Art Prices (and Mood) Inch Back Up

Oh the drama of auctions: the salesrooms packed with smartly dressed collectors; the tension of having to decide in seconds whether to drop another million dollars on an artwork or let it go; the steely smile of the auctioneer trying gently to squeeze another hundred thousand from bidders. And the final results of the last two weeks of Impressionist, modern and contemporary art auctions in New York, which saw the return of a surprising number of collectors, their wallets open, but only if the price was right.

Warhol's “200 One Dollar Bills” sold for $43.7
million at Sotheby's last week, more than
three times its high estimate.


“The numbers may not be the same as they were two years ago,” said Guy Bennett, a former co-head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s who is now a private dealer, “but confidence is back.”

Giacometti's “Falling Man” sold for $19.3
million at Sotheby's early this month.

And when it comes to auctions, confidence is everything. As soon as one person in the audience senses hesitancy, others sense it too. But when a collector is sure enough about an artwork to keep bidding, that kind of conviction becomes contagious.

The feel-good factor is one thing, the reality quite another. While prices for the best works seemed high and bidding was often deep, the volume of sales — nearly $600 million between the two companies — was vastly diminished from a year ago, when Sotheby’s and Christie’s sold a combined $729 million or two years ago when the market peaked at $1.6 billion. But the relief that prices are crawling back up was palpable.

“A year ago people were distracted and primarily assessing their own net worth,” said Marc Porter, president of Christie’s in the Americas. “Now that the worst of the financial crisis seems to be over, people are once again focusing on collecting.”
Last fall there was a sense of panic because nobody knew if prices had hit bottom, not just for art but for any asset, and even the richest collectors froze. This season was all about the estimates. “Ultimately that’s what provided buyers with the confidence to bid,” said Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of Sotheby’s contemporary art department, who added that for some artists, prices have dropped more than 40 percent from their high two years ago.

The deliberately low estimates became catnip for bidders. Or so it seemed when Warhol’s 1962 silkscreen painting “200 One Dollar Bills” incited a bidding war among five collectors and ultimately sold for a staggering $43.7 million (including Sotheby’s fees), more than three times its $12 million high estimate.

Would what proved to be the star of the last two weeks have made more at the peak of the market? No, said both Mr. Meyer and Mr. Porter. Mr. Meyer pointed out that during the boom, big money went for highly colorful images like a 1976 triptych by Francis Bacon ($86.3 million in May 2008) and a Rothko canvas, the 1950 “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose),” from the collection of the retired banker David Rockefeller ($72.8 million in 2007).

“Because this Warhol is black and white, it could have very well been overlooked at the height of the market,” Mr. Meyer said. “Although it is art-historically important, it takes a little knowledge to appreciate.”

It also took a sophisticated collector to realize that the 1962 image was rare and few like it come up for sale. Or to appreciate the luster of its provenance: it had once belonged to Robert C. Scull, the taxi tycoon who amassed a world-class collection of Pop and Minimalist art. When it was offered for sale at Sotheby’s in 1986, the year Mr. Scull died, Pauline Karpidas, a London collector, bought it for $385,000, then a record price for a Warhol at auction. Yet when she decided to sell it 23 years later, the high estimate of $12 million seemed cheap. And that enticed buyers.

Another perceived bargain was a Giacometti bronze, “L’Homme Qui Chavire” (or “Falling Man,” conceived in 1950) at Sotheby’s. A similar sculpture brought $18.5 million at Christie’s in 2007. The seller of this season’s work, S. I. Newhouse Jr., the publishing magnate who owns Condé Nast, bought it from a London gallery for more than $20 million. He spent a year trying to sell it privately through Gagosian and then Christie’s. Its price went from $22 million to $18 million, and Mr. Newhouse ended up consigning it to Sotheby’s, where it was estimated at $12 million tops. Six collectors, thinking it seemed cheap, bid it up and the sculpture wound up selling for $17.2 million, or $19.3 million, including Sotheby’s fees.

At Christie’s a group of paintings and drawings that were presents to the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who died in July, and his partner in life and work, John Cage, who died in 1992, were also priced low despite their celebrated past. Jasper Johns’s “Dancers on a Plane” (1980-81) brought $4.3 million (including fees), more than $2 million above its high estimate, and a drawing of clocks by Robert Rauschenberg made more than six times its high estimate, selling for $780,000 ($938,500 with fees).

“We had 10 to 15 active bidders on it,” Mr. Porter said. “I hadn’t seen that since the boom. It may have been lower priced, but nearly $1 million for a drawing is still real money for anybody.”

With art prices readily available at, collectors can easily do their homework. So if something appears too expensive, it often fails to sell without a bid. That was the case with “Brother Sausage,” a six-panel painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat at Christie’s that was estimated at $9 million to $12 million.

Of the two auction giants, Sotheby’s came out the winner this season in total sales because it had secured several prized properties and was able to price them conservatively. Its Impressionist and modern art sale featured a group of paintings that had belonged to the fabled Paris dealer Paul Durand-Ruel as well as works from Arthur M. Sackler, a leading collector who died in 1987.

But if any one artist dominated the auctions it was Warhol. Besides “200 One Dollar Bills,” several of his drawings made strong prices. And a 1965 self-portrait by the artist that was expected to bring a high of $1.5 million at Sotheby’s sold for $5.4 million ($6.1 million with fees) to Laurence Graff, the London jeweler.

Who bought “200 One Dollar Bills” remains a mystery. That element, guessing who is actually paying, is part of the magic of auctions. Officials at Sotheby’s and Christie’s said there were buyers from Russia and Asia — parts of the world that were barely represented six months ago — as well as the United States.

But only the auction house knows for sure who took home the $43.7 million Warhol. Some dealers said it might have been Steven A. Cohen, the hedge fund manager who collects contemporary art like Damien Hirst’s famous shark, or Philip Niarchos, the contemporary-art collector who is a member of the Greek shipping family. Others said it was a Russian oligarch like Roman Abramovich, who is said to have bought the $86.3 million Bacon triptych. Or maybe even Victor Pinchuk, the Ukrainian billionaire and contemporary art collector. And if it was Mr. Pinchuk, will “200 One Dollar Bills” be on view at his art foundation in Kiev?

Mr. Meyer’s lips were sealed.

* reprinted by permission from NY Times