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Sotheby’s Goes South: Lackluster Sale Raises Fears of the “C” Word

Let’s be merciful and avert our eyes from the dispiriting Impressionist/modern sale last night at Sotheby’s, which ended with stony silence from the audience, rather than the smattering of relieved applause that had accompanied Christie’s relatively solid sale the night before. Some 20 of the 76 works offered failed to sell last night, and they included many of the highest estimated works, led by the late van Gogh landscape, “The Fields.” Estimated at $28-35 million, it drew no apparent bidders and was withdrawn at $25 million. The other pricey failure was Picasso‘s “La Lampe,” a painting that had also been estimated to bring up to $35 million.
The auction’s sold total, by dollar value, was a paltry 67.6%, compared to 83% at Sotheby’s Impressionist/modern sale last November.
The $35-million hammer price for the highest-estimated work in the sale, Gauguin‘s “Te Poipoi,” fell short of its low estimate of $40 million; its $39.24 total price (with buyers premium) just missed the auction record for the artist that Sotheby’s had been hoping for. The painting was bought by real estate mogul Joseph Lau of Hong Kong, ranked by Forbes at 458 on its list of the world’s billionaires. Lau had purchased Warhol‘s “Mao” for $17.38 million at Christie’s, New York, last November.
Other strong prices were the $29.16 milllion for the Picasso bronze bust of Dora Maar, an auction record for a sculpture by the artist, and the $11.35 million for a Schiele self-portrait, which not only soared above its $4.5-6.5 million presale estimate but also edged out the previous auction record for a work on paper by the artist.
The total hammer price for the sale was $238.8 million, falling considerably short of the $355 million low end of the presale estimate. The sale total including buyers premium was $269.74 million, compared to $394.98 million at Christie’s the night before. (Presale estimates are based on hammer price.)
David Norman, Sotheby’s Impressionist/modern chairman, blamed his presale estimates for scaring bidders away, and tried, in his comments to reporters, to preempt use of the “C” word:
I don’t read this as a warning of the correction in the market. I think it was the composition of the sale. The responsibility lies here.
American buyers acquired 44% of the night’s purchases, with Europeans picking up 48% of the sold lots.
He noted that “people were hurrying to ask about the availability of [unsold] pieces,” including the van Gogh, directly after the sale. Is it time for some bargain hunting? If “correction” is too strong a word, “softening” isn’t.
On a lighter note, I did have my moment before the BBC’s TV cameras—in the back seat of a car, of all places. Are you sure Katie Couric started like this?
I’ll have more on that tomorrow.

an ArtsJournal blog