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Invidious Comparisons: Sotheby’s Contemporary Sale Makes the Best of a Difficult Situation

Sotheby's auctioneer Tobias Meyer at tonight’s Contemporary sale Screenshot from webcast

Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer at tonight’s Contemporary sale
Screenshot from the webcast

Before opening the bidding this evening on Andy Warhol‘s 1963 “Silver Car Crash [Double Disaster],” Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s auctioneer, introduced it as “my favorite.”

As well he might: Soaring to $94 million ($105.45 million with buyers premium), it far outstripped the previous Warhol record holder, “Green Car Crash,” which sold for $71.72 million at Christie’s in May 2007.

Sotheby’s sale was no car wreck, notwithstanding the major thinning of wallets that had occurred the night before at the rival auction house’s spending orgy. Meyer did well enough with the material at hand, but tonight’s only other true standout (in terms of soaring above its presale estimate) was a work that, to my mind, should never have hit the auction blockCy Twombly‘s “Poems to the Sea.” It was part of a group of works being sold at Sotheby’s by the Dia Art Foundation, against the wishes of that institution’s founders, in what I regard as one of the most problematic art disposals in recent memory.

“Poems” fetched a hammer price of $19.2 million, against a $6-8 million presale estimate. Its final price (with buyers premium) of $21.67 million was an auction record for Twombly. The works sold by Dia tonight (with more coming tomorrow in Sotheby’s day sale) totaled $38.4 million, against a $19.1-25.6 million presale estimate. Proceeds will be used to establish an acquisitions fund.

Sotheby’s offerings were well estimated, resulting in a sale that was 88.5% sold by lot, 94.8% by value. But when compared with Christie’s mighty $691.58-million record total for any art auction, the otherwise respectable $380.64 million fetched at Sotheby’s tonight, within the sale’s presale estimate range, seemed anemic, even though it was Sotheby’s highest auction total ever.

Christie’s, at the top end, just had better material.

At least Sotheby’s could console itself with the knowledge that it had just achieved a record total for a jewelry sale, as well as for a diamond, dubbed “The Pink Dream.” And let us not forget that it trounced Christie’s in last week’s Impressionist/Modern sales.

That said, contemporary is the art market’s highest profile category, with the greatest dollar volume. “Momentum matters,” as the head of Christie’s Contemporary evening sale, Koji Inoue, told us at the press preview for his record-breaker. Sotheby’s can’t afford to continue lagging this far behind.

Speaking of Christie’s Contemporary press preview, did you happen to catch this published photo of me there (notepad, video camera and tape recorder in hand), accompanying Carol Vogel‘s front-page NY Times piece yesterday?

an ArtsJournal blog