Cheap Feel

Sarah Thornton at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening

New York

Left: Collector Aby Rosen and son. Right: Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art Tobias Meyer (far right of picture). (Photos: David Velasco)

The laughs about last night’s less-than-spectacular Contemporary Art Evening at Sotheby’s started a couple of weeks ago when the auction house spammed the art world with a guided video tour of the sale’s highlights, hosted by its star auctioneer and worldwide head of contemporary art, Tobias Meyer. The video started innocently enough, with Meyer offering his personal interpretation of the most expensive works. “Artists do have the cruelest eyes, so when they depict themselves you have to look very carefully,” he said about the early Andy Warhol self-portrait that graces the catalogue cover. “Is he trying to be a star? Absolutely not. Is he looking remote? Absolutely.” Slowly, the auctioneer with the high forehead and the uncanny appreciation of the artist’s inner thoughts homed in on the painting’s meaning: “You can see how he is deeply obsessed about losing his hair.” In this instance, the commentary didn’t seem to do any damage, as the work sold for $3.3 million to Alberto Mugrabi, a dealer who admits to owning eight hundred Warhols and who bid against newsprint tycoon Peter M. Brant, said to have a couple dozen of the best. Insiders assume Mugrabi bought the piece to keep Warhol prices high and protect his holdings. The vendor was the son of legendary dealer Leo Castelli. From my standing position, I had a clear view of the late Castelli’s widow, an unexpectedly young, short-haired brunette, her hand covering her mouth, talking on her cell phone. She appeared to be having a decent day at the races.

The video’s comic zenith coincided with one of the sale’s nadirs: lot 33, David Smith’s Voltri XVII, 1962. The late artist is currently enjoying a retrospective at Tate Modern, so you would have thought that the Georges and Lois de Menil Charitable Trust had chosen the optimum moment to sell the steel sculpture. However, Meyer presented a different set of facts: The sculpture is “very . . . sensitive. Despite conservators’ advice against it, I love touching sculpture because sculpture needs to be touched.” As Meyer ran his bare finger along an buttock-like curve in the work, he said, “Voltri XVII has the physical presence of a human being.” Oh, dear. No wonder the piece didn’t sell.

Left: L&M Arts's Robert Mnuchin. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Oliver Barker, Sotheby's head of contemporary art, London, and Anthony Grant. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Sensing the time was right to capitalize on outlandishly high prices, many dealers and collectors cleaned out their closets this season. Evening sales tend to be sixty to sixty-six lots, but such was the supply that Sotheby’s offered a whopping eighty-three (and Christie’s offers the same number tonight). In Vanity Fair’s inaugural “Art Issue,” Meyer referred to buying a work at auction as a “pseudo-orgasmic experience.” Selling, however, does not appear to deliver quite the same sensation. One vendor told me that a successful sale of a work at auction was more like “the relief afforded by a high-fiber breakfast cereal.” Bob Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs man–turned–secondary-market dealer said to have masterful timing, was offloading inventory. When lot 38, a de Kooning sculpture called Hostess, 1973, sold at a record price (for a sculpture by the artist), Mnuchin was expressionless. When lot 43, Jeff Koons’s Ushering in Banality, 1988 (which had been on the L&M stand in Basel), sold midestimate for $3.6 million (hammer), his expression was stone-cold. But when lot 53, Brice Marden’s Au Centre, 1969, failed to find a buyer, Mnuchin forced a grim smile that could be described as . . . constipated.

Despite the fact that seven works went unsold, the evening’s sales total was over $125 million and records were set for Francis Bacon, Anish Kapoor, Robert Mangold, Carl Andre, Piero Manzoni, Niki de Saint Phalle, Josef Albers, and Enrico Castellani. Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s smart, down-to-earth head of contemporary art in London, said that it was a “masterpiece-driven market that one shouldn’t overrationalize.” Art consultant Sandy Heller concurred: “Auctions are liquidity events where quality counts. It’s actually healthy when the market rejects substandard or overpriced works.” Heller was the underbidder on Agnes Martin’s I Love Life, 2001, and the winner of Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #196, 1989. He was buying for the Ganeks, who will become players of a different order when Danielle Ganek’s novel about the art world, Lulu Meets God and Doubts Him, is published by Viking in the spring.

Left: Collectors Don and Mera Rubell. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Author and collector Danielle Ganek. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)

Left: Gallerist Simon Lee and Phaidon owner Richard Schlagman. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Art Production Fund's Yvonne Force Villareal. (Photo: David Velasco)