New York auction raises $12.3m for Lehman Brothers' creditors

Buyers at the corporate art collection sale were cautious, but most lots sold

Chinese painter Lie Ye’s 2004 "The Long Way Home" fetched $962,500 (est. $500-$700,000)

The crème of New York asset manager Neuberger Berman’s corporate art collection, assembled over twenty years, was sold off during a three-hour auction at Sotheby’s on 25 September. The sale raised $12.3 million to benefit the creditors of Lehman Brothers, the bankrupt financial giant that had acquired Neuberger in 2003; it was projected to tally up to $12 million.

On the day of the auction, the salesroom felt moribund, dominated by sluggish phone bidding. “It feels cautious,” said New Jersey based advisor Deborah Davis, at the Saturday afternoon sale. An early atypical 1993 Damien Hirst cabinet, estimated to sell for up to $1 million, We’ve You Got Style (The Vessel Collection—Blue/Green) drew no bids, casting a pallor over the proceedings. Sotheby’s found a buyer four days later.

Yet overall results were solid. Eighty-three percent of the 142 lots offered were sold, and 17 artist records were established, including for Rodney Graham, Glenn Ligon, Callum Innes and Julie Mehretu. “The sale included good works by desirable artists who don’t come to market much,” said Alexander Glauber, a former Neuberger curatorial assistant who runs Corporate Art Solutions. “The market was telling us we are ready for the new,” said Sotheby’s Gabriela Palmieri, senior specialist in the contemporary art department. “It was the sale of unusual suspects.”

Mehretu’s 2001 Untitled 1 was the top lot, fetching a record $1 million from an anonymous phone bidder (est. $600,000-$800,000). Lehman had acquired the work for around $20,000 the year of its creation.

Energetic bidding continued for other auction block irregulars. Ingrid Calame’s splotchy 2000 Hrggnh-hnggnh-hnggnh,painted on alumimum, sold for $86,500, far above the $12,000 estimate. Other winners included Karin Davie’s 1998 trippy Psyche, selling for $74,500, nearly double the $40,000 presale high estimate. Janet Fish’s 1971 photo realist Honey Jars sold for a record $134,500, nearly four times the $35,000 high estimate.

Chinese paintings also sold strong. Chinese painter Lie Ye’s 2004 The Long Way Home fetched $962,500 (est. $500-$700,000) and Fang Lijun’s yolk-yellow 1997 Untitled (Swimmer No. 1) sold for $379,500 (est. $200-$300,000).

The sale included a few institutional buyers. An unnamed museum acquired Glenn Ligon’s 1991 Invisible Man (Two Views), borrowing the title of Ralph Ellison’s famous novel, for a record $434,500, over the $150,000 estimate. The Museum Art Center Buenos Aires (MACBA) bought a 2000 abstract painting by Callum Innes for a record $45,000, Robert Longo’s drawing of a rose for $74,500 and the Karen Davie painting.

Recently hot names were out of fashion, offering some value deals for buyers willing to buy against the grain. A large pinkish 2003 Richard Prince joke painting sold for $212,500—half the $400,000 high estimate. A 1999 Takashi Murakami painting titled Chaos sold for $134,500 on thin bidding, below the $200,000 high estimate.

The Neuberger collection was begun under the supervision of the firm’s art collecting partners who later hired Michael Danoff, a former museum director, to grow and supervise the holdings which eventually numbered around 800 artworks. Neuberger partners bought the firm back from Lehman in 2009. The company opted to acquire a number of artworks from Lehman that continue to be exhibited in the company’s offices.

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