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Rocky Rockefeller Predictions: Estimated “in Excess of $500,000,” But Hyped as “a Billion-Dollar Sale”

With a lot riding on this week’s results of the David Rockefeller estate’s purported “Sale(s) of the Century,” several news publications have upped the ante, impetuously recasting the series of auctions, estimated by Christie’s to bring “in excess of $500,000,” as potentially a “billion-dollar sale.”

That’s a whole lot of “excess” over the $500,000, and a high hurdle to surmount. But it makes for a juicy headline (or subhead), as in today’s Wall Street Journal:

The first mention that I saw of a possible billion-dollar sale was Kelly Crow‘s April 11 piece for the Wall Street Journal. She then wrote:

Now that a single painting [Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Salvator Mundi”] has sold for close to a half billion dollars [$450.3 million, to be exact], it no longer seems a stretch to wager that the Rockefellers’ entire collection of 1,562 lots of fine and decorative art could sell for twice as much, dealers say.

I’m not convinced that you can draw any meaningful conclusions about the overall state of the art market from the Leonardo one-off. And “dealers say” doesn’t necessarily translate into “reliable sources say.” But at least Kelly was more specific than Oliver Laughland of the Guardian, who reported on May 4 that “some predict the auction…could be the first to raise $1bn in total.” (Who’s “some”?)

In her May 5 WSJ article (pictured above, as published in today’s hardcopy paper), Crow strengthened her (anonymous) sourcing for the billion-dollar prediction from “dealers say” to “dealers and collectors said.” She noted that “stakes are…high because the Rockefeller sales will play a part in setting the tone for the semiannual sales of Impressionist and modern art, May 14-18 at Christie’s and the art market’s other two major auction houses, Sotheby’s and Phillips.”

Those results, in turn, will set the tone for art-market confidence (or lack thereof) going forward—something that dealers have a vested interest in. Their aggressive predictions are self-serving, especially if they embolden potential, deep-pocketed buyers to throw in a few extra bids.

Speaking of which, here is the second highest-estimated painting (after the Picasso that I discussed in yesterday’s post) from the Rockefeller offerings. Like the Picasso nude, this Matisse semi-nude will meet her market fate tomorrow (Tuesday) evening:

Matisse, “Odalisque Couchée aux Magnolias,” 1923
Presale estimate: around $70 million
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

The billion-dollar prediction becomes somewhat more credible when one considers that the very hefty buyer’s premium, which auction houses add to the hammer price, boosts final prices considerably higher than the amount bid. Case in point: The hammer price for the Leonardo was $400 million; the auction house’s fee tacked on an astonishing $50.3 million, for a final price of $450.3 million. (The $500 million-plus Rockefeller presale estimate is a prediction of hammer price; the “billion-dollar sale” chatter refers to final price, with premium.)

Since the initial press release went out in November, Christie’s presale estimates for some key works have become more aspirational. I previously mentioned that the star Picasso’s estimate was bumped up from “in the region of $70 million,” to around $100 million. Similarly, the Matisse now estimated at about $70 million was expected in November to fetch “in the region of $50 million.” The Monet “Nymphéas en Fleur,” now estimated at around $50 million, was then was pegged at “in the region of $35 million.”

Monet, “Nymphéas en Fleur,” ca. 1914-17
Presale estimate: around $50 million
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

In response to my query about these increases, a Christie’s spokesperson told me this today:

Preliminary indications of estimates were given when we began marketing the collection in 2018. [Actually, the initial press release, with estimates, was issued in late 2017.] Based on the most recent market conditions and prices recently achieved at auction for analogous property, these [the more recent estimates] are the price guides we will quote consistently as we approach the sale.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, the entire Rockefeller collection has been guaranteed by Christie’s (meaning that the consignor will get no less than the guaranteed amount, regardless of whether the bidding reached that level). I also noted that some of the guarantee risks might be offset by third parties. When I asked the spokesperson if she could say for which works the guarantee risks would be shared by third parties (possibly including the use of irrevocable bids), she replied:

If Christie’s chooses to share its risk on individual lots with a third party prior to the sales, those arrangements will be identified by the auctioneer prior to the start of the sale.

Such information is usually noted via symbols in the catalogue, unless there are new deals struck after the catalogue is published.

The suspense grows. Tomorrow (Tuesday) evening could prove to be an art-market watershed.

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