Bare Market

Sarah Thornton at Sotheby's Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York

Left: Tobias Meyer, Sotheby's worldwide head of contemporary art. Right: Designer Valentino. (Photos: David Velasco)

WHEN TOBIAS MEYER asked the crowd to take their seats at Sotheby’s on Tuesday night, the room quickly fell into uncommon silence. A thousand people in the room and you could hear a diamond cuff link drop. The art-market elite that attends the ticketed contemporary evening sales had been waiting, worrying, and imagining the worst. As one collector told me before the auction, “This is the downturn of the upper class. The second-home market is completely paralyzed. Even if people have money, will they want to be seen spending it on art?”

One didn’t have to hang around for long to discover that demand for a sexy picture that pushed the right buttons was “strong” and probably “hard.” Lot 4, John Currin’s delectable painting of two nude women touching each other uncertainly (as if they needed a man to tell them what to do), was consigned by Los Angeles collector Dean Valentine. Given that a Currin work had never surpassed the million-dollar mark at auction, many were skeptical that the canvas, titled Nice ’N Easy, would reach its estimated $3.5 to $4.5 million. However, three bidders went into battle, and a young woman from client services, Felicitas Rutt, won the lot for nearly $5.5 million, a record for the artist. For whom might she have been bidding? Perhaps her father-in-law—collector and Art in America owner Peter Brant.

Lot 5 was more typical of the “corrective” order of the evening. Jeff Koons’s Wishing Well, a quintessential example of late-'80s “boom art,” was part of a package of works consigned by London dealer Anthony d’Offay. Rumored to be guaranteed for over $4.5 million but eventually given the rather lower estimate of $2.5 to $3.5 million, the gold mirror fetched only $1,850,000 hammer ($2.2 million with the buyer’s premium), despite the underbidding of Larry Gagosian.

Left: Dealer Philippe Ségalot. Center: Collector Leigh Potts with art advisor Mark Fletcher. Right: Dealer David Zwirner. (Photos: David Velasco)

Eli Broad, a major player who had, last year, been vociferously warning others about the overheated market, picked up the bling “bargain.” With prices plunging, the billionaire property developer was on a collecting spree. By the end of the evening, he’d acquired a large orange Judd stack, a teeny 1955 Rauschenberg, and a Ruscha canvas emblazoned with DESIRE—a favorite art-world word—for a total purchase of $8.4 million.

“Is greed winning out over fear?” muttered Marion Maneker, the publisher of artmarketmonitor.com, from the press pack. “It sure looks like the old pros have backed up the truck and are making a quick getaway.”

The most expensive work of the evening, Yves Klein’s Archisponge (RE11), 1960, rolled out at Lot 12. Estimated in the region of $25 million, it went for a very respectable $21 million to a highflier on the telephone with Sotheby’s “Imp & Mod” man, Charlie Moffett. Whoever purchased the blue bas-relief also bought Cy Twombly’s Untitled (A Painting in Two Parts) (Bassano in Teverina) for $4.8 million, a figure that hit home within the vague ballpark estimate of $4 million to $6 million. One dealer thought this was just lucky. “With many of these wide-range estimates,” he said, “the auction house might as well have said, ‘Fuck me, we haven’t got a clue what it’s worth in this economy.’”

Left: Sotheby's Oliver Barker, Anthony Grant, and Grégoire Billaut. (Photo: Sarah Thornton) Right: Dealer Alberto Mugrabi. (Photo: David Velasco)

Lot 30, Philip Guston’s Beggar’s Joys, a pink and red AbEx canvas from 1954–55, represented the paradoxes of the current art market more succinctly than any other work in the sale. Best known for his figurative late work, Guston has his early piece pitched by Sotheby’s specialists as a “connoisseur’s piece”—auction-house parlance for an uncommercial work, which can sometimes be interpreted as code for “We’re gonna take a bath on it.” Rumor had it that MoMA trustee Donald Bryant had received a guarantee of $18 million—a careless sum given that the previous auction record for a Guston was only $7.3 million and Beggar’s Joys was rare but not a full-fledged signature work. In the end, the painting sold for $9 million hammer (or just over $10 million with premium) to San Francisco–based art adviser Mary Zlot.

Despite two lots that exceeded their high estimates (Currin’s “lesbians” and Alexander Calder’s elegant black monochrome Deux Dates mobile) and three record highs for individual artists (Currin again, Guston, and Richard Serra), the sale bore witness to the fact that Sotheby’s estimates had been set “when the world was a different place.” Moreover, the sixty-three-lot auction totaled $125 million, well below last May’s $362 million result. Twenty works failed to find a buyer—resulting in the lowest percentage of sales by lot in a multiple-owner contemporary evening auction at Sotheby’s since November 1994.

Still, the mood was remarkably upbeat. Oliver Barker, Sotheby’s debonair London auctioneer, explained: “Nonsensational markets, like Calder, are stable. We’re back to 2006 prices, and a situation where price is no longer dictating the reception of the work.”

On the way out of the salesroom, I saw Brant in a jubilant huddle with dealers Irving Blum and Tony Shafrazi. Brant made a remark about triple-A bonds, while Blum stated with relief, “It was not a disaster.” Shafrazi exclaimed, “When you consider the state of General Motors, it was an excellent sale . . . really excellent!”

Left: Collector Peter Brant, dealer Tony Shafrazi, and collector Michael Ovitz. (Photo: David Velasco) Right: Sotheby's Alex Rotter. (Photo: Sarah Thornton)