Apart from an opening salvo of super-charged lots from a single owner collection, the art market presented a more ordinary and even sleepy picture at Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale, realizing $364,379,000. That figure fell midway between pre-sale expectations of $336,650,000 to $474,000,000.
Of the 79 lots offered, 12 bought in for a decent buy-in rate by lot of 15 percent and 13 percent by value. Of those, 19 hailed from the collection of former hedge fund manager Adam Sender and marketed in a separate catalogue as “Ahead of the Curve.” As it turned out, it was an accurate and not overblown title.
Those opening lots cumulatively made a rousing and overestimate $44,591,000, bashing pre-sale expectations of $21,150,000-$29,900,000. Six of the 19 works that sold made record highs.
Overall, 57 works out of the 67 that sold made over a million dollars, and of those, 11 made over $10 million and five hurdled the $20 million mark In all, nine artist records were set.
On the finance side, 39, or half of the offerings carried financial guarantees, either directly by Sotheby’s or through anonymous third parties. All of the Sender lots were backed by a Sotheby’s guarantee, meaning the house made some meaningful profit on that risk-taking bet though suffered the consequences in other deals backing works that failed to sell.
Sotheby’s tally easily outgunned last May’s smaller sale of $293,587,000 for 53 lots sold and represents the house’s third biggest contemporary evening sale. Still it seemed almost tepid in comparison to arch-rival Christie’s gonzo $745 million result on Tuesday evening. That seemed to be part of the sale’s problem.
Even so, the Sender group got the auction off to a rollicking start as (lot 1] Richard Pettibon’s surfing figure, “No Title (Mimicked in its…),” from 2001. made $1,325,000, selling to a telephone bidder (est. $500-700,000).
As background, the lion’s share of the Sender kit were cherry picked on the primary market from the artists’ main dealers, giving this portion of the sale a kind of instant reading of how brilliantly these works have appreciated over a span of 10 plus years.
That was clearly evident as (lot 2) Glenn Ligon’s luminous “The Period,” a neon sculpture illuminating the word AMERICA and executed in 2005 from an edition of five plus two artist proofs, sold for $629,000 to Stavros Merjos (est. $300-400,000). New York/London dealer David Zwirner was the underbidder.
Richard Prince’s (lot 3) iconic rephotograph, “Untitled (Cowboy),” from 2000, large-scaled at 48- by 76 ¾-inches and depicting a romantic sunrise as a group of Marlboro men tended to their horses, brought $3,077,000 (est. $1-1.5 million). Merjos was the underbidder. Sender acquired it from the Barbara Gladstone Gallery in 2001.
Though not mentioned in the catalogue, Sender’s main art advisor/curator during those cherry pickinyears was New York based Todd Levin, a partnership that abruptly ended around 2008, sometime after the collector sold off a portion of his cutting edge holdings through Phillips de Pury & Company in November 2006.
Levin was in the salesroom, sitting next to a different client who underbid two works from the Sender offerings, including the fantastic Rosemarie Trockel [lot 4] knitted wool diptych, “Untitled” from 1985-86 that made a sizzling and record $4,981,000 (est. $1.5-2 million).
Urs Fischer’s (lot 5) “What If the Phone Rings” from 2003, an ambitious, three-part tableau of three female nudes, a blonde, a brunette and a redhead, and comprised of wax, pigment and wicks, made $3,525,000 (est. $1.2-1.8 million).
Sender acquired it at London’s Sadie Coles HQ that same year.
The sculpture was most recently exhibited in December 2011 in Miami Beach during the ArtBasel Miami Beach art fair in one of Sender’s homes there, and appropriately titled “The Sender Collection. Home Alone.”
Perhaps the premier lot of the Sender offerings, Martin Kippenberger’s widely exhibited photo-realist styled composition, featuring the artist and a friend staggering down a Dusseldorf street in broad daylight, “Untitled” from 1981, [lot 8] sold to private dealer and former Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffery Deitch for $5,541,000 (est. $3-4 million).
