The $61.68-million Clyfford Still: “1949-A-No.1”
Last Wednesday, when I left the Impressionist/Modern sale at Sotheby’s, I found myself nearly alone in the elevator (but for one other person) with triumphant auctioneer Tobias Meyer. I told him that I had found it a “fun sale” to watch.
“It will be even more fun next week,” he assured me.
I attended tonight’s Contemporary sale virtually, rather than crossing the art handlers’ picket line once again, but even from watching the webcast, it was clear that Meyer was indeed having lots [pun] of fun. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this usually stern, sometimes admonitory auctioneer grin so much during a sale. And why not? He had a bang-up hammer total of $277.95 million ($315.84 million with buyer’s premium), exceeding the sale’s presale estimate of $192.05-270.85 million. The auction was 84.9% sold by lot and a strong 94.7% sold by value.
As in the evening Impressionist/Modern auctions last week, Sotheby’s significantly exceeded its rival’s Contemporary results of the night before. Christie’s came up with a $216.31-million hammer total; $247.6-million final total with buyer’s premium. Once again, Sotheby’s achieved more with less—73 lots vs. 91 at Christie’s.
But the people with the biggest grins on their faces were probably the interested group gazing down from a skybox as four Clyfford Still paintings were knocked down to applause. The priciest, above, occasioned a bidding war that continued for more than eight minutes, achieving a hammer price of $55 million, against a presale estimate of $25-35 million. At $61.68 million with buyer’s premium, the final price nearly tripled the previous $21.3-million auction record for the artist.
As CultureGrrl readers are well aware, the Stills were being sold, against the artist’s and his late widow’s wishes, to benefit the endowment of the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver. (I know that the Denver denizens downed champagne in their skybox after their dicey disposals were done deals, because Kelly Crow, the Wall Street Journal‘s art-market scribe, live tweeted this sighting.)
Dean Sobel, the museum’s director and the person responsible for raising an endowment for the about-to-open museum, had previously stated that he needed about $25 million to adequately support its operations. Meyer did the director’s job for him, and then some: The four paintings were estimated to fetch a hammer total of $51-71.5 million, but achieved $101.55 million ($114.1 million, with the buyer’s premium that is paid to the auction house but is sometimes shared with the consignor).
Overachieving, in this case, was not praiseworthy. If the museum needed only $25 million, it should have cautiously aimed to not overshoot that target. It’s bad enough to sell works that should have gone to the museum to bankroll operating costs; its worse to sell more than absolutely necessary.
The four Stills were among several groups of works for which Sotheby’s had secured, in advance of the sale, “irrevocable bids” from third parties. An “irrevocable bidder” receives compensation if someone else is the eventual buyer and the hammer price exceeds the prearranged amount of the irrevocable bid. These deals are made to assure that the work will, in fact, sell—a precaution that, with hindsight, appears to have been unnecessary for these fought-over works.
Sotheby’s provided a guarantee for the works, but contrary to what at least one commentator has said, the 12-page sale agreement between Denver and the auction house provided that the minimum total guaranteed price for the four-work consignment would be $25 million. As I previously wrote, the actual guaranteed price, subject to further (undisclosed) negotiation, could have been (and, judging from the estimates, likely was) higher than the $25-million minimum.
The other big artist’s auction record at Sotheby’s was the $20.8-million final price for the Richter below, which exceeded Sotheby’s high hopes with a hammer price of $18.5 million against a presale estimate of $9-12 million:
Tobias Meyer with Gerhard Richter’s “Abstraktes Bild,” 1997, $20.8 million
All eight Richters in the sale, consigned by a single private collector, exceeded their presale estimates, sometimes enormously.
The four works on paper consigned by UBS, on the other hand, had mixed results: A Sam Francis and an Ellsworth Kelly sold above estimate and set auction records for works on paper by those artists ($722,500 and $686,500, respectively). But the highest-estimated of the four UBS disposals, a de Kooning, and the second-highest estimated, a Rauschenberg, failed to find buyers. The Rauschenberg, surprisingly, was not helped by the fact that it had appeared in the Museum of Modern Art’s show of works from UBS’s collection.The Francis, which was said in Sotheby’s catalogue also to have been part of that museum show, in fact was not, a museum spokesperson told me in response to my query.
For Sotheby’s complete results, go here. The auction house did not announce buyers for any of the lots, but reporters who attended the sale may know more.