way to single-bid transfers of artworks (after a few feigned "chandelier" bids, lobbed by the auctioneers). Bargains are struck in advance with third-party guarantors who ensure (for a fee and/or a share of the proceeds) that high-priced works will sell, either to them or to someone who steps in at a level where the guarantor can … [Read more...]

Picasso Fiasco: CultureGrrl Q&A with Mike Kosnitzky, Lawyer for Steve Wynn’s New Company UPDATED & CORRECTED

In my previous post about the astonishing news that unspecified damage was done at Christie's on Friday to Picasso's “Le Marin,” 1943 (which had been estimated to bring around $70 million in Tuesday's Impressionist/Modern Art auction), I had suggested that the auction house's reticence might have been related to the situation's being "in the hands of the lawyers (as happened with Steve Wynn's previous Picasso fiasco)." That apparently is the case. Although Christie's has failed to respond to my repeated requests for more detailed … [Read more...]

Barker Lark: Oliver Makes Auctions Fun Again at Sotheby’s Revival Meeting (aka Contemporary Sale)

At last, someone knows how to play this game: It's Oliver Barker, the Sotheby's auctioneer who succeeded in whipping up a spirited $284.54-million Contemporary Art sale tonight (preceded by the Mandel Collection's $107.8-million opening act), playing the crowd with cheery exhortations, while moving things briskly along. The hammer total for the Contemporary sale was $246.3 million, within the presale estimate of $207.7-285.6 million. The Mandel hammer total was $91.95 million, within the $72.9-105.3 million presale estimate. Here's my … [Read more...]

Ballyhooed Nude, Picasso Fiasco: Misadventures at Impressionist/Modern Sales at Sotheby’s & Christie’s

How did Sotheby's manage to be deprecated on Monday for achieving a price of $157.2-million for a Modigliani reclining nude---the highest amount ever paid at that firm for a single artwork? The auction house was seen as under-achieving, because this indolent lady's $139-million hammer price was on the backside of her presale estimate---"in excess of $150 million." As such, she had a "Me-Too" moment with another ballyhooed nude---Picasso's “Fillette à la Corbeille Fleurie” in last week's Rockefeller sale of Impressionist and modern works, … [Read more...]

American Success Story: Rockefeller’s & George Washington’s Conquest of Christie’s

For the second night in a row, bidding on the Rockefeller Collection at Christie's handily outstripped the low presale estimate. In a livelier session (thanks to the verve of auctioneer Tash Perrin, said to be taking her first evening sale), 41 lots of David Rockefeller's American art fetched a hammer total of $90.5m, doubling the low estimate of hammer total. Is there still time for me to buy these cufflinks in the online sale? The initial works for me! (Wait. I'd need to buy a shirt that requires cufflinks.) Enough of this idle … [Read more...]

“Are We All Done?” Christie’s Delivers a Dull (but effective) “Sale of the Century” Debut

Maybe I'm getting jaded, but tonight's first installment of the "Sale of the Century"---the David Rockefeller estate disposals at Christie's---seemed to me as exciting as a wet blanket. (I suppose that would be me.) I have to admit, though, that I was probably wrong in believing that the billion-dollar sales predictions for the entire Rockefeller series were merely wishful thinking. Tonight's sale has already rung up $648.38-million (including buyer's premium), and the $564.55-million hammer-price total handily beat the $490-million low … [Read more...]

Rocky Rockefeller Predictions: Estimated “in Excess of $500,000,” But Hyped as “a Billion-Dollar Sale”

With a lot riding on this week's results of the David Rockefeller estate's purported "Sale(s) of the Century," several news publications have upped the ante, impetuously recasting the series of auctions, estimated by Christie's to bring "in excess of $500,000," as potentially a "billion-dollar sale." That's a whole lot of "excess" over the $500,000, and a high hurdle to surmount. But it makes for a juicy headline (or subhead), as in today's Wall Street Journal: The first mention that I saw of a possible billion-dollar sale was Kelly … [Read more...]

Two Takes on How Christie’s Won the Rockefeller Consignment (plus: CultureGrrl’s Video Tour)

How did Christie's manage to best Sotheby's in landing the hotly contested, monumental David Rockefeller consignment? That trove goes on the block next week, led by this waif, who carries the sales' heftiest presale estimate on her fragile shoulders. Ask why she's gone to Christie's, and you'll get two different answers, depending on which auction house you speak to. Marc Porter, chairman of Christie's Americas, told me his firm had won the prize on the strength of its expertise and success in marketing large collections … [Read more...]

Hearts for Hartwig: My Appreciation for Getty’s Soon-to-Retire Communications Head UPDATED

It's not like me to sing the praises of museum communications officials, even though I constantly rely on them for help (and they often are extremely helpful). As a critic and investigative journalist intent on clarifying what's been blurred by PR spin, my relationship with spokespersons is often more adversarial than collegial. Not so with Ron Hartwig, who today announced his retirement this summer after 13 years as the Getty Trust’s vice president of communications. He has always patiently, promptly, cordially and (best of all) … [Read more...]

Barnes Foundation to Subdivide (& monetize?) 137 Acres; Offloads Costs of Lower Merion Properties

Some six years after it controversially moved to Philadelphia, the Barnes Foundation appears to have decided to monetize the original properties of its founder, the legendary collector Albert Barnes, in both Lower Merion and Chester County. In a 2004 NY Times op-ed piece---Destroying the Museum to Save It---I had argued that the Barnes should have considered selling Ker-Feal, its little used 137-acre country estate in Chester County, PA, to help raise sufficient money to sustain its main facility in Lower Merion, PA. Instead, the Barnes … [Read more...]

