On Tuesday, Sotheby’s capped the year with a final hybrid live-streamed evening auction titled “Impressionist, Modern & Contemporary Art | An Evening Sale” at its New York headquarters that generated $63.3 million with buyers fees, across 23 lots sold, realizing a 92 percent sell-through rate. The sale hammered at $52.9 million, in the middle of the pre-sale estimate range of $40.1 million–$58.6 million. That the sale managed to perform so well was likely because five lots by Paul Delvaux, Marc Chagall, Milton Avery, Edvard Munch, and Paul Cézanne were withdrawn before the auction began. Had those works been included, the stakes would have been higher. Only two of the remaining 25 lots failed to find buyers.
The total was a modest sum compared to Sotheby’s $283.9 million evening sale on October 28; Tuesday night’s hour-long auction held a tame energy, missing the usual cameos from top specialists like Amy Cappellazzo and Brooke Lampley, whose animated bidding and wry expressions typically add a suggestion of a backstory to the salesroom drama. The year-end finale auction captured an overall trend in the industry: to keep up with demand, smaller evening sales are staged more frequently throughout each season. What remains to be seen is whether these sales will accelerate as the pandemic eases. If they do, will the traditional “marquee” week become a thing of the past?
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Fifteen of the sold lots were backed with guarantees or irrevocable bids, their collective low estimate sum of $33 million represented 82 percent of the sale’s pre-estimated total. Only a few months ago, guarantees seemed like a vestige of a different era as eager sellers eschewed down-side protection in favor of upside rewards. But the pandemic has seen the art market go from a voracious one with an appetite for works perceived to be a bargain to a picky one focused on a few favored artists.
For the second time, Sotheby’s shot a pre-show video hosted by writer and public radio host Kurt Andersen. This time, the program’s specialist interviews served to promote items from the luxury and auxiliary sales including vintage watches, books and manuscripts sales and Ansel Adams photographs from the upcoming David Arrington collection sale in mid-December.
Headlining the sale was Alexander Calder’s monumental hanging mobile Mariposa. Measuring 125 inches by 122 inches and made in 1951, it came to Sotheby’s from the Neiman Marcus Collection, making its first appearance on the market and hammering at more than double the low estimate of $6 million for a staggering $15.6 million. After a sparring match between specialists in New York and London, it went to a bidder on the phone with Simon Stock, senior specialist in Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s based in London, for a premium total of $18.2 million. In 1951, newly appointed CEO Stanley Marcus, son of the department store’s founder Herbert Marcus, purchased Mariposa directly from Calder, marking the foundation of the corporate art collection, which has included works by Josef Albers, Richard Avedon, Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso, Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt, and Frank Stella.
Another top lot was Picasso’s late-period 1962 portrait of his second wife Jacqueline Roque, rendered as though seen from multiple perspectives. Drawing protracted bids from London and Asia, the guaranteed work Buste de femme assise, consigned by an anonymous American collector, hammered at $9.5 million, within the estimate of $8 million–$12 million, selling for a final price of $11.2 million with buyer’s fees. It went to a bidder on the phone with Helena Newman, Sotheby’s head of Impressionist and modern art in Europe.
Another work surfacing at auction from the Brooklyn Museum’s spree of deaccessions was Claude Monet’s 1894 landscape Vernon, soleil, which had been in the museum’s holdings since 1922 and exhibited internationally over the past century. The work failed to attract much competing interest from buyers despite its museum provenance, eventually hammering at the low estimate of $4 million and selling for $4.7 million with fees. The sale of the Monet follows the Brooklyn Museum having raised nearly $20 million this season in sold assets to bring in funds for collection maintenance, to alleviate financial strain as a result of the pandemic.
The opening lot, Barkley Hendrick’s guaranteed Mr. Johnson (Sammy from Miami), 1972, depicting one of the artist’s signature nonchalantly-posed models drew rapid bids from London and New York, started the sale with strong momentum. Bidders moved the hammer price to $3.3 million, above the high estimate of $3 million. It sold for a final price of $4 million with buyer’s premium, going to a phone bidder represented by Bame Fierro March, Sotheby’s contemporary specialist in New York—setting a new auction record for the artist and surpassing the previous high of $3.7 million paid for Hendricks’s Yocks (1975) at Sotheby’s in 2019. Coming to the market after more than four decades in private hands, the work comes from the descendants of Pennsylvania collectors Michael and Patti McGrath, who bought it from Philadelphia’s Kenmore Galleries in 1973. The Hendricks record was a feat for Sotheby’s, which followed Christie’s and Phillips sales of the artist’s single-figure portraits of women that each sold in the $900,000–$2.8 million range in the past two weeks.
Among the other contemporary works that outperformed was Glenn Ligon’s monochromatic Stranger #37 (2008), which last sold for $2.9 million at Christie’s in November 2015. In Sotheby’s sale, the work was estimated at $2.5 million–$3.5 million; it made $3.4 million with buyer’s premium after drawing bids from New York, Asia, and London—a 17 percent increase in value in the five-year holding period. Elsewhere in the contemporary segment of the sale, the seller of Mark Bradford’s sprawling black and white canvas Drag Her to the Path (2011), Hong Kong–based collector Lawrence Chu, who purchased the work at Phillips London in 2017 on a guarantee for £2.27 million ($3 million), brought it back to the market. In Sotheby’s sale it made $3.7 million with fees, hammering at its low estimate of $3 million. The result comes on the heels of a major private sale of Bradford’s new painting Q7 (2020) at Frieze London’s digital fair in October for $3.5 million through Hauser & Wirth.
Meanwhile, Vincent Van Gogh’s 1882 landscape on paper The “Laakmolen” Near The Hague was offered with an irrevocable bid, and hammered at $2.05 million, just above the low estimate, to an online bidder for $2.5 million with buyers fees. The seller bought the work at Christie’s London in 2015 for £2.3 million ($3 million), meaning the work saw a slight loss in Sotheby’s sale. Chaïm Soutine’s Paysage de Gréolières (ca. 1920), formerly in the collection of pharmaceutical executive Arthur Sackler, sold for $698,500 in November 2009, below its estimate of $800,000. At Sotheby’s, it also hammered below the low estimate of $1.2 million, selling for a final price of $1.3 million with buyer’s fees.
Matthew Wong’s Pink Wave (2017) made less of a splash than its counterparts at auction this season. It hammered at $1.5 million, making a solid $2.3 million with buyer’s fees and going to a bidder with David Galperin, head of Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale in New York. It still realized almost half the price of Wong’s current record price of $4.87 million paid for River at Dusk (2018) during a Phillips Hong Kong sale held last week.
A photograph by Man Ray of a cropped cast torso made to look like a nude figure mounted to a yellow backing was among the unique offerings, as photographs don’t typically make it into the main evening sales. Man Ray’s work continues to tantalize the market without yet taking off. The inclusion may have been Sotheby’s attempt to goose interest. The piece hammered at $280,000, below the low estimate of $300,000, selling for $352,800 with fees.