Expensive Failure: Degas’ “Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans,” executed in wax c. 1879-81 and cast in bronze “at a later date,” as described in Christie’s catalogue
The quote in my headline was uttered by Christie’s struggling auctioneer, Christopher Burge, at the moment when he was poised to bring down the hammer on the star lot of this evening’s Impressionist/Modern sale—Degas‘ bronze “Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans,” unsold at $18.5 million against a presale estimate of $25-35 million. This was an ambitious estimate (as were, with 20-20 hindsight, more than half of the estimates in this sale). A Degas “Little Dancer” had sold at Sotheby’s, London, in February 2009 for $19.2 million (including the buyer’s premium).
The ballerina’s awkward performance was “indeed” a “fair warning” of how the entire auction would stumble. The stranded dancer was the first of a string of expensive flops in an 82-lot massacre that ended with a mere 55% sold by dollar value, 62% sold by lot.
This must have been giving attendees traumatic flashbacks to the similarly dismal Fall 2008 Impressionist/Modern auctions, which occurred in the midst of the economic implosion triggered by the Lehman Brothers collapse.
The saleroom crowd was so deflated that even the evening’s one resounding success—Max Ernst‘s 1941 “The Stolen Mirror,” which sold for a robust $16.32 million (including the buyer’s premium), elicited only murmurs, not applause. “Mirror” trounced the previous auction record for the artist—$4.42 million. Its hammer price was $14.5 million, againt a presale estimate of only $4-6 million.
Max Ernst, “The Stolen Mirror,” 1941, $16.32 million
The Museum of Modern Art did barely okay with its deaccessioned Delvaux (scroll down) which fetched a hammer price of $5.8 million against a presale estimate of $6-9 million.
The hammer total for the sold works was $122.43 million, against the auction’s total presale estimate of $211.9-305.35 million. The total with buyer’s premium (which is not figured into presale estimates) was $140.77 million. 31 of the 82 lots failed to sell.
What will happen tomorrow night at Sotheby’s? That house’s experts had emphasized, at last week’s press preview for the two evening auctions, that they had conservatively estimated what their star lots would fetch—a strategy to stimulate competitive bidding. Still, they may now be contacting consignors, encouraging them to lower their reserves (the prices below which the items won’t sell), in light of the Debacle on 49th Street.
As for Christie’s, its experts will likely be encouraging disappointed consignors to allow the auction house to play “Let’s make a deal” with some of those whose bids didn’t come up to snuff.
For the entire price list of tonight’s sale (which excludes the works that failed to sell), go here.