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“Are We All Done?” Christie’s Delivers a Dull (but effective) “Sale of the Century” Debut

Maybe I’m getting jaded, but tonight’s first installment of the “Sale of the Century”—the David Rockefeller estate disposals at Christie’s—seemed to me as exciting as a wet blanket. (I suppose that would be me.)

I have to admit, though, that I was probably wrong in believing that the billion-dollar sales predictions for the entire Rockefeller series were merely wishful thinking. Tonight’s sale has already rung up $648.38-million (including buyer’s premium), and the $564.55-million hammer-price total handily beat the $490-million low estimate of hammer price, as reported by Christie’s.

The scene outside Christie’s
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The star of the night was Picasso‘s “Fillette à la Corbeille Fleurie,” said to be a teenager named Linda, who, according to the auction-catalogue essay, “sold her body as well as her roses outside the Moulin Rouge.” Bidding on this waif crept from $90 million to $102 million in 42 seconds, and then sat there for another two and a half minutes, while auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen searched in vain for another advance, finally bringing down the hammer, disconsolately, to no applause. Still it did make its presale estimate of about $100 million for the hammer price. (Final price with premium: $115 million.)

Picasso, “Fillette a la Corbeille Fleurie,” 1905
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In an attempt to add to the offerings’ allure, Jussi kept identifying the illlustrious collectors and dealers from whom David had acquired various works. He also named those who had advised David to buy his treasures—most often, the Museum of Modern Art’s Alfred Barr; once, the Metropolitan Museum’s Ted Rousseau.

To egg on laggardly bidders, he reminded those assembled that their money would benefit good causes—some 12 charities that David favored. Nothing went unsold, probably, in part, because there was some form of “global reserve” in operation. All works were guaranteed by Christie’s (with 13 of the 44 lots backed in whole or in part by third parties). Although several fetched considerably below their presale estimates, the stronger prices brought by others compensated for the shortfalls. It seemed that so long as the overall result was good, individual items could get off cheaply.

Robin Pogrebin reported in the NY Times tonight that “Christie’s defeated its rival Sotheby’s by guaranteeing the Rockefellers’ estate a minimum total price of $650 million, according to a person familiar with the deal. That is a large gamble for an auction house.” (Here’s what Hugh Hildesley of Sotheby’s had told me about his firm’s reluctance to take a big guarantee risk on the Rockefeller Collection.)

Because Christie’s (unlike Sotheby’s) is a private company, we may never know whether the risk was worth it, from a financial standpoint. Assuming that Robin’s “$650 million” figure is correct, I’m not sure exactly what it means: Does the estate expect to net $650 million from the sale, or will a sale total of $650 million—to be divvied up among the estate, Christie’s and the third-party guarantors—satisfy the estate’s requirements?

While you ponder these complexities, here’s my Wakelet of live tweets about the auction highlights (and lowlights). I’m not sure how I’ll do this in the future: Storify is going out of the “storification” business.

Below is a corrected version of my original Storify, in which I made the amateur mistake (in one of my hasty tweets) of calling a Monet a “Manet.” I also threw in an image of the record-breaking “Nymphéas,” which I neglected to include previously.

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