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The Ebsworth Sale – Another Strong One For Christie’s

November 14, 2018

Today, the price for good works of art has reach levels one could never have imagined a decade ago. Estimates of $10M, $20M, $50M, etc. are commonplace and many times those numbers are realized.  With auction and 3rd party guarantees, the big players are doing their best to make sure their sales are a success.  However, is it really an ‘auction’ when many of the works are pre-sold? Does it seem fair that the people who have given a guarantee can bid on the work?  One day this will all get sorted out; but for now, it is the field we play in.

Christie’s presented the beautiful collection formed by Barney A. Ebsworth of American Modernist works of art; included were important paintings by Hopper, De Kooning, Pollock, and Gorky (since my NYU art history days I have always wanted one of Gorky’s Garden of Sochi works; but unless I win one of those mega lotteries, that will just have to remain a dream).  As you will soon see, their sale did pretty well.  It should be noted that there is a bit of controversy surrounding the sale of this collection.  Back in 2007, Mr. Ebsworth publicly pledged about 65 works from his collection to the Seattle Art Museum – among them were his Hopper.  Ebsworth died in April and left the entire collection to his family; in turn, they decided to sell, and the major works were offered last night.

Edward Hopper

So, let’s get down to business.  There were some news reports stating that the family was given a $300M guarantee (backed either by the auction room or 3rd parties) … so its success was all but … no, it was guaranteed.  Taking the top position was that rare and beautiful painting by Edward Hopper titled Chop Suey (1929) which Ebsworth purchased back in 1973 for $180,000 (where are those time machines?).  The painting carried a $70-100M estimate (which I still think was crazy) and hammered down at $85M ($91.875M with the commission – w/c) – guess that shows what I know.  Anyone will admit that the painting was iconic, from the right period and a beautiful painting to look at; however, is it really worth $100M?  No, just $91.875M.

Willem de Kooning

Five lots before the Hopper, they presented de Kooning’s Woman as Landscape which made $61M ($68.94M w/C – est. $60-80M).  That was enough to make an auction record and give it a second-place finish.  Then, five lots after the Hopper they offered Jackson Pollock’s Composition with Red Strokes that garnered $49M ($55.44M w/c – est. $50-70M); enough to put it in third place.  They rounded out the top five with a tie – Arshile Gorky’s Good Afternoon, Mrs. Lincoln (est. $7-9M) and Joan Mitchells’ 12 Hawks at 3 O’Clock (est. $12-16M, Ebsworth bought this one in 1997 for $311K) each hammered down at $12.2M (14.04M w/c).

Jackson Pollock

As with most sales, there were a few lots that could not muster much interest, these included works by Storrs, Rauschenberg, Baziotes, de Kooning and Nadelman; but their combined pre-sale estimate was only $4.7-$7.4M, so they really did not impact the overall results.  I have to say, it is sad to think that $4.7-$7.4M is nothing … that is a great deal of money. But hey, in this market that is only a couple of bids.

When the action ended, of the 42 lots offered, 37 found homes (giving them a respectable 88% sell-through rate) and the total take was $279.3M hammer ($317.8M w/c) – the low end of their presale estimate range was $258.3M. So, even without the buyer’s premium, they reached their goal. Pretty good!  Probing a little deeper we find that 12 lots sold below, 12 within and 13 above their estimate range; this left them with an accuracy rate of 28.6% — not the best, but not bad.

Here is one final fun thought to contemplate.  Almost 1 year ago, Christie’s sold a Leonardo da Vinci in their contemporary sale for just over $450M. That was one impressive marketing triumph.  There are still some people who are not totally convinced that the work is by da Vinci, and we all know that its condition was far from stellar.  The Ebsworth sale sold 37 rather interesting, good condition, works (some of which would be considered masterpieces) for $317M.  So, for the price of that da Vinci, you could have bought all the works in this sale and had enough money left over to buy a 12,000 square foot apartment on 5th Avenue to hang all the works in (found a nice one for $68M – it was originally priced at $120M in 2016), a good looking 100 foot yacht (I saw a whole bunch of them in the $2-12M range), a used Gulfstream G550 ($25-28M), and you would still have $30M (give or take) to throw one or two really big parties!  If you do, please send me an invite. Which way would you go?