Revealed: The Major Mystery Consignors of New York’s Multi-Billion-Dollar Fall Auction Season

Market conditions have changed considerably—but there are still plenty of trophies set to trade hands.

Jonas Wood, "Interior with Fireplace" (2012). Courtesy: Sotheby's.

What a difference a year makes. Same time last year, auction houses clocked in $3.2 billion in sales, their biggest tally for a single season thanks to the Paul Allen collection at Christie’s.

Now the market is in a contraction mode. Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips are offering art estimated at $1.9 billion to $2.6 billion at the bellwether auctions in New York. That’s roughly a 35-percent decline. 

The biggest collection of the season, sold by the estate of art patron Emily Fisher Landau, landed at Sotheby’s, estimated at about $400 million and backed with an even more aggressive guarantee.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Each house assumed a huge amount of risk to win consignments in a volatile economic and geopolitical environment, further exacerbated by the war in Israel. Now they are scrambling to offset the in-house guarantees to third-party investors, which will cut into potential revenue.

“This is a really big moment,” an auction executive said this week. “If we can survive these sales, it will set a positive tone for the next year. If not, 2024 is going to be ugly.”

The specter of cost-cutting and layoffs looms. Some big changes are already afoot: Jussi Pylkkanen, Christie’s top auctioneer and main man in Europe, is leaving the company after 30 years to become a private art adviser. (“Working for an auction house isn’t as fun as it used to be,” another executive told me this week. Especially when the market contracts.)

Still, there’s a lot of art to sell. Some sellers have been named: the estates of music executive Jerry Moss, Ghostbusters movie director Ivan Reitman, and philanthropist Chara Schreyer have contributed hundreds of lots. The Long Museum in China is selling a Kerry James Marshall, Jenny Saville, and Barkley Hendricks; the Langmatt Museum in Switzerland is deaccessioning some Cezannes. Discretionary consignors include billionaire David Geffen, whose Arshile Gorky painting is poised to reset the Surrealist artist’s market.

The Art Detective has uncovered several other noteworthy —and anonymous—sellers, who might have flown under the radar otherwise. Representatives for the auction houses declined to comment.

Why are they selling now? Discretionary sales in volatile times seem counterintuitive. On the other hand, plenty of exciting artworks are on the market at the moment, both publicly and privately. Some collectors are parting with works opportunistically to raise funds for other works they want to acquire. Others just want to upgrade their art holdings and need dry powder.

“Every collector buys, sells, prunes, and trades,” a major collector told me. “It’s just the way it is. If you own hundreds of works, it’s not a big deal.”

Dan Loeb

Gerhard Richter “Abstraktes Bild (636).” Courtesy: Phillips

Hedge fund manager Dan Loeb has kept a relatively low profile in the art world since helping take Sotheby’s private through a sale to billionaire Patrick Drahi. I hear he’s been recently selling privately. And now, at least two works from his collection are heading to auction.

Loeb’s Abstraktes Bild (636) (1987) by Gerhard Richter is the top lot at Phillips this month. The monumental work, comprising two adjacent canvases measuring 13 feet across and 8.5 feet tall, is estimated at $30 million. It’s guaranteed by the house.

The painting fetched $32 million at Sotheby’s in 2018. Loeb subsequently bought it in a private transaction for an undisclosed price.

In addition to the Richter, Loeb is also parting with a painting by Jonas Wood at Sotheby’s. Titled Interior with Fireplace, the large 2012 canvas was acquired shortly after it was made, according to Sotheby’s. It’s estimated at $2 million to $3 million.

Michael Ovitz

Julie Mehretu, “Walkers With the Dawn and Morning” (2008). Courtesy: Sotheby’s

A trustee of the Museum of Modern Art, Michael Ovitz is apparently pruning his massive art collection by consigning a group of paintings to “The Now” auction at Sotheby’s. All are guaranteed by the house and had been acquired directly from the galleries that represent the artists.

The top lot is Julie Mehretu’s spectacular Walkers With the Dawn and Morning (2008), estimated at $7 million to $10 million. Almost 8 feet tall and 12 feet wide, the painting could smash the artist’s auction record of $9.3 million established just a month ago in Hong Kong.

Other works sold by Ovitz include Marina Perez Samayo’s untitled 2022 painting, which is the first lot of the auction, estimated at $80,000 to $120,000; Loie Hollowell’s Full Frontal (Purple, Blue and Red), estimated at $700,000 to $1 million; and Neo Rauch’s monumental Zoll (2005), with the same estimate.

Steve Wynn

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955). © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955). © 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel & Christopher Rothko / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Earlier this year, Mark Rothko’s Untitled (Yellow, Orange, Yellow, Light Orange) (1955) was the star of Art Basel, where it was offered by Acquavella Galleries for $60 million. It didn’t sell. Now, it’s a star attraction at Christie’s which has estimated the painting at around $45 million.

The painting spent many years in the collection of Paul Mellon and was auctioned as part of his wife Bunny Mellon’s estate sale at Sotheby’s in 2014, where it fetched $36.6 million. At the time it was bought by the powerful Nahmad family of dealers. They showed it at art fairs and eventually sold it to mega art collector Steve Wynn for, reportedly, $50 million.

Will the $15-million reduction in asking price since June draw buyers? The artist’s blockbuster retrospective at the Fondation Louis Vuitton has certainly created momentum.

Gabriela and Ramiro Garza

John Currin, Nice 'n Easy (1999). Estimated at $12–$18 million. Courtesy Christie's.

John Currin, Nice ‘n Easy (1999). Courtesy Christie’s.

Gabriela and Ramiro Garza, who live between Mexico City and Aspen, are selling a gallery full of paintings, sculptures, and even a red mid-century couch. All are designated as “The Elegant Eye: Works from an Exceptional International Collection.”

The priciest among them is Cy Twombly’s Untitled (Bacchus 1st Version II) (2004), estimated at $18 million to $25 million. It was acquired from Gagosian gallery. Ditto a giant candy sculpture by Jeff Koons, Baroque Egg with Bow (Pink/Gold), estimated at $3 million to $5 million. Both works were included in the gallery’s 2008 show at the Red October Chocolate Factory in Moscow.

The couple is also selling John Currin’s painting of two nudes Nice ‘n Easy, which has traded quite a few times since its 1999 origin and accounts for the top two auction prices for the New York painter. Its most recent auction appearance was in 2016, when it was estimated at Estimated at $12 million to $18 million and fetched $12 million. The current estimate is $7 million to $10 million.


Barry Rosenstein

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (ca. 1959). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Joan Mitchell, Untitled (ca. 1959). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

The low-profile New York hedge fund manager Barry Rosenstein is parting with a stunning painting by Joan Mitchell, estimated at a whopping $25 million to $35 million and guaranteed by Christie’s.

The untitled 1959 canvas is 8 feet tall and 7 feet wide, but feels even more monumental thanks to the vortex of seductive, kaleidoscopic brushstrokes. It’s been in the same collection since 2005, according to Christie’s provenance.

The Abstract Expressionist painter’s auction record of $16.6 million was achieved in 2018. “The market wanted the next painting to be sold at $20 million,” an auction executive said. “But they probably couldn’t shake it loose” at that level.

The painting is one of two competing Mitchells up for sale. At Sotheby’s, art dealer John Cheim is selling his private collection, led by a massive, two-panel late work, Sunflowers (1990-1991), estimated at more than $20 million.

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