No Bailout at Christies

No Bailout at Christies
Another grim day on Wall Street did nothing to brighten the mood at Christie’s big Post-War and Contemporary evening sale, which earned a lackluster $113,627,500 against an unreachable pre-sale estimate of $227,150,000–321,350,000.

Two lots sold for over $10 million, and 32 lots made over a million dollars.

Four artist records were set, including for a rare and beautiful Yayoi Kusama abstraction, No.2 from 1959 (est. $2.5–3.5 million). The work, which was once owned by Donald Judd, fetched a bullish $5,794,500, making it the most expensive artwork by a living woman artist.

The painting sold to New York private dealer Philippe Segalot, who outgunned stiff competition from at least three other bidders. “For something like this,” he said moments after the sale, “there’s no difference [in price] between six months ago and today. I think the market is becoming rational, which is a good thing, because there needed to be an adjustment in terms of prices.”

But the Kusama auction was one of the night’s few bright spots. In the minus column, 24 of the 75 lots offered failed to find buyers for buy-in rates of 32 percent by lot and 55 percent by value.

That gap between the lot and value rates had much to do with the pricey buy-in of the most expensive offering of the evening, Francis Bacons magisterial, full-length Study for Self-Portrait No. 1 from 1964, which died without any actual bidding at $27.5 million (estimate upon request in the region of $40 million).

“That sums up the whole market, right there,” said New York private dealer Rachel Mauro. “It definitely would have sold six months ago. There’s a real threshold out there.”

Mauro was the underbidder on the evening’s surprise top lot, Gerhard Richters large-scale Abstraktes Bild (710) from 1989, which sold to an anonymous telephone bidder for $14,866,500 (estimate upon request in the region of $12 million).

“My client was willing to pay up to a certain number,” said Mauro. “But after that, he let it go.”

Another high-flier, at least in the current, re-adjusted market, was Jean-Michel Basquiats huge, expressionist painting Untitled (Boxer) (1982), which sold to a telephone bidder for $13,522,500 (estimate upon request in the region of $12 million), just shy of the artist’s record.

It was not a good night for Christie's in terms of guarantees. The house guaranteed 38 lots, or close to half of the property in the sale, which added up to an aggregate low estimate in excess of $90 million. Of those lots, nine failed to sell, including a grandly elegant yet hopelessly overpriced Brice Marden, Attendant 5 from 1996–99, which died at an imaginary bid of $7.5 million (est. $10–15 million).

“These were June estimates, “ said Christie’s head of sale, Robert Manley. “We’re in a different world now.”

Also included in the rejected group were three Andy Warhols, a rare David Smith stainless steel sculpture (est. $6–8 million), a major work by Alexander Calder (est. $3–4 million), a Richard Prince Cowboy (est. $1.5–2 million), a Richter abstraction (est. $10–15 million), a Roy Lichtenstein collage (est. $2–3 million), and drawings by Barnett Newman and Agnes Martin in the low to mid six figures.

Like its archrival Sotheby’s did at last night’s contemporary art sale, Christie’s took a big hit for its risky financial gamble, though the individually negotiated guarantee agreements were established before the financial meltdown in September.

A number of pundits cite the September 15 collapse of the investment bank Lehman Brothers as the canary in the mine shaft that triggered that meltdown, so it was a bit ironic that a spectacular group of mostly Abstract Expressionist drawings were sold from the collection of Kathy Fuld, the wife of former Lehman Brothers CEO Richard Fuld (and a vice-chairman of the Museum of Modern Art board of trustees). In a version of an art world bailout, the entire suite of 16 drawings was guaranteed by Christie’s, and the works, described in the catalog as property from “a private collection,” made $13.5 million against a pre-sale estimate in the region of $15–20 million.

Overall, Christie’s tally registers as a sliver of the same sale last May, which brought in a record $331.4 million, or the $325 million earned in November 2007. Even in November 2006, Christie’s sold $239.7 million, double tonight’s take.

“The estimates and expectations have to come down a little bit, like 30 percent,” said New York art adviser Sandy Heller, who underbid on Takashi Murakami's DOB in the Strange Forest (DOB), which went to Segalot for $3,442,500 (est.$5–7 million). “But the buyers are still there, and that’s encouraging.”

The evening contemporary art action continues at Phillips de Pury and Company on Thursday with modest pre-sale expectations of $25–35 million for the 56 lots offered.

Judd Tully is Editor at Large of Art+Auction.