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For Sale: Art and Optimism

Posted By Administration, Sunday, May 4, 2008
Updated: Monday, January 13, 2014

You can't help but wonder just how many of the smartly dressed people sitting night after night at Sotheby's, Christie's and Phillips de Pury over the next two weeks will be serious bidders and how many will be voyeurs hoping to witness an implosion of the multibillion dollar art market.

For years collectors and the news media have been speculating about when prices would finally top out. Spring sales estimates don't suggest pessimism. The auction houses clearly hope that things will play out as they did three months ago in London, when, despite global economic queasiness, a Francis Bacon triptych sold for $51.6 million. Now two Bacon triptychs, whose owners no doubt want to capitalize on that high, are going on the block, at estimates of $25 million to $35 million (Christie's, shown above) and a whopping $70 million (Sotheby's).

But despite the bullish prices, this auction season feels different. Economic anxiety has deepened in recent months, with the proposed bailout of Bear Stearns in March, continuing stock-market gyrations and increasing signs that we either are in or about to be in a recession.

And the art market has its own problems. Sotheby's stock price is roughly half what it was last October, and its latest annual report shows that the amount of money owed to the house more than doubled to $835 million last year. Hoping to keep the bubble afloat, Sotheby's has been giving buyers more time to hand over the money for their purchases. (It is the only publicly traded company of the three houses.)

But despite it all, sales estimates at the auction houses are more robust than ever.

Aside from the Bacon triptychs (to be auctioned at Christie's on May 13 and at Sotheby's on May 14), Sotheby's is selling a coveted Cubist painting by Fernand Léger at its Impressionist and modern art sale on Wednesday. It is estimated to fetch $35 million to $45 million.

Christie's boasts some splashy offerings too. A rare Monet will be auctioned on Tuesday, and next week's sale includes a strong sampling of Pop Art by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and Tom Wesselmann. Sotheby's and Christie's are also selling 1950s red-and-yellow Rothkos that they predict will bring $35 million to $45 million each.

This season's sellers include the television producer Douglas S. Cramer; the newsprint magnate Peter Brant; and Helga Lauffs of Germany, who is selling pieces by Robert Rauschenberg, Mr. Wesselmann and Donald Judd after terminating a long-term loan to the Kaiser Wilhelm Museum in Krefeld.

To land consignments like these, auction houses have given most of these collectors guarantees, an undisclosed sum promised to the seller regardless of the outcome of a sale. Obviously this poses a considerable risk for the houses. Whether the gamble will pay off is anyone's guess.

Seasoned dealers and collectors are guessing that market cracks will emerge first in sales of less expensive works, that this is the season of the great divide between the Best and the Rest.

Auction house executives are busy talking up the soaring numbers of Asian, Russian and Middle Eastern collectors, trophy hunting with cash to burn. They also cite the recent $600 million private sale of art from the estate of the dealer Ileana Sonnabend — proof, they say, that there is still enough money out there and that no price is too high.

Yet the creative business maneuvers adopted by the auction houses to land big consignments and encourage buyers speak of desperation. Sotheby's and Christie's are at the point where they are often willing to forgo profits just to win commissions and beat out the other on sales totals. In addition to the guarantees granted to sellers, which in some cases this season are said to be even higher than the works' sales estimates, the two companies are buying works of art outright, advancing sellers money ahead of the sales and in rare cases even becoming involved in sellers' real estate transactions.

These confidential deals are so abundant that it is difficult to judge whether a strong evening sales result is a smoke screen. But if profits dry up, such face-saving strategies can't last forever.

For now auction houses are playing up the suspense. "We really won't know till the night," said Tobias Meyer, director of Sotheby's contemporary art department worldwide. "Even in this market collectors are tortured by the idea that they could miss an opportunity."

Risky Play?

TITLE "Le Pont du Cheminde Fer à Argenteuil," 1873
ESTIMATE $35 million

SOME dealers must have gulped when they saw that the most expensive painting in Christie's May 6 Impressionist and modern art auction is a Monet, not a modern work. In a sense Christie's seems to be swimming against the tide. (The most expensive work in Sotheby's sale of Impressionist and modern art is a 1912-13 Léger, "Étude Pour 'La Femme en Bleu,'" which carries a $35 million to $45 million estimate.) Yet the Monet, "Le Pont du Chemin de Fer à Argenteuil," depicting two puffing locomotives, was considered unabashedly modern in its time. In 1988 Stavros Niarchos, the Greek shipping magnate, sold it for $12.6 million at Christie's in London to the Nahmads, dealers with galleries in New York and London.

Defending the house's decision to give this painting a starring role, Guy Bennett, co-head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie's worldwide, said the work was a seminal one for Monet. He said Monet produced only three other comparable paintings of the subject. One is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, another in the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the third in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. "I still believe there are buyers for top Impressionist paintings," he added.

If Mr. Bennett is wrong, it could be an expensive mistake. He declined to disclose what guarantee Christie's promised the Nahmads, but experts in the field say it was around $34 million. (Sotheby's is taking a parallel gamble on its Léger. Experts familiar with the terms said the auction house guaranteed it for $38 million. "It's one of those last-chance pictures," said Simon Shaw of Sotheby's. "We wouldn't have put our money in it if we'd believed otherwise.")


