Sotheby’s Stellar $380 Million Evening Contemporary Sale Not Without A Few Bumps

Amid spirited bidding, buyers balk on a few key lots.

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Roy Lichtenstein, The Ring (Engagement) (1962).
(Estimate: in the region of $50 million).
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Yellow and Blue) (1954).
(Estimate: $40–60 million)
Photo: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Gerhard Richter, Abstraktes Bild (1992).
(Estimate: in the region of $30 million)
Image: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Sigmar Polke, Dschungel (1967).
(Estimate: in the region of $20 million) Image: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Jackson Pollock, Number 12 (1950).
(Estimate: $15–20 million) Image: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Christopher Wool, Untitled (Riot)(1990)
(Estimate: $12–18 million)
Image: Courtesy Sotheby's.
Andy Warhol, Mao (1973).
(Estimate: $13–16 million). Image: Courtesy Sotheby's.

On the heels of Christie’s jaw-dropping hybrid sale of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art on Monday, Sotheby’s continued the momentum of this year’s spring auction season with its evening sale of contemporary art that realized $379.7 million, surpassing the presale expectation of upwards of $320 million.

In a mostly upbeat, energetic night, the weak spots involved uneven bidding at the high end. While bidding activity took off on some eight-figure lots, where competition was fierce, demand seemed to flag on others, indicating that perhaps asking prices on at least a few of these lots were set too high.

Of 63 lots on offer (two were withdrawn), 55, or 87 percent, were sold. By value, the sale was 94.6 percent sold (see $179 Million Picasso Sets Stratospheric Record at Christie’s $705.9 Million Sale and Mysterious Asian Buyer Causes Sensation at Sotheby’s $368 Million Impressionist Sale).

Among the evening’s economic triumphs was a new record set for Christopher Wool’s massive 1990 enamel on aluminum work entitled, Riot, which set a new record of $29.9 million—surpassing Christie’s November 2013 record for Apocalypse Now (1988), at $26.5 million.

Riot sparked competition from power dealers Larry Gagosian and Philippe Ségalot, both seated in the sale room and communicating with their respective clients via cell phone, though neither was the winning bidder. At $16.5 million, the bidding crept higher and higher, and ended after somewhat exhaustive competition on a hammer price of $26.5 million, to a Sotheby’s specialist bidding on behalf of a client.

The story was much the same for a vivid Sigmar Polke painting, titled, Jungle (1967). With an asking price around $20 million, bidding was opened at $15 million, and quickly leapt to a hammer price of $24 million. The new premium inclusive record of $27 million roughly tripled the previous $9.2 million record for Polke.

Other records that were set tonight included for artists Danh Vō, Thomas Struth, and Helen Frankenthaler.

On the top lots in this sale, bidding was thin to the point of just one or two competitors in action, and auctioneer Oliver Barker seemed to be—albeit with his signature skillful style—trying to coax additional bids from buyers who clearly could not be swayed.

This was the case for the evening’s highlight, Roy Lichtenstein’s The Ring (Engagement) (1962), which was being offered with a price “in the region of $50 million,” and had a guarantee from the auction house (see Sotheby’s to Offer Pristine Roy Lichtenstein Painting for $50 Million and 10 Ways Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips Are Promoting Their Top Works.)

If the oil painting had gotten anywhere near the $50 million region it stood a chance of breaking the current record for a work by Lichtenstein— $56.3 million, paid for the 1963 painting Woman with Flowered Hat, executed in a Picasso-esque style and sold at Christie’s New York in May 2013. Barker opened the bidding at $31 million. With seemingly minimal competition it sold on a phone bid to Patti Wong, Sotheby’s chairman of Asia, who was bidding for a private Asian buyer. The hammer price was $37 million, but including premium, the final price stands at $41.7 million.

Since the work carried a guarantee—an undisclosed minimum price that the house agrees to pay to a consignor regardless of how the work performs at auction—it raises the question of whether Sotheby’s actually lost money on the lot, since the hammer price was below the estimate.

The story was much the same for Mark Rothko’s painting, Untitled (Yellow and Blue) (1954), which had an estimate of $40–60 million. As with the previous lot, bidding opened at $31 million and was steady and solid, but there was clearly resistance as the price approached the low estimate. It was something of a surprise when Wong’s phone bidder got to $41 million, but then opted out at the next highest bid of $41,250,000.  Lacking any further competition, it sold to another Sotheby’s specialist for a premium inclusive final price of $46.45 million.

For another Asian client, Wong won Gerhard Richter’s Abstraktes Bild (1992), which carried an unpublished estimate in the region of $30 million. Bidding started at $21 million, and the hammer fell at $25 million. With premium, the final price was $28.25 million.

The Richter sale reflects how much the market for his work has soared in the past decade alone. The work was last offered at auction at Sotheby’s in November 2010, where it sold for $11.3 million on an estimate of $5.5–7.5 million. Prior to that, the work was offered for sale at Christie’s in May 2005, where it sold for $1.2 million on an estimate of $1–1.5 million—a mere fraction of today’s price.

The sale started off with a bang, albeit on lower-priced works, including two that were part of a group donated by artists and sold to benefit the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA). The volley of bids was so intense that Barker had trouble keeping up. These included Mark Bradford’s mixed media and collage on canvas, titled, Smear (2015), which opened at $200,000. The estimate was $500—700,000 and it soared to a record final price of $4.4 million. Mark Grotjahn’s eye-catching Untitled (Into and Behind the Green Eyes of the Tiger Monkey Face 43.18) (2011), was estimated at $2—3 million and sold for $6,522,000—eclipsing the previous record for the artist by just $12,000. The eight works sold to benefit MOCA raised a total of $15.9 million.


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