Top Flops: 3 Works That Failed to Launch in New York’s Marquee May Sales

Why did massive, major works by key painters fail to find buyers last week?

Amid the auction action in New York last week, there were a few high-profile passes. Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images.

These days, auctions house executives leave little to chance when it comes to their closely watched evening sales. When a high-value work fails to generate interest in the pre-sale period, it has been known to quietly disappear: Better for it to cool off in storage than to fail in public, the thinking goes. And yet, there are usually still a few moments of high drama, even of genuine shock, when a big-ticket lot is brought to the block, only to fail to sell. Three examples follow below from last week’s major auctions of Modern and contemporary art in New York.

Looking for some good news? The Artnet Pro team also examined three lots that soared during the day sales last week.

Richard Diebenkorn
Ocean Park #126 (1984)

an image of an abstract painting with a blue square below yellow triangles and white strips

Photo courtesy Sotheby’s.

Auction: Sotheby’s Evening Contemporary Sale, May 13

Estimate:  $18 million to $25 million

Sold for: Unsold

This intriguing work, a prime example from Diebenkorn’s most famous series, may have returned  to the auction block too soon after its previous (stellar) appearance. At Christie’s New York in 2018, it went for a hefty $23.9 million on an estimate of $16 million to $20 million. This time around, the auctioneer opened the bidding around $13 million and after roughly a minute of muted, lackluster response from the auction room, it was passed.

—Eileen Kinsella

Frank Stella

Lettre sur les Sourds et Muets II (1974)

A square painting with concentric squares inside forming a sequence of colors in black, white, gray, yellow and red

Photo by Katya Kazakina.

Auction: Phillips Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 14

Estimate: $5 million to $7 million

Sold for: Unsold

Almost 12 feet tall and 12 feet wide, this square canvas was the largest painting by the legendary artist to come up for sale after his death earlier this month. So it was a shock when it failed to find a buyer. The work is part of Stella’s “Diderot” series, which builds upon his iconic “Concentric Square” format of 1962, according to the auction house. The bidding stalled at $3.8 million, with no interest in the room, on the phones, or online. Were there condition issues? Was this an example of a market pullback following an artist’s death, as an estate gets sorted out? Or was it just too big? I hear that while many people loved the work, getting it in a Park Avenue elevator was a different story.

—Katya Kazakina

Mark Tansey
Mont Sainte-Victoire #1, 1987

A photo of a red painting shows men bathing in water. Their reflections are those of women. The world around them is covered with scumble.

Photo courtesy Christie’s.

Auction: Christie’s 21st-Century Evening Sale, May 14

Estimate:  $8 million to $12 million

Sold for: Unsold

Christie’s billed this nearly 9-foot-wide, crisply detailed work as “the most important and ambitious painting of Mark Tansey’s career,” but that salesmanship was, alas, not enough to secure a buyer. Granted, even by Tansey’s standards, it is a riddle of an artwork, its composition divided horizontally at its center. Up top, men shed their military garb to bathe; below, the water contains reflections of women where the mens’ should be. Watching the action, off to the side, are figures that the auction house identified as the French theorists Jean Baudrillard, Roland Barthes, and Jacques Derrida. (Fun for the whole family!)

The pass was something of a surprise since there have been signs of life for top-flight Tanseys recently. His Triumph Over Mastery II (1987) sold from the collection of the late Emily Fisher Landau last November at Sotheby’s for a record $11.8 million, just below its $12 million top estimate with premium. In the same auction, a 1993 canvas went for a within-estimate (with premium) $4.5 million, his eighth-best result on the block. However, the heyday for the Tansey market was a decade ago. Seven of his 10 best results came between 2010 and 2015.

Tansey’s painstakingly slow process yields only about one painting every two years or so, and since 2011, he has had a grand total of three exhibitions, all at the Gagosian Gallery. He has also been collected extensively by museums. So, if you are a Tansey fan, there is a quite limited supply of material available. Was that $8 million estimate just a touch too high for you? Give Christie’s a ring. Make an offer.

—Andrew Russeth

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