By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Watching the marquee spring evening sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York was like crossing a rope bridge in an action film: The fear of collapse yielded to the relief of avoiding the abyss.
The shakiest moments came during Sotheby’s Impressionist and modern sale on May 5, when Pablo Picasso’s 1938 portrait of his toddler daughter and a 1959 bronze of Alberto Giacometti’s Le Chat (each estimated at $16–24 million) went unsold. Though a Mondrian earned $9.2 million (est. $3–5 million) and Tamara de Lempicka’s 1932 Portrait de Marjorie Ferry fetched $4.9 million, a record for the artist, the missteps in the 36-lot auction contributed to the 58.8 percent sold-by-value figure and the $61.4 million total, well below the expected $81.5–118.8 million.Sotheby’s bad night followed a day in which Standard & Poor’s reduced the public company’s credit rating to junk status, citing the slumping market and other factors.
Many artists who headlined the Sotheby’s sale ranked in the top 10 lots at Christie’s Impressionist and modern auction on May 6. Picasso’s 1968 Mousquetaire a la Pipe, garnered $14.6 million (est. $12–18 million), Giacometti’s Buste de Diego (Stele III), which dates to 1957–58, earned $7.7 million (est. $4.5–6.5 million), and De Lempicka broke her day-old record when another 1932 painting, Portrait de Madame M., sold for $6.1 million (est. $6–8 million). Ten of the 48 lots failed to sell; the $102.7 million total landed within the $87.6–125.2 million estimate.
Sotheby’s performed better at its 49-lot contemporary sale on May 12 but missed its $51.8 million low estimate by $4.8 million. The cover lot, Martin Kippenberger’s 1988 Untitled, went for $4.1 million (est. $3.5–4.5 million), becoming one of four auction records for artists set that night. Alexander Calder’s 1934 Ebony Sticks in Semicircle made $3.4 million (est. $1–1.5 million). Jeff Koons’ Baroque Egg With Bow (Turquoise/Magenta), from his 1994–2008 Celebration series, was the evening’s top lot despite drawing a below-estimate $5.4 million (est. $6–8 million), and an untitled 1991 Robert Gober sculpture (est. $2.5–3.5 million) went unclaimed.
Christie’s completed the quartet on May 13 with its postwar and contemporary evening sale, setting a new auction record for David Hockney, whose 1966–67 canvas Beverly Hills Housewife collected $7.9 million (est. $6–10 million). An untitled Calder wall relief from 1943 fetched $2.8 million (est. $1.2–1.8 million), and Richard Diebenkorn’s 1979 canvas Ocean Park No. 117 commanded $6.6 million (est. $4–6 million). The 54-lot auction totaled $93.7 million on a $71–104 million estimate.
Mike Moses of the Mei Moses Fine Art Index sees reasons to hang on. He explains that in terms of percentages of works sold, average prices paid and similar aspects, the May 2009 sales resembled those of 2004. “It’s not like 2007,” he says, “but it’s good in this environment.”