The last of the major NY sales was Sotheby’s Contemporary Art Evening sale… luckily, I was able to get my hands on some last-minute passes, so I had the privilege of seeing the action in person!
Comparatively speaking, Sotheby’s was actually offering more material than Christie’s had the night prior, but carried a noticeably lower presale estimate heading in… here, Sotheby’s had 63 lots up for grabs (vs. Christie’s 56 – 2 lots were withdrawn) but was only expecting between $244-351M – Christie’s effortlessly topped half a billion.
So, now that we’ve tempered expectations, let’s get into the numbers… the top lot, Francis Bacon’s Study for a Head, significantly outperformed its $20-30M estimate. At that range, it would have slotted into the second spot on the night but after some spirited bidding, the smallish work hammered to applause at $44M ($50.3M with premium – w/p). Falling to second by the slightest of margins was Rothko’s Untitled (1960), which was being offered on behalf of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to benefit the acquisitions fund. This particular work was one of 19 paintings completed in 1960; just a year prior to his first and only major lifetime retrospective, organized by the MoMA. With a $35-50M estimate, four bidders battled it out for several minutes… towards the end prospective buyers were begging the auctioneer to accept half bids – he obliged. The bidding then dragged on for a few more minutes before it topped out at $43.75M ($50.095M w/p) – a peculiar winning bid at these levels. Rounding out the top three was another work by Bacon – Study for a Portrait. This one, painted about thirty years after the other, garnered $14.5M on a $12-18M estimate; it was one of 6 masterworks being offered from the Gerald L. Lennard Foundation Collection – all 6 works ended up selling for a total of $45.1M. This was the first appearance at auction for each of the top three lots… in fact, 80% of the sale was making its auction debut! The usual names populated the remaining top ten list… Christopher Wool’s Untitled (FOOL) at $14M (est. $12-18M); de Kooning’s Untitled X at $12.5M (est. $8-12M); two more Rothko’s at $10.2M & $8.2M; Motherwell at $10.2M (est. $9-12M); as well as a work by Lee Krasner, which set a new auction record for the artist at $11.6M (est. $10-15M).
Midway through the sale, they hit their first speedbump with the first unsold lot… Richter’s Kerzenschein topped out at $6.5M on a $7-9M estimate – kind of surprised the seller didn’t let it go at that number. A couple of lots later was another failure – this time a Hans Hoffman… then a few lots after that a Warhol failed. The room was certainly growing a bit more tense, and many of the attendees cleared out as much of the prized material had already made its appearance – the final 20 or so lots all hammered at less than $5M, so it definitely felt slow for an evening sale. With the air let out of the room, Sotheby’s all but tripped over the finish line with 3 of the final five lots failing.
In the end, the grand total was $341.8M… though without the premiums factored in (hammer prices only), the sale totaled just $291.2M – yep, more than $50M in auction fees… an amount that is not factored into the presale estimates. Seven of the 56 lots failed, resulting in an 88.9% sold rate, which is not bad but not exactly good either (for an evening sale of this caliber). Checking those figures against Christie’s, we see that Sotheby’s brought in a bit more than half of their rival’s total take. While on the face it seems Christie’s was the clear winner, Sotheby’s presale estimate was about 41% less than Christie’s though the sale total was only 37% lower… if I’m going to be technical, based on the estimates, Sotheby’s actually performed better by hitting 97.3% of the high end of the estimate, whereas Christie’s hit just 89% of the top end of the estimate. Then again, Christie’s sold nearly $200M more worth of material and collected quite a bit more in fees so who’s the real winner?