LiveArt After Action Report: Modern Art Evening Sale (Sotheby’s New York)

Results from the Modern Evening Sale at Sotheby's New York, in which half of the sale’s lots were covered by IBs

The Bullet: $408,458,200 with 88% sold (51/58) with a hammer ratio of 1.05

Composition of Results: 24% above/ 38% within/ 38% below estimates 

The average price of a lot in tonight’s sale was $5.99m and the median price was $2.4m. To see more stats from tonight, click here.

Tuesday Evening Coming Down: There comes a time in every market cycle when the expectations of sellers begin to exceed the interest of buyers. Tonight’s sale, even though it was the second highest sale for the Modern category and the third highest total for the auction house ever, felt like one of those sales. At the very top, Monet’s Venetian scene and Picasso’s Femme nue couchée sold for $56.6 million and $67.5 million respectively. Neither attracted much bidding. Sotheby’s had taken a third-party guarantee for the Monet. A similar work had sold in 2015 for $35 million, so the whisper number of $50 million had already priced in most of the run up in the Monet market. 

Monet agonistes: Three Monets were offered tonight. A winter scene owned somewhat inexplicably by a Tahitian collector (he also sold a Gauguin that made $8.9 million which reflected a hammer price $2.5 million more than the estimate) was sold when the irrevocable bidder seemed to be outbid to make $6.26 million. Les Arceaux de roses, Giverny which sold at Sotheby’s in 2017 for $19.4 million was sold again to an Asian guarantor for $23.3 million which means the work missed out on the substantial gains in the Monet market over the last half decade.  

De Kooning redux: Although the top of the market struggled, there were a number of works that did much better than expected. They included a record set for Milton Avery when The Letter made $6 million; Leonora Carrington’s The Garden of Paracelsus which sold for an impressive $3.25 million, also a record; and after the Macklowe de Kooning from 1961 surpassed expectations the night before, Leaves in Weehawken, a work on paper from 1958, got legs. Former Sotheby’s specialist Anthony Grant looked like he was in the right place at the right time until a slew of telephone bidders worked the abstract painting up to an $8.5 million hammer price or $10.09 million with fees. 

Half of the sale’s lots were covered by irrevocable bids: Sotheby’s financial management is remarkably conservative. Before the sale had started, the house had locked in irrevocable bids on 30 lots with a combined low estimate of $183.7 million. They ranged from a $50 million Monet to a $30 million Cézanne to $20 million Monet sold five years ago at the auction house (not to mention a $5 million Monet snow scene) to a $12 million Matisse. And that’s just the artists beginning with M. Locking in value is smart, especially after the success of the Macklowe sale. What was more surprising was the number of lots (6) with estimates below $1 million that had IBs and the number of lots (16) below $5 million with guarantees. 

Half of the $339.9 million pre-sale value was backed by IBs: To put those numbers in perspective, the $187.3 million is 54% of the $339.9 million pre-sale aggregate low estimate for Sotheby’s Modern Evening sale. 

Holy Toledo: The Toledo museum’s sale of three lots to raise money to diversify the collection looked touch and go at times. The museum locked in their gains with some irrevocable bids before the sale. They might have held their fire. The Cézanne ended up selling for $41.7 million. A prolonged bidding war for the Matisse finally got it to $15.3 million. Altogether the museum raised $59.66 million with a Renoir squeezed in that sold like an afterthought for $2.7 million.  That’s surely enough to accomplish their mission of building a collection that is more relevant, representative and inspiring to the community. 

Denial is not a river: There were great hopes for Philip Guston’s transitional abstract work The Nile, estimated at $20 million. The proceeds were earmarked for charity. That didn’t loosen the purse strings. A single bidder with a $16 million bid, $18 million with fees, won the lot. 

Some other notable sales were: A Modigliani portrait that sold for $17.5 million; a Giacometti Femme de Venise II that went to Asia for the same price; and two Jean Dubuffet works that sold very well: Les Trois Promeneuses made $3.5 million and Le Présent se change … made $4.5m. View the full results here.

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