New York/London dealer Per Skarstedt was the underbidder.
The artist infamously hired a film poster painter to execute the mocking work.
Cindy Sherman’s cover lot chromogenic print, “Untitled #93,” featuring the artist/actress defensively cowering under a dark bed sheet, sold to New York private dealer Philippe Segalot for $3,861,000 (est. $2-3 million). Skarstedt was the underbidder. Sender acquired it at Christie’s New York in November 1998 for $96,000.
Another art world famed work, (lot 18) Chris Ofili’s elephant dung anchored painting, “Afrodizzia” from 1996, affixed with paper collage, glitter, map pins and polyester resin and a headliner in Charles Saatchi “Sensation” exhibition, sold to David Zwirner for a skimpy $1,565,000 (est. $2-3 million).
Perhaps most surprisingly, [lot 19] Keith Haring turned in a stellar and record setting result with his dark, acrylic and enamel paint on canvas with metal gromets composition, “Untitled (September 14, 1986),” that sold to private advisor Amy Cappellazzo for $4,869,000. Jeffrey Deitch was one of the underbidders.
The various owners’ part of Sotheby’s marathon auction was another story, kicked off [lot 20] with the third-party guaranteed Jean-Michel Basquiat masterwork on five joined panels, “Undiscovered Genius of the Mississippi,” from 1983 that sold on a single bid for a remarkably modest $23,685,000 (estimate on request in excess of $20 million).
The widely exhibited, mural scaled work at 49 by 185 ½ inches sold once before at auction, back at Sotheby’s New York in a November 1994 day sale for $265,000, but before the current seller acquired the work from dealer Tony Shafrazi.
The richly referenced painting, certainly a tour-de-force in Basquiat’s short-lived oeuvre, was first exhibited posthumously at Vreg Bahoomian’s SoHo gallery in October 1989, before that dealer went bankrupt and disappeared.
The under-performing Basquiat seemed to have a curiously adverse effect on the sale’s atmosphere, as if someone sprinkled this isn’t a booming market anymore dust in the air-conditioning ducts.
“It really felt like a different world,” said London dealer Pilar Ordovas, in describing the atmosphere as she exited the salesroom, “the (lack of) energy of the room transmitted to the bidding.”
“They started off with a roaring beginning,” said Jonathan Binstock of the Citi Private Bank art advisory group, “and then an inexplicable psychological funk settled over the room.”
“The ambiance was really bad,” said Brussels dealer Mimmo Vedovi, who underbid the Sigmar Polke “Untitled” painting that made [lot 59] $,197,000, “and the estimates were too high. “
Still, the sale soldiered on as another multi-panel work, Andy Warhol’s “Six Self Portraits” [lot 23] from 1986 and featuring the artist in his fright wig, with each panel scaled at 22 by 22 inches and bearing a different color, made the top lot price of $30,125,000, going to a telephone bidder (est. $25-35 million).
The seller acquired it from one of Warhol’s last shows as a living artist at Anthony d’Offay in London in 1986.
Still, it seemed like pulling teeth for usually based London auctioneer Oliver Barker to coax a $250,000 increment from the room and the banks of telephones.
Another Warhol, the (lot 44) multi-color screened “Big Electric Chair” in acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas from 1967-68, bearing strong hues of blue, green and violet, realized $20,437,000, selling to dealer Alberto Mugrabi (est. $18-25 million).
Though not identified as such, the seller is understood to be former hedge fund manager and well-known collector David Ganek.
Another multi-panel Warhol, [lot 31] this appeared to be the night for them, “12 Mona Lisas (Reversal Series)” from 1980 and measuring 80 by 80 inches, sold on a single bid to a telephone bidder for $11,365,000 (est. $10-15 million).
It was last exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in the exhibition “Wanted: Selected Works from the Mugrabi Collection” in August-December 2013, and it is safe to assume, beyond a reasonable doubt, the seller is Warhol patriarch Jose Mugrabi.
