Sotheby’s bounces back with steady contemporary art sale

Auction exceeded expectations after disappointing results for Impressionist and Modern art on Monday

Last night, Sotheby’s made up for Monday’s dismal Impressionist and Modern evening sale (where 21 of the 62 lots went unsold) with a solid contemporary art sale that saw just two of the 44 lots fail to find buyers for a hammer total of $209.6m, squarely within the estimates of $201.4m and $257.5m.

The sale’s total with premiums, $242.2m, was a far cry from last May’s total of $379.6m but these are different times. The evening saw no new records for artists and was led by a blue Cy Twombly blackboard work from 1968 that hammered for $32.5m with just one bid. The work carried no guarantee but seven of the other top ten lots did.

The value of guaranteed lots came to just $76m of $209.6m, and of the 42 that sold just 17 went for below estimate. Among the early successes was a standing Alexander Calder glass and metal mobile from 1942, a gift to Alfred Barr and sold by his daughter, that went for almost twice its high estimate at $7.2m, with four bidders on the phone and three in the room, among them Pace gallery director Marc Glimcher and billionaire collector Adam Lindemann. Sam Francis' Summer #1 (1957), which graces the cover of the artist's catalogue raisonné, sold to Eli Broad for $10.35m (hammer), after he fended off four phone bidders.

Several lots with auction histories sold for well below what they had gone for in the past, chiefly Robert Rauschenberg's Red Body (1969), which sold for $993,000 at Sotheby's New York in 2008, but hammered for $650,000 last night. Jean-Michel Basquiat's yellow Onion Gum (1983) hammered for $5.9m last night, despite selling for $7.3m at Sotheby's New York in 2012. (Because of this or perhaps simply because it was below estimate, the room murmured when the hammer fell on Onion Gum last night.) Possibly sensing a bargain, Alberto Mugrabi bought an untitled work by Joan Mitchell from 1971 for $4.9m (hammer). At Christie's Paris in 2007, the work sold for $6.9m.

Then there was Zhang Xiaogang's Communist family portrait Bloodline: Big Family No. 1 (1994), which sold to an Asian buyer in the room for $4.2m (hammer), with just one other bidder on the phone.

The painting sold for almost twice that sum at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2011. Shortly after he bought the work the buyer, who declined to give his name, said he had not been aware of the price discrepancy when he bought the painting, minutes earlier. Asked if the news made him nervous about the painting holding its new value, the buyer waved away the question. "I like the painting," he said. "That's the best Zhang Xiaogang. That really is the best one."

"There's still plenty of money out there," said the dealer Emmanuel Di Donna, formerly worldwide vice-chairman of Impressionist and Modern art at Sotheby's. "It's just a matter of a readjustment." The top lots, he said, were not as strong, but the house had managed to smooth that out with guarantees, and put together a good sale with middle market lots.

Matthew Paris of White Cube gallery, said that he too was impressed with the sale that Sotheby's had managed to put together in this market. "Both them and Christie's last night," he said, "really went to war for these lots."

One bright spot in a series of auctions that showed much reduced market activity was a seemingly-new Japanese buyer on the international art scene. Yusaku Maezawa, the billionaire founder of the online fashion mall Zozotown, who last night bought Adrian Ghenie's Self Portrait as Vincent van Gogh (2012) for $2.6m and Christopher Wool's Untitled (1990) for $13.9m. Maezawa also revealed that he was the buyer of Jean-Michel Basquiat's 1982 canvas that sold for the top price at Christie's on Tuesday evening for $57.3m, as well as of Richard Prince's Runaway Nurse (2007) for $9.7m, both artists' records at auction. Maezawa runs the Contemporary Art Foundation in Tokyo.

• With additional reporting by Melanie Gerlis