Friday, November 4, 2011


What a difference a day makes
Sotheby’s beats rival Christie’s with a solid sale

By Charlotte Burns and Riah Pryor. From Web only
Published online: 03 November 2011

New york. Sotheby’s thrashed rival Christie’s Wednesday night with an energetic auction of impressionist and modern art that totalled $199.8m, selling 81% by lot and 87% by value. The sale was in stark contrast to the performance Tuesday night at Christie’s, which raised $140.8m and sold only 62% by lot and 55% by value.

The star of Sotheby’s sale was Gustav Klimt’s oil painting, Litzlberg am Attersee, 1914-15, which sold for $40.4m (est in excess of $25m) to the Zurich-based dealer David Lachenmann, who was talking on his mobile phone in English to a private client. “We were happy to get it at this price. We had approached the lawyer handling the sale before the summer and made a higher offer for the work, which they refused as not being tempting enough,” Lachenmann said after the sale. “The painting is in perfect condition. It is a masterpiece.” The work was recently restituted to the heir of Amalie Redlich, who had owned the work before it was looted by the Nazis during the second world war.

There was further excitement when Pablo Picasso’s L’Aubade, 1967, sparked a bidding war between potential buyers including the Nahmad clan, Larry Gagosian and two telephone bidders. There was speculation that Acquavella gallery was the successful bidder for the work, which hammered at $20.5m ($23m with buyer's premium added, est $18m-$25m. Acquavella could not be reached for confirmation). “I wanted to bid at $15m, but did not get a chance to put my hand up,” said Christopher Van de Weghe, the secondary market dealer. Nicholas Maclean of dealership Eykyn Maclean added, “You can’t get a better Picasso from the 1960s.” Indeed, the work set a record for a Picasso from this period, according to Sotheby’s specialist Simon Shaw.

The relief was almost tangible after the disappointment felt yesterday at Christie’s, which had its lowest sale of impressionist and modern works in two years. The auction house had drummed up anticipation around the sale of Edgar Degas’ Petite danseuse de quatorze ans, a bronze statue that was executed in wax around 1879 to 1881 and cast posthumously. There were gasps in the room as the work failed to elicit a single bid. It was what Conor Jordan, the head of Christie’s impressionism and modern art department, called “the headline casualty” in a sale where pieces by the usual auction favourites—including Giacometti, Picasso and Matisse—all fell flat.

The estimate for the Degas ($25m-$35m) was aggressive, and many in the trade blamed the house’s failure on its having pushed prices too far. “The auction houses have a huge responsibility when putting together their sales and unfortunately [Christie’s] put together a mishmash sale," said Dominique Lévy, the co-director of L&M gallery, after the event at Christie’s. In contrast, Sotheby’s offerings had “much better estimates and provenance,” she said after their sale, having been the successful bidder on Picasso’s black crayon on paper Homme au Turban et Nu Couché, 1969, at $1.2m (est $800,000-$1.2m).

The consensus was that today’s selective market is happy to spend on works with sensible estimates that are either fresh to the market or of outstanding quality, but will dismiss overblown prices, and works that have been offered around. “There is nothing wrong with the market. Yesterday was a case of bad editing. Tonight was seriously estimated and it was a very strong result as a consequence,” said Ivor Braka, the London-based dealer.

“If there was ever a turnaround, it happened tonight. You could see the market rallying around something that needed to be turned about—and we did it,” said Sotheby’s satisfied auctioneer Tobias Meyer. The house worked hard to make the sale a success. Nonetheless, while it had more cautious estimates and better-selected offerings, Sotheby’s also had the advantage of going second. This allowed its specialists time to “dial for dollars”, as one dealer put it—calling consignors to see whether they would lower their reserves. One phone call resulted in the private sale of a suite of four Matisse sculptures prior to the auction. The bronze renderings of a woman’s back were set to sell in a series of staggered auctions, the first taking place Wednesday night with an estimate of $20m-$30m. The works, which belonged to the Burnett Foundation in Fort Worth, had previously failed to find a buyer on the private market, although today they sold for a rumoured $120m. Whether a savvy buyer simply recognised the opportunity to make a deal, or whether the auction house and consignor got spooked, will likely remain unknown.

Despite the evident optimism in the air after Christie’s auction, the wider economic uncertainties cannot be ignored. Although the Dow rose over 200 points today, European leaders are meeting, yet again, to find a solution to Greece’s ongoing debt crisis. A very visible symbol of such instability is outside Sotheby’s own front door, where its union of art handlers continues a vociferous protest over contract negotiations. “Sotheby’s did an excellent job in pulling off a successful sale in an unsettled time,” said Michael Plummer of art investment advisory Artvest Partners, “but you can’t separate the two auctions—it’s all one market. There is a sensitivity [right now], and confidence is easily lost.”

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