It too was guaranteed.
Since the art market’s recovery from the 2008 crash, the major auction houses have steadily increased their investment strategy of guaranteeing works for a chance to capture more of the upside, assuming their bets prove correct.
Tonight, that strategy appeared to derail.
For example, the sale was also represented with major Ab-Ex era and beyond works, as evidenced by Willem de Kooning’s [lot 27] gorgeous and juicy “Untitled” from circa 1975-77. But it bought in without a single bid (est. $18-25 million).
Another de Kooning painting, (lot 53) “Untitled XIII” from 1983, a late work and minimal in both the density and sparseness of the composition, sold to a telephone bidder for $4,533,000 (est. $4-6 million).
Another classic in the painting arena, Richard Diebenkorn’s’ (lot 39) sublime and light touched “Ocean Park #20” from 1969, from the artist’s most revered series, sold at what appeared to be a single telephone bid at $10,245,000 (est. $9-12 million).
It was another Sotheby’s guaranteed entry.
An evening sale during these frothy times wouldn’t be complete without at least one big and richly layered Gerhard Richter Abstraktes Bild and tonight was no exception as [lot 40] the massive, 118 1/8 by 118 1/8 inch “Blau” from 1988 hit $28,725,000, selling to another telephone bidder. San Francisco dealer Tony Meier was one of the underbidders (est. $25-35 million).
It last sold at Sotheby’s New York in November 2002 for $2.2 million.
Sculpture played a big role in the scheme of high end lots as Jeff Koons’ gleaming cover lot, “Popeye” (lot 34) from 2009-11 and cast in mirror polished stainless steel with transparent color coating, snared $28,165,000 (est. on request in the region of $).
The 78 inch high cartoon familiar figure pumps his bulging bicep while his right hand holds an opened can of spinach sold to a telephone bidder identified after the sale by Sotheby’s as Las Vegas casino magnate/collector Steve Wynn.
Though it looked like a big price, neither of Koons’ current dealers, Larry Gagosian nor David Zwirner, who were seated in the salesroom, raised a bidding paddle.
It too carried a Sotheby’s backed guarantee.
A better known Koons, “Three Ball 50/50 Tank (Spalding Dr. JK Silver Series, Wilson Home Court, Wilson Final Four)” from 1985 and as described in the long title, bears three basketballs floating in a glass and steel tank filled with distilled water, failed to sell (est. $4-6 million).
One wondered, what happened to the bidders?
Of the more whimsical entries, Robert Rauschenberg’s 25 ¼ inch high mini “Combine” from circa 1954, executed in oil, charcoal, newspaper, canvas, fabric collage, light bulb and (lot 42) two glass radiometers, all attached to a funky wooden structure, sold to Larry Gagosian for $5,765,000 (est. $5-7 million).
It was sold to benefit the Paul Taylor Dance Foundation and as a prelude to the strange evening, four nimble dancers from that famous dance company, performed a tango/wrestling excerpt from “Piazzolla Caldera” at the front of the salesroom immediately before the auction took place.
Back in the bidding action, (lot 37) Yves Klein’s stunning wall relief, “Relief eponge bleu (RE 51) from 1959 and saturated in the artist’s patented IKB pigment, sold for $16,965,000 (est. $15-20 million).
Long marooned from evening sale action since his heydays in the 1980’s, (lot 72) Julian Schnabel’s three-part, broken plate painting opus, “800 Blows” from 1983 made a record $1,205,000 (est. $1-1.5 million).
It carried a third party guarantee.
After the sale, Alex Rotter, co-chairman of Sotheby’s contemporary art defended the sale and the health of the market, saying “it continues in a very solid way.”
Pressed to elaborate about the evening, Rotter acknowledged “a fatigue set in” since it was the third consecutive evening sale of the week.
The evening contemporary auction action plays a final act at Phillips on Thursday.