Sotheby’s Art Auction Breaks Records

Sotheby’s specialists taking phone and online bids from around the world. (Courtesy Sotheby's)
The virtual event, linking buyers across the globe, played out like a high-stakes night at the casino.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE S otheby’s, with Christie’s one of the two big auction houses, held its big-ticket modern and contemporary evening auction this past Monday. It’s Sotheby’s cash cow for the year, and it was a fascinating, well-done virtual event. I saw the future of the auction business, and it worked. Bidding was spirited, and the balletic, gestural Oliver Barker as auctioneer was himself a work of performance art. He can coax bids from a mummy.

Art by Francis Bacon, Joan Mitchell, Helen Frankenthaler, and others, priced in the millions, sold, mostly sight unseen, in an event that was part old-fashioned auction, part variety show, part telethon, all with the sparkle and edgy feel of Election Night. Sotheby’s called it a marquee auction. They pulled it off with savvy and zest. They made a boatload of money, too.

The big news story from the auction was the sale of Francis Bacon’s Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus, from 1981, the last and grandest of the artist’s 28 triptychs. I think Bacon had his moments, but overall, he’s an Angry Young Man artist, Irish and troubled and a ’50s and ’60s character. I wrote about the Bacon show at the Houston MFA in March, and while he’s a great painter, I left thinking he was tiresome and pretentious, with a limited vision. He’s a brand and personality. And, for the life of me, and I know my Aeschylus, I don’t see how the triptych references the Oresteia. It’s a riff on Goya.

Still, it’s striking and powerful. The Hans Astrup Foundation, which got it in 1987, sold it to enhance the endowment of Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museet, a very good contemporary art museum founded by the Astrup family. The work has been an anchor in all the big Bacon shows. On an estimate of $60 million to $80 million, it sold for $84.6 million, including the buyer’s premium.

Gallery assistants pose for photographers during the photocall for Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus by British painter Francis Bacon, at Sotheby’s auction house in London, England, March 6 2020. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

The bidding went swiftly by million-dollar increments from $48 million to $60 million and then stalled. At that point, a new, online bidder appeared with a $60.1 million bid. Silence. A phone bidder raised it to $61 million. Then a war started between a bidder with firepower against a drop, drop, drop enemy who’d raise him by $100,000 each time his return bid went up, to 62, then 63, up to $75 million until the bidder with the pop gun finally stopped. The total price was $84,550,000 plus the buyer’s premium. I assume Sotheby’s vetted the online bidder, who seemed to tease with his little $100,000 increments. Was he for real?

No one outside of Sotheby’s inner sanctum knows how much Sotheby’s actually made. Last year, it went private, so Sotheby’s doesn’t have to make all the disclosures that, say, a public company like Christie’s has to make on financing and negotiated premiums. My friends there tell me they’re happy, though.

Whether COVID-19 came from that Chinese lab or Big Bat Macs in Wuhan, it put the international art market in a coma. Sotheby’s is a business, however, and “Gone Fishin’” isn’t a good way to make money. Of course, we still have many museums — that’s the nonprofit world – that won’t open and serve the public, though state and local health officials say they can.

The well-paid, lucky-ducky staffs hope to doze and laze in place, at home, in perpetuity, depriving art lovers of the cultural heritage their tax dollars subsidize. Maybe they’ve heard that the Blizzard Beach water slide at Disney World is reopening on July 7 and don’t want to miss the fun. Really, now, if Disney World, the Louvre, and the Vatican can open next week, what excuse do American museums have for keeping their doors closed to the public all summer?

Talk about lucky-ducky privilege. Actually, what I’m hearing now is that many museums in America are so roiled by layoffs and internal charges of racism that the directors and senior staff just want to hide for as long as they can.

Sotheby’s motto for its marquee auction is “pivot, adapt, innovate,” and each it does. There’s a feature for simple country souls like me explaining different ways to experience the auction. The auction started Monday evening, ET, at 6:30, with auctioneer Barker in London and specialists in London, New York, and Hong Kong taking live bids by phone, online, and text messages. A 30-second preview on the Sotheby’s website predicted Super Bowl drama, which, for the art world, it delivered.

Auctioneer Oliver Barker, a new art world sex symbol, takes bids in London. (Courtesy Sotheby's)

The Ginny Williams sale grabbed me when Sotheby’s announced it earlier this year. I liked her a lot. Williams (1927–2019) and her husband, Carl, moved to Denver in the 1950s. There, Carl made a fortune as a cable-television pioneer. Ginny was from Virginia and combined Southern charm with cowgirl grit. I liked her flamboyance and frankness. She was deeply knowledgeable and had a curator’s sensibility.

She was both an art dealer in Denver, starting in the 1980s when the city was a cultural backwater, and a collector, though I think her dealership was a front for her collecting. I always wondered whether or not she sold much. Williams’s aesthetic was ’70s and ’80s, with a focus on women, especially Louise Bourgeois. She bought well. She had catholic taste, but in the 1990s, the market for female artists was still quiet. That’s when she bought her Frankenthaler and Mitchells. Her Bourgeois holdings were encyclopedic.