An Educated Guess: What Did the Lucas Museum Pay for Rockwell’s “Shuffleton’s Barbershop”?

In the two weeks since the announcement of the Berkshire Museum's widely deplored sale of Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, none of the parties to the transaction have revealed the price paid for the privilege of spiriting away this Massachusetts masterpiece: But by analyzing what we do know, it's not hard to come up with a ballpark figure. In announcing the planned disposals next month of 13 of the 39 works that Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has permitted it to sell … [Read more...]

La Salle Art Museum’s Promo Video Highlights Deaccessioned Works

"Wander through six permanent galleries [emphasis added]," the caption for the video walk-through on the La Salle University Art Museum's homepage exhorts potential visitors. But while the galleries may be "permanent," the installation shown on the homepage isn't. Some of the works featured in the video have left this building... ...and were last seen publicly here (a gallery at Christie's): As you will see below (unless La Salle has updated its homepage by the time you read this), two of the three works accorded starring roles … [Read more...]

Deaccession Dejection: La Salle’s Sales Slide at Christie’s UPDATED

This is an I-told-you-so post. Some six of 16 old masters deaccessioned by the La Salle University Art Museum were left stranded on the auction block at Christie's this afternoon. Of the 10 that did sell, only four equaled or exceeded their presale estimates. Br. Daniel Burke, the museum’s late founder and university's president emeritus, might have derived grim satisfaction knowing that the work behind him in the photo below would remain with the museum, despite the university's efforts to unload it (unless Christie's and/or La Salle … [Read more...]

La Salle Sales Shortfall: Two of Five 19th-Century Offerings Fail to Sell

More on this here. Today's auction at Christie's of the first five of 46 deaccessions from the La Salle University Art Museum got off to an inauspicious start when the auction house's earlier sales ran late, causing an hour's delay in start time for the 19th-century European sale. "All registered clients for either sale were notified via email," a Christie's spokesperson assured me. Also inauspicious, in an auction that has been widely criticized within the university and by museum professionals, was the failure of two of the five La Salle … [Read more...]

Fixing the Actual “Glass Ceiling” at the Metropolitan Museum: My Q&A with Keith Christiansen

With all the recent pushback against the supposed "glass ceiling" at the Metropolitan Museum (occasioned by the naming of an eminently qualified male, Max Hollein, to assume its directorship), let's take a look at another glass-ceiling problem there, which is unambiguous and needs immediate remediation: Keith Christiansen, the Met's chairman of European paintings, ended the museum's December press breakfast with a preview of the sweeping changes that have begun this month in the galleries under his purview. In a $150-million project that … [Read more...]

What Obstacles Will Max Hollein Need to Surmount as Metropolitan Museum’s New Director?

Max Hollein will have two strikes against him---one insignificant, one potentially serious---when he walks in the door this summer as the Metropolitan Museum's new director. The first liability is irremediable, unless he's planning a sex-change: He is not a woman. In this identity-politics era, that's a lamentable deficiency for some, notably Lisa Oliver, an assistant professor of art history at Wellesley College and former Met fellow (2014 to 2015). The NY Times saw fit to give this minor player a major platform, with two op-ed … [Read more...]

Berkshire Blurbs: Lucas Museum Buys “Shuffleton’s”; Sotheby’s Lowers Some Estimates

No surprise here: The planned Lucas Museum of Narrative Art, Los Angeles, which broke ground last month, today announced its acquisition of Norman Rockwell's "Shuffleton's Barbershop" from the Berkshire Museum (price undisclosed). This means that Don Bacigalupi, president of the deep-pocketed museum, now has the dubious distinction of being the enabler of not one but two transactions bankrolled by megabucks patrons (here's the other one) that have been deplored by museums' professional organizations. Here's Don at the Lucas, which is … [Read more...]

Fine with Hollein: Max to Be Metropolitan Museum’s New Director

Okay, I knew this. Last week, I contacted Max Hollein, who this afternoon has just been named (by Robin Pogrebin, at the above link) as the Metropolitan Museum's next director, effective this summer. (Press release from the Met came shortly after the NY Times piece, and perhaps others that I didn't see, went online.) I had asked Max last Wednesday if he could send me his private (non-museum) email, which he promptly did, using that opportunity to hype his current museum's (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco's) just opened "major and … [Read more...]

Market Madness: Sotheby’s to Auction 13 Berkshire Museum Works this May

Farewell, George Washington. Notwithstanding its direct relevance to the Berkshire Museum's mission (which includes both history and art) and the museum's professed concern for the education of schoolchildren, a portrait of our first President is among its works to be sold at Sotheby's American Art sale on May 23: (Presale estimates are as of Sotheby's September release of the full checklist for the Berkshire deaccessions.) As the museum announced today, some 13 of the 40 works that on Apr. 5 were approved for sale by … [Read more...]

Picking on the Frick: Is It Shortchanged by Its Significantly Downsized Expansion Plan?

"We're able to achieve everything we need," Ian Wardropper, the Frick Collection's browbeaten director, told Robin Pogrebin of the NY Times about his institution's revised renovation and expansion plans. Not exactly. Before the Frick can get "everything we need," its plan (revised and reduced after the 2014 proposal was derailed by opponents) must be scrutinized by various city bodies whose approval is required. The press release (linked in the first paragraph) mentions the Landmarks Preservation Commission and the Board of Standards … [Read more...]

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