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Sotheby’s Restores Market Confidence: $36-Million Klimt Bidding War

Ebullient Duo: Auctioneer and Sotheby’s contemporary art head Tobias Meyer speaks, while Sotheby’s Impressionist/Modern co-chair David Norman beams, at last night’s press conference

Fears of a new art-market nosedive were put to rest last night at Sotheby’s, with an impressive Impressionist/Modern sale that was as lively as Tuesday’s Christie’s auction was deadly. The consensus was that this success was not so much a matter of better quality as of down-to-earth estimates and reserves.

“We lost a lot of consignments when we didn’t believe that we should go to a higher estimate,” David Norman, Sotheby’s Impressionist/Modern co-chair, said at the press conference after the sale. He also revealed (unsurprisingly) that after Christie’s “sobering” experience the night before, he and his colleagues contacted consignors about lowering reserves. Prudence was rewarded.

Still, Sotheby’s sale did have its share of unsold works—some 13 of the 70 lots. But these disappointments came, for the most part, in the last third of the sale, so they didn’t cast a pall over the whole evening (as did Christie’s stranded Degas dancer, an early, pricey failure). And unlike Christie’s buy-ins, Sotheby’s passed lots were not the highest-estimated works but less important merchandise.

As a result, the sold total for Sotheby’s was a healthy 87% by dollar (compared to Christie’s 55%) and 81% by lot (compared to Christie’s 62%).

With fewer lots (70 vs. 82) and a much lower presale estimate than its rival ($167.6-220.9 million, compared to Christie’s $211.9-305.35 million), Sotheby’s still managed to garner a much higher hammer total—$174.76 million, compared to Christie’s $122.43 million.

The big lot of the night (as Sotheby’s had hoped) was Gustav Klimt‘s “Litzlberg am Attersee,” c. 1914-15, a work restituted by the Salzburg Museum of Modern Art to the heir of a Nazi victim. Two determined bidders pushed the price to $36 million ($40.4 million with buyer’s premium), against an unpublished estimate that Sotheby’s said was “in excess of $25 million.”

Klimt, “Litzlberg am Attersee,” c. 1914-15

My nose for news managed to position me in the standing-room press section immediately next to (and gazing down upon) the winning bidder, Zurich dealer David Lachenmann, who was seated in the third row on the outside aisle. I couldn’t help but overhear his running phone commentary to his collector-client. Although he at first refrained from bidding, I suspected he would eventually figure in this drama.

I soon received a lesson in bidding strategy: Lachenmann kept his client constantly informed of the progress in the room, but laid back while the bidding rose from $17 million to $23 million, where it seemed to stall.

“It’s 23. I’m going to give you every increment,” he assured the client, who apparently was wondering why he hadn’t heard any movement. “It’s still 23.”

Then, when it looked like the hammer might fall, Lachenmann and his client made their move. The dealer entered the fray on the collector’s behalf at $23.5 million. The running commentary (and the bidding) continued in $500,000 increments, with the otherwise calm Lachenmann breathing a deep sigh before signaling a $29.5-million bid.

Three bids later, his rival, bidding by phone through a Sotheby’s agent, sought to unnerve Lachenmann with a million-dollar jump to $31.5. They both then reverted to $500,000 increments, until the opponent tried a TWO-million-dollar jump, to $35 million. Lachenmann coolly went ahead to $36 million, clinching the deal and soon thereafter finding himself in a scrum of reporters, with whom he chatted amiably.

Speaking of scrums, I entered Sotheby’s to the cries of “Shame on you!” from picketing art handlers, who are in a long-running labor dispute with Sotheby’s. Their horns and whistles could at times be heard within the saleroom. Security inside was tighter than usual.

That’s the face of Sotheby’s president, Bill Ruprecht, on the pole-mounted sign to the right:


But back to the sale: The museums that deaccessioned works through Sotheby’s did well. The eight works consigned by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (including the Vereshchagin sold in Tuesday’s Russian art sale) garnered a hammer total of $18.72 million, against a presale estimate of  $16.6- 24.3 million. Six of the seven works consigned by the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, sold, fetching a $9.4-million hammer total, against a presale estimate (for all seven) of $9.2-13.9 million. And the Menil Foundation’s Ernst bronze (scroll down) doubled its high estimate, achieving a $1.2-million hammer total.

New auction records were achieved for Caillebotte ($18 million), Tamara de Lempicka ($8.48 million) and Maxime Maufra ($266,500, one of Boston’s consignments). 

To view the full price list for Sotheby’s sale, go here.

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