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Sales round-up

Sotheby’s, The Collection of A. Alfred Taubman: Masterworks, 4 November

Estimate: $374.8m-$536.5m

Total: $326m ($377m with fees)

Sotheby’s recently appointed chief executive, Tad Smith, vowed that he would not “roll the dice in the auction room with shareholders’ money”. Just months later he disregarded this publicly declared strategy by deciding to underwrite the largest ever guarantee in auction history, $515m, for the collection of the firm’s former owner Alfred Taubman. 

The auction house came away from the first sale of these works bruised. There was strong appetite for a handful of lots, such as Modigliani’s Paulette Jourdain (around 1919), which sold for $38m ($42.8m with fees; estimate $25m-$35m) after a three-minute bidding war. But other works failed to receive a single bid, including two paintings estimated between $15m 

and $20m each: Degas’s Femme Nu, De Dos, Se Coiffant (Femme Se Peignant) (around 1886-88) and Jasper Johns’ Disappearance I (1960). 

“The material wasn’t great to begin with and they really overreached [so it came] back to bite,” said the dealer Edward Tyler Nahem. “The market is very healthy and there is a lot of money out there to buy good things. There just wasn’t a lot of good [material] to buy.” 

There are more Taubman sales to come (though of lower value), and Smith says he expects “to cover the guarantee in its entirety”. Nonetheless, his calculations do not include promotional costs—which are considerable. And, in an example of the creative accounting that is frequently deployed by the auction houses, Sotheby’s will log the works that failed to sell as assets by including their estimated value in the aggregate total proceeds generated by the collection.

Sotheby’s, Impressionist and Modern auction, 5 November

Estimate: $275.6m-$369.2m

Total: $268.2m ($306.7m with fees)

Sotheby’s was upbeat after a solid auction where well-estimated works exceeded expectations. These included Van Gogh’s painting of a baby whom only a mother could love, Le Bébé Marcelle Roulin. It sparked a bidding war and eventually sold for $6.6m ($7.6m with fees/est $3.5m-$5m). 

The air was thinner at the top, where several of the most expensive lots failed to ignite similar interest. Van Gogh’s Paysage sous un ciel mouvementé (1889) hammered at $48m with just one bidder ($54m with fees; estimate $50m-$70m). Dealers said buyers were put off because of the work’s condition.

The real victor of the evening was the billionaire businessman William Koch, who made a significant profit on works including Picasso’s La Gommeuse (1901). He bought it in 1984 for around $1.7m and sold it to the Zurich dealer Doris Ammann for $60m ($67.5m with fees; estimate $60m). Koch was also the seller of Monet’s Nymphéas (1908), which he purchased for $8.4m in 2000 and sold for $30m ($33.9m with fees; estimate $30m-$50m). 

Phillips, 20th century and contemporary auction, 8 November

Estimate: $64.4m-$93.7m

Total: $56.5m ($66.9m with fees)

Phillips’s big push to bolster its brand did fairly well. The auction house moved its flagship sale to a Sunday after Christie’s pushed it out of its regular slot on Thursday and launched a new hybrid sale of Modern and contemporary art. The top lot was Willem de Kooning’s Untitled XXVIII (1977), which hammered at its $10m low estimate ($11.4m with fees; estimate $10m-$15m), suggesting that the house’s repositioning of itself as a vendor of Modern art has potential. Nonetheless, the sale performed under its low estimate, demonstrating that Phillips’s expectations were too ambitious. Six works guaranteed by the auction house failed to sell so the firm has most likely made a loss on those pieces.

Christie’s, The Artist’s Muse, 9 November

Estimate: $440m-$532m

Total: $435.4m ($491.4m with fees)

This auction veered from one extreme to another. It set a record for the world’s second most expensive painting at auction, Modigliani’s Nu couché (1917-18), which was pursued by seven buyers and sold for $152m ($170.4m with fees; it was guaranteed at $100m). Other rare works sparked bidding wars, such as Paul Gauguin’s wooden sculpture Thérèse (1902-03), which sold for $27.5m ($30.9m with fees; estimate $18m-$25m). 

Less convincing was the record set for Roy Lichtenstein. Despite the fact that there was only one bidder, his Nurse (1964)—which was guaranteed by a third party—sold for a whopping $85m ($95.4m with fees; estimate in excess of $80m). This was a huge increase for the work, which was once owned by the publishing magnate Peter Brant and last sold at auction for $1.7m (with fees) in 1995. Other big-ticket lots failed to sell, such as Lucian Freud’s Naked Portrait on a Red Sofa (1989-91, est $20m-$30m). Overall, the sale came in below its low estimate. “The market is a little bit cooler and a little bit smarter,” said Stephane Connery, the co-founder of the dealership Connery, Pissarro, Seydoux, after the sale. “Buyers are chasing really fantastic things but are more sober when things are overly estimated.”  

Christie’s post-war and contemporary auction, 10 November

Estimate: $316m

Total: $289.9m ($331.8m with fees)

There was yet more volatility during this auction. For the first time in years, buyers appeared to see through auction house hyperbole. Take Andy Warhol’s quadruple portrait of Marilyn Monroe (1962). This work sold at Phillips in May 2013 for $38.2m (with fees) and was bought nine months ago by the Turkish financier Kemal Cingillioglu for $44m, according to the New York Times. In a fit of competitiveness, Brett Gorvy, Christie’s worldwide chairman of post-war and contemporary art, told the New York Times last month that Phillips had “totally undersold” the work. He and his team had guaranteed Cingillioglu around $40m for the work and were offering it with an estimate of between $40m and $60m. Nonetheless, the painting failed to reach its low estimate, selling for $32m to the lone telephone bidder ($36m with fees). 

In contrast, there was wild demand for six fresh-to-market works by Alexander Calder from the collection of Arthur and Anita Kahn, which totalled $29.3m hammer—well over their $8.3m to $11.9m estimate.

Sotheby’s, contemporary auction, 11 November

Estimate: $254m-$313.7m

Total: $235m ($294.9m with fees)

Only three works carried guarantees and the bidding was healthy at this auction, which set a record for Cy Twombly whose blackboard painting, Untitled (New York City) (1968) hammered at $62.7m ($70.5m with fees; estimate $60m). “It was a very positive sale. There was a really good rhythm and energy,” said the private dealer Ales Ortuzar. 

The Warhol market looked shaky all season and this auction was no exception. Several works sold at or below their low estimate, including Flowers (1964), which hammered at $1.8m ($2.4m with fees; estimate $2.2m-$3.2m), while others failed to sell, such as Diamond Dust Shoes (1980-81) (estimate $2m-$3m). Nonetheless, hedge-funder Steve Cohen did well with Warhol’s Mao (1972), which he bought from Christie’s owner François Pinault in 2007. It hammered at $42.2m ($47.5m with fees; guaranteed at around $40m)—a huge increase on its 1996 sale price of £672,000 (around $1m). 

Christie’s, Impressionist and Modern auction, 12 November

Estimate: $109m-$157m

Total: $124.5m ($145.5m with fees)

This long and often dull sale felt like a return to the days before the market became sexy, when it was still predominantly a trade affair. Most of the standout works had been cherry-picked for The Artist’s Muse auction, which resulted in a sale with little sparkle. Nonetheless, there were steady, consistent results. A drowsy drawing by Matisse perfectly suited the mood: Étude pour La Dormeuse (Le Rêve) (1939) more than tripled its high estimate to hammer at $3.25m ($3.8m with fees; estimate $700,000-$1m).