Lehman Brothers Art Takes $12.3 Million at Sotheby's, Though Hirst Fails

Stemming from Lehman Brothers massive 2008 bankruptcy, the auction  of contemporary artworks from the Neuberger Berman and Lehman Brothers Corporate Art Collection that Sotheby’s held on Saturday morning was, in effect, a liquidation. In contrast to the financial fate that led to the sale, however, the auction was a success: nailing the $12.3 million high estimate, Sotheby's found buyers for all but 24 of the 142 lots for a 17 percent buy-in rate by lot and five percent by value. One work sold for over a million dollars and 17 artist records were set, according to the auction house.

The decision to schedule the sale early in the day — in part to cater to Sotheby’s expanding collector base in Asia — seemed to pay off, with work by Asian artists turning in strong numbers. Liu Yes large-scale 2005 figurative painting "The Long Way Home," part children’s book fantasy and part biting commentary on China’s brutal Cultural Revolution, sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $962,500 on an estimate of $500-700,000. Meanwhile, Fang Lijuns 1997 "Untitled (Swimmer No. 1)," a painting mocking former leader Mao Zedongs supposed Olympian swimming feats, sold to another telephone bidder for $374,500 against a $200-300,000 estimate. The work was acquired from the Max Protetch Gallery in 1998, when the artist’s primary market paintings were priced in the $10,000 to $20,000 range, according to one of the underbidders, who didn’t want to be identified.

The catalogue entries weren’t transparent enough to disclose what works came from Lehman Brothers or Neuberger Berman, which was acquired by Lehman in 2003 when the investment bank was flying high. (Thetwo corporate art collections were merged at that time.) Neuberger Berman's art program began in 1990 and, with the Lehman holdings, offers a kind of two-decade snapshot of sophisticated contemporary taste. A number of those acquisition choices, initially madeto enhance the working environment at the firms and support living artists, were notably market savvy.

Estimated at $100-150,000,"Invisible Man (Two Views)" (1991), Glenn Ligons powerful ode to Ralph Ellisons only novel, sold for a record $434,000. It was reportedly acquired for $22,000 back in 1991, again at the Max Protetch gallery. Another high-flier was Gerhard Richters iconic 1991 portrait, "Betty," a color lithograph from an edition of 25 (est. $100-150,000), that hit $458,500 — big money for a multiple.

Prices went high and low for no obvious reasons, as when
Mark Grotjahns color-saturated, roughly seven-foot-by-six-foot cover-lot canvas, "Untitled (Three-tiered Perspective)," from 2000 and estimated at $600-800,000, fetched $782,500, the third highest price achieved in the marathon sale. That buzz didn't last: the next lot, John Currins dour "Shakespeare Actress" from 1991 (est. $500-700,000), sold for a scant $362,500.

Most likely, the reserves were pegged to a "global reserve" formula, so one over-achieving lot could compensate for an underperforming one, like the Currin. That formula also saved Richard Princes untitled 2003 joke painting, acquired in the year it was made from Barbara Gladstone Gallery, that sold to a telephone bidder for just $212,500 on a $300-400,000 estimate.

Still, that global formula could not save every underperforming lot. Damien Hirsts uncharacteristic 1993 steel cupboard of ceramic pots, "We’ve got Style (The Vessel Collection-Blue /Green)," estimated at $800,000 to $1.2 million, died without a single bid. The sculpture was acquired from London’s White Cube gallery in 1994.

Richter was also represented by two small scaled paintings from 1992, "Abstraktes Bild (763-5)" and "Abstraktes Bild (763-9)," that each made an identical $506,500. The former was estimated at $200-300,000 and the slightly larger latter painting at $300-400,000. Both works were acquired by the same telephone bidder, manned by
Lisa Dennison, chairman of Sotheby’s North and South America. Dennison, the former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, wrote the introduction to the catalogue, hailing Neuberger Berman founder Roy Neuberger for making "art an integral part of the corporate culture of the company."

German artists took five of the 10 top lots, including Neo Rauchs 1999 large-scale oil-on-paper, "Einbruch," estimated at $400-600,000, which sold to another telephone bidder for $542,500. The late and great Sigmar Polkes 1983 untitled gouache-on-paper that was estimated at $100,000 to 150,000 — it was acquired by the seller in November of 1993 after the work bought in at Christie's New York bearing an estimate of $25,000-35,000 — sold for a modest $86,500 to New York private dealer Neal Meltzer, who was seated at the front of the salesroom. The sighting of a familiar face bidding in the room broke the relative tedium of the telephone–dominated sale.

Nevertheless, there were other exciting moments to be had, as when Julie Mehretus thrillingly layered five-by-seven-foot architectural composition on canvas zoomed to a record $1,022,500, becoming the top lot of the sale. The work was first acquired from the The Project, the short-lived cutting-edge New York gallery, in May 2001, before Mehretu’s work acquired worldwide acclaim. It smashed the previous mark set at Sotheby's in London in June 2009 when the 2005 work "Untitled (Dervish)" made £241,250 ($394,038).

Exiting Sotheby’s York Avenue salesroom, another living artist was hard at work hawking his glowering portrait of Lehman’s much–demonized CEO Robert Fuld on the sidewalk. Resembling a middle-aged college professor and wielding a handful of different colored magic markers, artist Geoffrey Raymond (see his Web site here) invited passersby to inscribe their thoughts about Lehman on his canvas, titled "The Liquidated Fuld" and priced at $50,000.

"The last one I sold to somebody in Stuttgart for $36,000," declared the artist, who is known for painting controversial Wall Street figures and then exhibiting them in public places. It seems that while Lehman Brothers is in Chapter 11 today, Lehman Brothers art can't help but go up in value. How's that for irony?