Sotheby’s managed to snatch a victory (Pyrrhic?) from the jaws of defeat by prearranging successful sales of all 31 works offered Wednesday night from the Emily Fisher Landau Collection of modern, postwar and contemporary art.
Auctioneer Oliver Barker was able to announce at the end of that very uneven evening that 100% of the offerings had found buyers (aka: “a White-Glove Auction”—a highly unusual, if not unprecedented, occurrence in this sale category). That said, several works were hammered at prices so low that I had expected Barker to put an end to the attendees’ misery with the word “Pass” (i.e., “unsold”).
The fact that this never happened suggested to me that the auction house had prearranged with the Fisher Landau Estate (beneficiary of the disposals) that, one way or another, every work would sell, regardless of how low the hammer-price might fall.
Also detracting from the allure of the sale was the likelihood that the Whitney Museum, where Fisher Landau had served as trustee, had already skimmed most of the cream of the collection, having received donations of some 400 works.
Although the Whitney’s Marcel Breuer-designed building changed its malleable identity to “the Met Breuer“…
…and then to its current status as Frick Madison…
…soon to switch from nonprofit museum to commercial entity—the Sotheby’s Breuer (or whatever the auction firm chooses to call it), it still includes a gallery named for late Whitney patron, which I came upon while visiting the Frick’s press preview Wednesday for yet another of the intriguing 2023 two-handers at NYC museums (the latest being the Frick’s Bellini/Giorgione matchup):
But back to the recent Fisher Landau disposals: Among the Sotheby’s shockers was the $19-million hammer price ($22.17 million with fees) for a Rothko from his Seagram Murals series, selling far short of the $30-40 million presale estimate of its hammer price:
Also jaw-droppingly underpriced: Rauschenberg‘s black-and-white silkscreen, “Sundog,” which hammered at $4 million—stopping dead (but selling) at half of the low end of its $8-12 million presale estimate:
Derek Parsons, Sotheby’s vice president and senior press officer, confirmed my suspicions about the sale’s out-of-range prearrangements. In response to my query, he stated this:
The entire Fisher Landau collection had a house guarantee from Sotheby’s, and then many of the works also carried third-party guarantees” [aka “irrevocable bids].
Parsons later told me that “a total of 24 works (in the Nov. 8 auction) carried third-party guarantees.” All of these machinations meant that the auction was preordained to “succeed,” no matter how lackluster the bidding was for some lots on the day of sale.
As Zachary Small wrote for the NY Times:
Sotheby’s had assured the owners that it would purchase the Picasso [the sale’s star lot, seen below]—and nearly 30 other consignments from the estate—if buyers failed to bid above a minimum price. Auctioneers said that over recent weeks they were in a frenzy to secure third-party guarantees that were slightly higher, saving their company from assuming debt on the trove of artworks.
Why this “frenzy”? With so much presale publicity foreseeing an art-market “correction,” there was an urgent need to bolster buyer confidence. This has been “a shaky time for the global art market,” as noted by Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal in her post-sale wrap-up of the Fisher Landau disposals. Similarly, in a preview of the sale in the Times, Small had noted this:
Major auction houses are hedging their bets in the fall season of sales…, offering fat guarantees to sellers to secure their works—and pricing some of their top items more conservatively after the spring season demonstrated weakness in the blazing-hot $60-billion art market.
If not “blazing hot,” Landau landed prices solid enough to support this frothy headline of Sotheby’s post-sale press release:
Emily Fisher Landau Collection Establishes New High in $406.4-Million White-Glove Evening Sale
The “white-glove” status (meaning: 100% sold) was a given, in light of the pre-arrangements. But Sotheby’s subhead sabotaged the significance of this vaunted “New High”:
Most Valuable Sale Devoted to a Female Collector in Auction History (emphasis added)
How many sales “devoted to a female collector” are in competition for the “most valuable” designation?
As far as “white gloves” go: they were real (in a sense). You can see them, below, adjusting the star lot of the evening:
The big news of the major 20th-century sale at Christie’s the following night was not the decent performance of its offerings. (For that analysis, I’ll turn you over to my former companion in auction-house press scrums, Judd Tully, now writing for The Art Newspaper.)
The landmark moment of Thursday night’s sale, for most of us watching in person or online, came at the beginning, when veteran auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen—a consummate coaxer of “just one more” bid (and then another)—announced that this was to be his final outing in New York, winding down his 38 years at Christie’s. When I first saw him in New York, conducting a sale in May 2012 (when he was president of Christie’s Europe), I had compared his demeanor unfavorably to “the always entertaining Christopher Burge,” Christie’s legendary auctioneer, some of whose banter Jussi astutely emulated.
As he has often said to encourage balky bidders: “We’ve come a long way.” As reported by another of his journalistic acolytes, Georgina Adam: “His last bang of the hammer will be on 7 December in London, where he will preside over Christie’s Old Master paintings sale.” After that, “he will be working as an independent art advisor,” Georgina wrote. That’s been the career path of several high-profile auctioneers and specialists over the years.
Thursday night, as planned, Jussi deftly fielded bids on the first 35 works in the sale, then briskly handed over the proceedings to the more subdued Adrien Meyer, who wielded the hammer for the remaining offerings.
A tough act to follow, Pylkkänen floated off on a high note—Monet‘s “Water-Lily Pond,” his last lot in New York, fetching the highest price of the evening—$74.01 million (with fees):
It was a watery watershed moment.
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