A Major Withdrawal in Sotheby’s $205 Million Double-Header Underscores the Mixed Results of New York’s Spring Auction Season

A slew of withdrawals and a smattering of passed lots didn't manage to dampen spirits entirely at Sotheby's sales Thursday night, the last of the spring auction season in New York.

Yoshitomo Nara, Haze Days (1998). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

For market watchers anxious after Wednesday night’s underwhelming evening auctions at Christie’s and Phillips, Thursday night’s auctions at Sotheby’s brought modest relief, at best.

A slew of withdrawals and a smattering of passed lots clashed with a surplus of workmanlike sales—and, occasionally, some genuinely energetic bidding—at key points in the night’s festivities on York Avenue. Overall, the results lent credence to the notion of an art market in transition, if not correction.

The most unsettling surprise of the evening arrived early. In the first of Sotheby’s two back-to-back sales, The Now auction was effectively hobbled mid-sale by the withdrawal of its cover lot, Yoshitomo Nara’s Haze Days (1998), which had been estimated to sell for $12 million to $18 million.

The painting’s removal drew an intense wave of murmurs and even a few audible gasps from those in attendance, capping an uneasy run that saw two of the preceding three lots bought in. 

Another lot, an untitled Wade Guyton painting with a $1.2 million low expectation, was pulled later in the auction. Together, the pair carried a presale estimate of $13.2 million—almost one-third of Sotheby’s low estimate for the entire auction.

Four lots were bought in as well, the costliest being a monumental Laura Owens painting estimated to sell for at least $1.5 million; instead, it passed at $1.4 million.

This left the hammer total for The Now at $30.1 million, well below its aggregate presale tally of $42.4 million, and the premium-inclusive total of $37.2 million still nearly $5.2 million south of that figure. (Presale estimates exclude the buyer’s premium.)

Sotheby’s fared better in the Contemporary portion of the evening’s auctions, largely thanks to solid (or approaching solid) performances by the five lots carrying estimates of at least $10 million. The quintet hammered for a combined $96 million, barely below their collective $98 million low estimate. (After fees, the five works brought $106.4 million.)

The top seller was the hulking first cast of Louise Bourgeois’s Spider, which hammered at its $30 million low estimate (roughly $32.8 million with fees) after approximately 90 seconds of bidding. This arguably made Sotheby’s lighting of the sculpture in its galleries more dramatic than the competition in the salesroom. The winner was a phone bidder on the line with Sotheby’s executive vice president and chairman of the Americas Lisa Dennison.

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois Spider (1996) at Sotheby's. Photo by Eileen Kinsella

Installation view of Louise Bourgeois Spider (1996) at Sotheby’s. Photo by Eileen Kinsella

The second most valuable work of the evening was Jean Michel-Basquiat’s Now’s the Time (1985), a rare ovoid canvas mimicking a vinyl record and honoring jazz great Charlie Parker. Carrying an unpublished presale estimate in the region of $30 million, the work hammered for $25.5 million ($28.6 million including premium), just a handful of bids above its $23 million opening price. 

In total, the Contemporary evening sale generated a hammer total of $145.8 million, about $9.1 million below its $154.9 million presale low estimate. (Factoring in fees, cumulative sales were $167.5 million.) Five lots were withdrawn before they could mount the block, all of them expected to sell for at least $1 million. The remaining 28 lots all found buyers.

“The selectiveness of the market stood out,” said David Galperin, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of contemporary art, after the sale. “Where there were great works at the right price, there was incredible depth [of bidding].” 

Sotheby’s The Now and Contemporary evening sales marked the final offerings in a hectic spring auction cycle in New York. But unlike in some recent auction seasons, there are no simple conclusions to draw from the past two weeks.

At best, signals are mixed. But even if the long-anticipated art-market correction is in fact setting in, some experts thought the sales results indicated more a return to reality than impending gloom.

“Given the headwinds, I think the house did a commendable job of matching up interest levels with reserves and making the tough decision to withdraw lots that were unlikely to secure bids,” art advisor Benjamin Godsill said. “Now that we have exited the era of free money, I think more conservative estimates should (and will) be the order of the day going forward.”

Indeed, the sometimes-spirited bidding and uneven results had a silver lining: “It felt real tonight,” Galperin said.

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