Her sale had 18 lots and not a dud among them. It was what’s called a white-shoe auction, which means everything sold. That’s rare. Royal Fireworks, by Helen Frankenthaler from 1975, is gorgeous. A wave of warm, luscious orange flows across the surface, with a narrow strip of pure azure below it. Frankenthaler (1928–2011) is always good. In the 1970s, she started to paint with acrylic on canvas, leaving the soak-and-stain technique aside. It’s a less gauzy effect. I could look at for hours in a frame of mind lapsing into dreams and fantasy. Look at that big Bacon triptych for too long, and I’d get indigestion. At a $2–$3 million estimate, the Frankenthaler sold for $7,895,000 in quite a bidding war.

There were three very good Joan Mitchell paintings. Liens Colorés, from 1956, shows the elegance that Mitchell (1925–1992) brought to abstract expressionism. I like the painting and put aside my longstanding opinion that she’s an interior decorator’s artist. On a $5–$7 million estimate, it sold for $5,950,000. Two other Mitchells, one from 1962 and another, Straw, from 1976, look and feel more like landscapes accelerating what Monet was doing at the end of his career. They exceeded their high estimates, I think, because they drew collectors both of abstract expressionism and representational art. The three paintings, all big and very good, provide a micro-retrospective of Mitchell over three decades.

Three Joan Mitchell paintings in a row in Ginny Williams’s Denver living room: (from left) Garden Party (1961), Liens Colores (1956), and Straw (1965) (Courtesy Sotheby's)

Everything in the Williams auction sold, and many topped their high estimates. Sotheby’s sometimes offers inflated estimates, which leads to disappointed sellers, but this time it guessed well. It had great quality on its side, too.

The Williams sale was followed by the bigger contemporary-art sale. Together, selling 48 objects, the contemporary sale and the Williams sale lasted about three hours, with a break, so it felt like going to the theater. Matthew Wong’s The Realm of Appearances, from 2018, started the part of the sale that followed the Williams cache. Wong (1984–2019) was a wonderful artist who killed himself last year. He shuttled from Alberta in Canada to Hong Kong and back, suffered from autism, and was a gifted colorist whose abstract landscapes are both dreamy and, understandably, rare.

Sotheby’s put his painting first to give this part of the sale a jolt. It slapped a low $60,000–$80,000 estimate on it, knowing bidding would not plow but blow through it. It reached $1.1 million in increments of $10,000 and $50,000. Then, a buyer bidding in Honk Kong by phone decided to nuke this stately progression by bidding $1.5 million. That stopped everyone in his or her tracks and won the day.

The psychology of these auctions sometimes feels like what happens in a casino. The house’s goal is to get people to throw money away in buckets. The Wong placement, first in line, and the low estimate were meant to ignite s spending spree.

The Bacon triptych wasn’t the only heavy hitter in this sale. Roy Lichtenstein’s White Brushstroke I, from 1965, sold for $27,300,500 with the buyer’s premium on an estimate of $20–$30 million. It’s prime pop art, if you like that kind of thing. An enchanting Mark Rothko painting, from 1969, sold for $8,350,000, just over the low estimate. It’s from the distinguished collection of Harry and Mary Margaret Anderson (called “Hunk” and “Moo”), who owned it from 1972 to Moo’s death last year. Hunk died in 2019.

The Andersons were rich but bought early and well. Their collection wasn’t huge, but it was the best of the best of abstract expressionism and Bay Area figurative painting. I love the Rothko. It has a nocturne palette, uncharacteristic of him, and it’s on paper, not canvas, which consigns it, as far as the marketplace is concerned, to the less esteemed “works on paper” class. That dings its value but, to me, if the surface is covered with paint, it’s a painting.

It’s also late Rothko, who is not seen as a 1960s artist. That’s the time of pop art. There are some serious collectors of post-war art who want their Rothkos to come from the 1950s or early 1960s, seen as his zenith. Late Rothkos also suffer from guilt by association with the black Rothkos in the chapel next to the Menil Collection in Houston. These black Rothkos precede his 1970 suicide, so to a buyer looking for joie de vivre, the art market cautions “beware” when it comes to his late work. The Anderson picture evokes the nocturnes of Monet and Whistler and is in a league of its own.

The Andersons were a lovely, down-to-earth couple who gave most of their collection to Stanford for its university art museum. Their heirs need something to live on, though. Hence, the sale.

A Jean-Michel Basquiat drawing of a head went for $15,185,000 on a $9–$12 million estimate. I wouldn’t call him overrated, but my problem is that he died at such a young age that assessments have to be inconclusive. For that money, a Michelangelo drawing could be had. Mr. Marketplace sometimes has his priorities wrong.