ARTIST Alberto Giacometti
TITLE "Grande Femme Debout II," 1959-60
ESTIMATE $18 million

CATALOGS are brimming with interesting sculptures this spring. The medium has been a particularly popular market choice lately, and experts are betting the trend has far from peaked. "Getting great pictures is expensive, but sculptures are less so," said Simon Shaw of Sotheby's, whose Impressionist and Modern sale on May 14 includes sculptures by Julio González and Giacometti as well as a rare painted Picasso bronze. "These sculptures make an instant impact," he said.

Christie's will serve up an exceptional group of Giacomettis from various periods on May 13, including a plaster from his Surrealist period.

The $100 Million Man

ARTIST Roy Lichtenstein
TITLE "Ball of Twine," 1963

PETER Brant, the Greenwich, Conn., newsprint magnate, is emerging as the season's craftiest seller. Seeking to raise money to buy another paper mill, he hit up both Sotheby's and Christie's for substantial guarantees. Experts familiar with the deals say Sotheby's came through with between $70 million and $80 million in exchange for various paintings and sculptures. Christie's got a share of art too, providing Mr. Brant with a reported $35 million.

Mr. Brant's collection boasts hundreds of works by artists like Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, John Chamberlain, Richard Prince and Jeff Koons. It may appear that he is unloading the bulk of what he owns, but the art being sold now amounts to only a fraction of his holdings. Among the best for sale is Lichtenstein's "Ball of Twine," a 1963 painting. Mr. Brant bought it in 2001 at Sotheby's for $4 million, the highest price paid for a work in that sale. Now it is estimated at $14 million to $18 million.

Mr. Brant is also selling Warhols, including two self-portraits (one at each auction house) and works by Basquiat, Mr. Koons andMr. Prince.

Topping Out?

ARTIST Richard Prince
TITLE "Millionaire Nurse," 2002

RICHARD PRINCE, whose retrospective last year at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York won critical acclaim, is still considered a hot commodity. Yet it seems surprising that so many Princes have surfaced on the market recently, privately as well as at auction. Sotheby's and Christie's are both selling paintings from Mr. Prince's popular nurse series, images inspired by the covers of erotic pulp fiction of the 1940s.

Some experts say the private sellers are hedge-fund managers who have supported Mr. Prince but are now facing tough times and need cash. Other collectors received overtures from auction houses they simply couldn't refuse. One of the nurse canvases belongs to Peter Brant, who has a large collection of Prince works, including other nurse paintings.

Sotheby's is selling his "Millionaire Nurse," depicting a blonde wearing a surgical mask. It is estimated to fetch $3.5 million to $4.5 million. At Christie's the television producer Douglas S. Cramer is offering "Man-Crazy Nurse #2." He bought this image of a buttoned-up blonde literally dripping paint, from the dealer Barbara Gladstone for less than $100,000 shortly after it was painted in 2002. Christie's has estimated it will bring $6 million to $8 million. "Eight months ago I was privately offered $10 million for it,"Mr. Cramer said in a telephone interview. "And I said no." He said Christie's had offered him a "gratifying'' guarantee but that he might one day regret the deal, not least because he is fond of the picture. "Five years from now I may think 'I've been taken,'" he joked.

Higher, Higher!

ARTIST Edvard Munch
TITLE "Girls on a Bridge," 1902
ESTIMATE $24 million to $28 million

YOU might presume that Graham Kirkham, the London collector and founder of the retail chain DFS Furniture, decided to sell Munch's "Girls on a Bridge" because he thinks he can get a good return. But some wonder how high collectors will be willing to go. Consider this: In 1980 Wendell Cherry, a founder of the Humana healthcare corporation, bought the painting at Christie's for $2.8 million. In 1996 Mr. Cherry's widow put it on the block at Sotheby's, where Mr. Kirkham bought it for $7.2 million. Now Sotheby's predicts this boldly colorful canvas, depicting a group of young women huddled together, will fetch $24 million to $28 million.

"Munch is one of those artists that people are finally recognizing for his position in the development of modern art," said Simon Shaw, head of Sotheby's Impressionist and modern art department in New York.

Foreign Enticements

ARTIST Erik Bulatov
TITLE "New York," 1989
ESTIMATE $700,000 to $900,000

IN an overture to Russia's new rich, Sotheby's sent highlights of its big spring sale of contemporary art from New York to Moscow this year for the first time. Sotheby's also has works that should appeal to new collectors in other emerging markets. Curiously, fewer examples of today's hot Chinese contemporary artists are on offer than a year ago, but Sotheby's contemporary sale on May 14 includes examples by two of today's most sought-after artists from Russia and India. Erik Bulatov, a Russian born in 1933, is being represented for the first time with his painting "New York." And the auction also includes a 2003 painting by the Indian artist Subodh Gupta, "Across the Seven Seas," which depicts a bustling airport. Its $500,000 to $700,000 estimate isn't cheap, but Mr. Gupta, 44, is considered one of the hottest artists of his generation in India. His work has been exhibited in high-profile shows like the 2005 Venice Biennale.

By Carol Vogel
For The New York Times

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