Sotheby’s continues to inexplicably try to enhance the drama of its evening sale of Contemporary art by bathing the room in ballroom blue lights and running a video introduction to the event. The effort is inexplicable because last night’s saleroom was remarkably sparse with several empty sections of seats and a number of bidders seated in farther back than one might like to get the “excitement” going.
Sotheby’s sale didn’t need stage managing or borrowed drama from a set decorator. The tension was baked in almost six months ago when many in the industry were fretting over how to fill their all-important November sales. Sotheby’s faced a disadvantage as it continued to rebuild its team of specialists.
In the context of the Summer of 2016, acquiring the Ames collection with a $100m guarantee—populated as it was with works by Gerhard Richter whose market, especially his abstracts, seemed ready for a rest—seemed like an aggressive and risky move. Sotheby’s 2015 Q4 results had been marred by the firm’s failure to make commission on the huge Taubman sales. BID, the auction house’s stock, collapsed which opened the door to opportunistic and strategic investors. Taikang’s 13.5% stake in the company was, in many ways, a direct result.
So taking on Ames was no small risk. But the alternative was probably worse. Here’s one dealer summing it up for Dan Duray at The Art Newspaper:

“When they signed that collection in the summer it was very hard for the auction houses to get material,” the dealer David Nisinson said after the sale. “People were nervous and sellers didn’t know how the autumn was going to be, they didn’t want to take on the uncertainties: Brexit, the election, etcetera. They probably did a good deal and it guaranteed them a season because they could build around it.”

With 25 lots fronting the sale, the question of whether buyers would be there for the sale was more intense than the blue lights. True, Amy Cappellazzo and Adam Chinn’s team had worked the market to generate a sufficient number of irrevocable bids to backstop the sale. Merely getting out of the Ames collection alive wasn’t going to accomplish what Cappellazzo and Chinn came to Sotheby’s for.
In the end, they made a success of the Ames sale taking in $122.8m which helped get them to $276.6m in total for the evening. That figure is just $411,750 shy of Christie’s total for its Postwar and Contemporary Art evening sale. Sotheby’s has not been this close to Christie’s in its evening sale total since November of 2012. Sotheby’s hasn’t beaten Christie’s in a New York Contemporary Art evening sale for five years.
Considering that Daniel Loeb made lagging in Contemporary art sales a key point in his targeting of the firm, it is no small feat for Sotheby’s to have tied their arch-rivals. Others noticed. Here’s Artnews’s Nate Freeman:

“I thought it was terrific, a success across the board,” said dealer Robert Mnuchin[….] “Of course you need the material, but you also need to execute it well,” Mnuchin continued. “And this was a very well-executed sale.”

Key to the performance of the Ames collection was the renewed appetite for Gerhard Richter abstracts. You can read more about the tensions in that market here. Until this week, there was little evidence of sufficient demand to absorb all of the work on the market. The same is true of the Ames’s de Koonings.
Elsewhere in the sale, there were interesting pockets of information. A Twombly Bolsena drawing sold very well, reaching nearly $3m with fees, despite a slow start. Keith Haring’s self portrait went to David Zwirner for a bit more than the high estimate, coming in at $4.5m. A green Adolph Gottlieb surprised at $4m with several bidders.
During the sale of Njideka Akunyili Crosby’s Drown which reached $1.1m or nearly four times the high estimate, a specialist was was heard calmly informing a client: “What do you mean it doesn’t make any sense? I told you this was going to happen.” The client may be the last person to have learned about Crosby’s tight market and dealer’s policy of only selling to museums.
A Belgian collector sold a Warhol Lenin. That sale provided the only indication of life in the Warhol market. Even Sotheby’s well-orchestrated sale of a large fright wig painting for $20m failed to create a sense of urgency around the all-important Contemporary artist. The Lenin had been on the private market looking for something within the $4-6m estimate range. In the unexpected realm of auctions, the work ended up selling for $8.1m which sure put something like $2m more in the seller’s pocket than he might have gotten in a brokered sale.
Frank Stella’s Pratfall not only surprised the market—it was estimated at $3.5-4.5m with a guarantee and irrevocable bid but made $8.9m when it was all said and done—it also gave the seller a huge return. A heavily traded work, Pratfall has changed hands at auction five times in the last 20 years. Rather than make the work seem stale or over-shopped. The painting’s steady rise in value has made it a verifiable asset with enduring value.
The work was bought three years earlier at Christie’s for $2.85m which netted the consignor nearly $5m in three years. That’s a sharp contrast with the rise from $1.69m to $2.58m that the previous owner saw over a seven-year span. The Whitney’s recent career retrospective for Stella played a part no doubt.
With Pace Gallery holding a show of ‘dark’ Rothkos, it is worth noting that Sotheby’s was able to sell a dark-hued work on paper that it owned for the a price of $4.5m which was near the top of the estimate range.
With the David Hockney retrospective opening soon at the Tate, Sotheby’s was able to get a record price for the artist with his huge late Yorkshire landscape. Perhaps of more interest, though, was the bidding war that broke out for the tiny 1972 work on paper titled, Study for Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), that ultimately made $2.05m over a $1m high estimate.
Finally, the greatest mystery of the night was the guaranteed sale of Peter Brant’s Jean-Michel Basquiat multi-panel work. It had been offered in 2009 at Christie’s for a good deal less than its $15m low estimate. Sotheby’s secured an irrevocable bid on the work. Here’s Judd Tully on the sale and aftermath:

Graffiti of a different sort covers Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Brother’s Sausage,” a multi-panel work in acrylic, oilstick and paper collage on canvas from 1983, which sold to dealer Jose Mugrabi for $18,650,000 (est. $15-20 million).

“I’ve been looking at that painting for a long time,” said the veteran dealer as he hustled out of the salesroom, “and I’m very happy to get it.”

Though never before at auction, the huge 48-by-187 ½-inch composition has wended its way through the galleries most of Basquiat’s major dealers, including Mary Boone, Bruno Bischofberger, Tony Shafrazi and Enrico Navarra, and has been included in many museum exhibitions

The mystery is why the work would pass from one long-term market player to another long-term market player while passing through a public sale. From the price listed by Sotheby’s, it would appear that Mugrabi was the irrevocable bidder.
Finally, the ever-present question around the auctions is, What does this mean for the art market? Nate Freeman seems to have gotten into some kind of a debate over that issue with Oliver Barker at the press conference. To Freeman, any diminution in sales must be bad for the market:

Any amount of downward trend is discouraging for collectors, and can cause collectors to hold tightly to works they think will sell for more when this market contraction ends. (Thursday night did mark an improvement over the May contemporary sale at Sotheby’s, which pulled in $242.2 million, though that sale had only 42 lots.)

“In terms of the amounts of lots, supply has been an issue this year,” Barker told me when I followed up about how the market trouble can be “put to bed” if sale totals are going south year by year. “Some of our clients were concerned about the economy in China, so there has been a bit of a drought.”

“But the sell-through rate is fantastic, and I’m very bullish,” he went on. “I have a very positive outlook.”

Dealers seem to view it the other way. They welcome a ratcheting down of the sales volume. The New York Times’s reporting team got this final word:
“The sale went well with some hiccups,” said Thaddaeus Ropac, a dealer with galleries in Salzburg, Paris and London. “This is the sort of soft landing we wished for. There’s nothing frothy about the market. It’s serious and measured. It’s better like this.”