There were two paintings by Willem de Kooning (1904–1997). East Hampton Garden Party, from 1976, was painted for Emilie Kilgore, then a young Houston woman who became his friend and muse. It’s inscribed to her. De Kooning hadn’t entered what his dealer once told me was his “senile phase,” but it wasn’t far on the horizon. Estimated at $1.8–$2.5 million, it sold for $2,188,000. It’s from the time the artist lived in the Hamptons, and it suits that milieu.

Seated Man, from 1941, is de Kooning before he became de Kooning. Until he did the slashing Women series starting around 1950, de Kooning was part of a circle in New York anchored by John Graham. Graham’s acolytes and kindred spirits then were Arshile Gorky, Adolph Gottlieb, Stuart Davis, and the young Jackson Pollock and David Smith. Seated Man depicts a clown de Kooning had seen in a circus. It’s very tail-end Ash Can style inspired by big-city life but with a cool, European look. It’s less about the figure of the seated man and more about form, with a touch of surrealism. It’s a more bracing picture than Kilgore’s, but it’s for either a museum or a serious modernist collector. It went for $2,420,000 on an estimate of $1–$2 million.

Sotheby’s is selling Williams’s art in waves. The consignment was about 450 objects, and like all the auction houses, Sotheby’s arranges and tiers them based on medium, glitz, and price. On June 30, Sotheby’s had a day auction devoted to Williams. Her photography collection comes on the market on July 9. There’s an online sale of more work in an auction running from July 9 to July 20 and another sale in the fall.

I like things that are printed and not virtual. That said, much of my writing appears on the screen as I enjoy being part of the digital publishing revolution. Still, I do like printed auction catalogues. Sotheby’s did a great job exceeding what a printed catalogue offers. It’s evening-sale screen catalogue linked the paintings for sale with similar work in great museum collections. It’s a good marketing tool, and it helped me, as an art historian, put the art on the block in context.

The problem with buying art at auction right now is access to the objects. Many bidders will have bought or tried to buy art sight unseen. As unthinkable as that seems to me, my reporting two weeks ago on the print fair proved that people will do it. And at the evening sale, I saw they’ll do it even if they’re spending millions.

That said, potential buyers could preview the art at Sotheby’s in New York by appointment if they could get to New York. Since Sotheby’s had the Williams and Anderson consignments for months, I expect people have been looking at the art and thinking about bidding long before the quarantine shut New York. Unless Sotheby’s broke the rules, its spaces were closed to its staff and potential bidders alike.

Sotheby’s did a few other things. It offered an augmented-reality feature simulating how a work for sale would look at home. I tried it. The Bacon triptych, stretching about 14 feet, wouldn’t fit. That’s fine. It would scare my cats. Joan Mitchell , strangely, suits a Vermont farmhouse, our country garden, and looks good in our dense interior packed with old stuff.

It’s easy to speak to specialists via Sotheby’s version of Zoom. Sotheby’s obviously considered the many ways people like to receive and process information and decided to go to great lengths to hold hands. They’ve created a new, more relaxed kind of salesmanship, abetted by the simple fact that, until the last week or so, everyone has been working from home, away from office dynamics that can make people anxious. And buyers are mostly at home, too, and by this point are sick of looking at what they’ve got on the walls. COVID-19 will prove itself a boon to the interior-design business.

I think there was some back-and-forth with many of the sellers over the unique calamity of a recession, public-health crisis, and a travel ban. Sotheby’s made a good case for cleaving to the line.

The financial crisis in 2008 spooked lots of potential sellers from sitting on their art. For months in 2008 and 2009, consignments were mostly limited to the Three D’s — sales forced by death, debt, and divorce. As a practical matter, this reduced the number of quality objects on the market.

Let’s face it – there will always be lots of rich people, and those with the capacity to spend tens of millions on art float above the hard knocks that entangle we penny-watching mortals. The same dynamic exists now. Quality sells. Twenty-seven of the 30 works in the evening modern and contemporary sale have never hit the auction block before. As I’ve said many times, fresh meat sells.

It was an extravaganza and well done on every level. Five-minute videos on, for instance, Williams as a collector of female artists and the Bacon triptych used Sotheby’s department heads as presenters. These augmented the sometimes la-di-da catalogue entries, which veer more toward the flowery than the spartan.

Sotheby’s specialists spoke accessibly and with authority. They all looked good and game for the adventure. I enjoyed the videos. I’ve been to a million previews, and the specialists always look tense. Here, they looked relaxed and persuasive. The Williams video is set in her high-ceilinged, white, big-box living room, where her three big Mitchells, her Frankenthaler, and an Ellsworth Kelly look fantastic.

The sale broke records for Frankenthaler and for Basquiat drawings. The total take also exceeded Sotheby’s total of high estimates Sotheby’s has often missed its totals, sometimes by a lot, with the field littered with unsold art. It’s got new ownership, a fresh, exciting look, and some new specialists. I think these have made a difference. Congratulations to Sotheby’s for a good sale done in high style.

 

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