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“Live” But Not Too Lively: Auction Torpor (not Fever) at Sotheby’s Evening Sales

As I had anticipated, government strictures prevented Sotheby’s from realizing its tentatively announced plan to hold “live evening and day auctions of Contemporary and Impressionist & Modern Art…in New York the week of 29 June…pending the lifting of certain restrictions and confirmation from the relevant authorities that we can proceed.”

When it became apparent that this wasn’t going to happen, Sotheby’s snatched victory from the jaws of defeat by redefining a “LIVE GLOBAL AUCTION EVENT” (the headline of yesterday’s post-sale press release) as “an unprecedented live-streamed event [emphasis added], with banks of telephone-bidding colleagues beamed in from around the world.”

Beam me up, Ollie!

Auctioneer Oliver Barker fielding a 3-city array of specialists in a bidding battle for “Royal Fireworks” (top right), which set a Frankenthaler auction record at $7.9 million
Screenshot by Lee Rosenbaum

This complicated set-up worked well enough, but at the expense of “auction fever,” the contagion that can spread when bidding happens the old-fashioned way—concentrated in one salesroom packed with live attendees:

A Sotheby’s sale in the good old days
Photo from Sotheby’s website

While Monday’s bidding method was billed by Sotheby’s as “unprecedented,” bidders and interested onlookers have, in fact, experienced live-streamed auctions for years, albeit not enhanced by views of Sotheby’s specialists in New York, London and Hong Kong, conveying their clients’ wishes via hand signals and outcry.

Technological advances notwithstanding, “live” didn’t mean “lively,” although auctioneer Oliver Barker, demonstrating his usual grace-under-pressure, did his best to generate enthusiasm for the sometimes painfully slow proceedings:

—“A wonderful start!” he exclaimed, when the first lot, Richard Tuttle‘s Yellow Dancer fetched hammer price of $300,000 ($375,000 with buyer’s premium), just hitting the low end of its presale estimate. (Presale estimates are predictions of hammer price, not the final price with the buyer’s premium.)

—“The battle of the London telephone bidders!” for Louise BourgeoisObserver, which sold for $2.24 million (with premium); and: “The power of technology across the globe!” for another Bourgeois.

—“It’s the battle of the bidders in New York!” for Joan Mitchell‘s Straw and “Healthy bidding at Sotheby’s!” for Lee Krasner‘s Re-Echo, which hammered for $7.7 million ($9.03 million with premium), beating its $6-million high estimate.

Lee Krasner, “Re-Echo,” 1957, $9.03 million
Photo: Sotheby’s

The smattering of applause from the auction house’s own remotedly located employees was a feeble substitute for whoops of salesroom attendees after the second lot, Helen Frankenthaler‘s 1975 Royal Fireworks (cue the Handel?), inspired a bona fide bidding war on its way to being knocked down at $6.7 million ($7.9 million with fees). It trounced both its $3-million high estimate and the previous auction record for Frankenthaler ($3.02 million):

Helen Frankenthaler, “Royal Fireworks,” 1975, $7.9 million
Photo: Sotheby’s

The above-mentioned lots led off the female-centric Ginny Williams Collection Evening Sale, the first leg of a long night’s journey into morning (from Barker’s perspective in London). The 4½-hour, three-sale marathon also included mixed-owner sales of contemporary art and of Impressionist and modern art.

As expected, the night’s highest price by far was fetched by Francis Bacon’s “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus,” 1981, for which Sotheby’s made a questionable claim that it had “sold for $84.6 million–surpassing its $80 million high estimate [emphasis added].”

Not exactly….I guess that Sotheby’s new owner and its new CEO didn’t get CultureGrrl‘s memo (promulgated in my 2008 Wall Street Journal article, Making Sales Look Stronger, and in my many blog posts since then). I’ve repeatedly called out such apples-to-oranges comparisons of final prices (which include the buyer’s premium) with presale estimates (which are strictly hammer price, without the added fees). The Bacon’s $74-million hammer price did not “surpass the $80 million high estimate” of its hammer price. (It did, however, exceed the $60-million low estimate.)

Francis Bacon, “Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus,” 1981, $84.6 million
Photo: Sotheby’s

This 1981 triptych came nowhere near the $142.4-million auction record for Bacon, set at Christie’s in November 2013 for a much earlier triptych (1969) with a famous subject (Lucian Freud).

Judging by how many works found buyers on Monday night at Sotheby’s (93% of the lots sold) and by the prices obtained for them (a hammer total of $311.71 million, within the presale estimate of $262.11 million-$368.43 million), this chancy experiment during challenging times was a success. (Many of the works were essentially pre-sold, with guarantees and/or irrevocable bids.) The final total for the sales, including buyer’s premium, was $363.2 million.

That said, the sale’s three installments dragged on way beyond the time allotted for them on Monday’s schedule:

Screenshot from Sotheby’s website

While Sotheby’s new CEO lacks auction experience, its specialists and its auctioneer should have flagged the fact that the half-hour allotment for each of the first two sales—Ginny Williams and Contemporary—was grossly underestimated. The Williams sale, which started at 6:30 p.m., NYC time, finished at 7:45 p.m. (not 7 p.m.). By the time the next two sales wound down, the New York clock had struck about 11 p.m. (4 a.m. and 11 a.m. in London and Hong Kong, respectively).

This situation wasn’t helped by the seeming reluctance of Barker to hurry things along, which many auctioneers have done on more normal occasions. Progress on some lots slowed to a crawl, as Barker allowed some stingy bidders to cut the size of increments as much as they pleased, lengthening the time it took to get through the bidding.

For Sotheby’s report on its sale highlights, go here. For a complete list of the results, go here for the Ginny Williams Collection; here for the Contemporary sale; here for Impressionist/Modern.

We can only hope that things will proceed more briskly at Christie’s upcoming long-distance marathon—its four-city ONE sale, July 10. A Christie’s spokesperson told me today that its “relay” is expected to take some 3-4 hours to complete. Ten lots are to be offered from Hong Kong, 16 from Paris, 21 from London, 35 from New York. There will be phone bidders in each of the locations, and live bidding in the three salerooms (not NYC) where Covid-related restrictions have been loosened.

Late this afternoon, Christie’s appeared to have given up on being able to hold the New York leg of “ONE” live, rather than livestreamed. Its spokesperson told me this:

We will have a limited number of phone bidders in addition to the auctioneer in the New York saleroom, but we will not be hosting clients in the saleroom.

Earlier today, the story had been different:

We will have a limited number of bidders in the room to the extent that regional guidelines allow. We are optimistic that this will be possible on the sale day.

That optimism had seemed to me premature, in light of New York’s announcement earlier today that it had reversed its decision to allow indoor dining beginning next week. No auction house would want to host a super-spreader event.

In contrast to what happened at the Sotheby’s sale, the Christie’s hammer will be mercifully passed to a different auctioneer at each location:

Photo: Christie’s

Who said that reopening major auctions after pandemic-panic would be easy?

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