Even a Prize-Winning Ferrari Couldn’t Add Much Zip to Sotheby’s Lethargic $310 Million Contemporary Sale

A painting by Laura Owens provided rare sizzle, torching her previous auction high.

Francis Bacon's Three Studies of George Dyer (1966). Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

In what could only be an anticlimactic end to a New York auction season dominated by Christie’s colossal sale of the $450.3 million “last Leonardo” on Wednesday, Sotheby’s soldiered through the week’s final megawatt event respectably, though without much spark.

The night before, Christie’s bucked convention by shoehorning the Renaissance showstopper into its contemporary art sale, and Sotheby’s followed suit, in a way, lumping a 2001 Ferrari in along with its Bacon and Warhol. It was the race car that Michael Schumacher drove to victory in the Monaco Grand Prix that same year. “It’s another great Italian export,” quipped auctioneer Oliver Barker, mischievously—and ill-advisedly—putting it in competition with the record-obliterating Leonardo. The automobile, serving as much as anything to advertise the house’s cars division (yes, they have a cars division), was guaranteed to sell and did indeed, overshooting its $5.5 million high estimate to fetch $7.5 million. Even at that modest price point, it made the evening’s top-10 list.

The 2001 Ferrari. Courtesy Sotheby's.

The 2001 Ferrari. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Overall, the sale brought in a solid total of $310.3 million, with just three lots unsold out of the 72 offered. The auction had been estimated to bring in anywhere from $250.5 to $343.5 million. Presale estimates predict hammer prices, which do not include the house’s fees, whereas sales totals do; Thursday’s hammer total was $267.4 million, so near the low end of the range. Last year’s contemporary sale realized $276.6 million with fees. At a post-sale press conference, the house’s head of contemporary art for New York, Grégoire Billaut, pointed out—perhaps a little defensively—that the final haul fell not too far short of the total of Christie’s actual contemporary-art sales from the night before. (The logic is less impressive when you realize it would also negate the Ferrari.)

“It’s the end of a long and busy week,” sighed Paris dealer Christian Ogier on his way out of the salesroom, adding that the high number of lots bearing presale guarantees—some 44 lots, 34 of those via irrevocable bids by third parties—made the auction feel too “choreographed,” he said, “which makes people uneasy.”

Francis Bacon's Three Studies of George Dyer (1966). Photo courtesy of Sotheby's.

Francis Bacon’s Three Studies of George Dyer (1966). Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The night’s top lot, a Francis Bacon, sold on a single bid—perhaps a symptom of buyers being tapped-out  at the highest level at week’s end. Estimated at up to $45 million, Three Studies of George Dyer (1966) fetched $38.6 million from a phone bidder via the house’s head of contemporary art for Europe, Alexander Branczik. The sale came just a few weeks after the dramatic failure at Christie’s London of the artist’s Study of Red Pope (1962), which had been touted to sell for up to about $80 million and was meant to be the star lot of the auction house’s Frieze week sale.

Andy Warhol's <i>Mao</> (1972). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Andy Warhol’s Mao (1972). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

In the past, Andy Warhol’s portraits of Mao Tse Tung have brought as much as $47.5 million (at Sotheby’s New York in November 2015, to be precise); standing nearly seven feet tall, the 1972 example on offer Thursday was estimated at up to $40 million and sold for $32.4 million, also to an anonymous buyer via Branczik, becoming the night’s second-priciest lot. It hails from Warhol’s first set of 11 Mao canvases, the others of which hang in major institutions.

Roy Lichtenstein, <i>Female Head</i> (1977). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Roy Lichtenstein, Female Head (1977). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Among the night’s top lots were also Roy Lichtenstein’s Female Head (1972), which garnered $24.5 million from a phone bidder courtesy of specialist Bame Fierro March, and a Louise Bourgeois sculpture, Spider IV (conceived in 1966, cast in 1997), which won $14.7 million via the telephone, courtesy of Sotheby’s CEO for Asia, Kevin Ching. Another top-estimated lot, Jean Dubuffet’s Maison Fondée (1961), failed to sell against a high estimate of $18 million.

Jean-Michel Basquiat's <i>Cabra</i> (1981-82). ©2017 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/ARS.

Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Cabra (1981-82). ©2017 The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ADAGP, Paris/ARS.

Meanwhile, a canvas by market titan Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cabra (1981-82), had a lot going for it. For instance, the year 1982 is associated with all of the artist’s top prices; not only that, the painting was being sold by Yoko Ono, who bought it from New York dealer Tony Shafrazi. Still, the canvas squeaked by its low estimate of $9 million to hammer at just $9.5 million (or $11 million with fees). The five-foot-square work depicts a bull’s skull, in reference to Muhammad Ali’s victorious fight against Oscar “the Bull” Bonavena; the title, Spanish for “goat,” is also a clever tribute to Ali’s status as Greatest of All Time.

Laura Owens's untitled painting (2012). Courtesy Sotheby's.

Laura Owens’s untitled painting (2012). Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Works by women, especially young women, provided some of the night’s most frenzied contests.

Among them was the Los Angeles painter Laura Owens, subject of a current mid-career retrospective at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. An untitled painting from 2012 elicited ecstatic bidding, leading to a four-minute contest that ended with a $1.76 million bid from an anonymous phone buyer via no less a proxy than Lisa Dennison, the house’s chairman for North and South America. The high estimate had been just $300,000. The final price demolished her previous auction record of $360,500, set one year ago at the same house. It took just 60 seconds of bidding before Dennison volunteered a whopping $900,000, up from $120,000, where Barker opened the bidding.

It was one of the evening’s few moments of real excitement, along with the spirited pursuit of the Lynette Yiadom-Boakye painting that followed it, which went to a phone bidder pursuing the piece via senior director James Mackie for $1.6 million, racing past a high estimate of $350,000.

In the end, and unavoidably, Christie’s mega-sale proved a tough act to follow. As Miami collector Mera Rubell put it after the sale, “The car did not beat the Leonardo.”

UPDATE: This article previously stated that Laura Owens was making her debut at a major New York evening sale. In fact, one of her paintings had sold at in an evening auction at Christie’s New York in November 2002.

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