By the Numbers: A Breakdown of Results From Sotheby’s ‘The Now’ and Contemporary Evening Auctions, May 2023

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A head-spinning, high-variance spring auction cycle had its finale on the Upper East Side on Thursday night, as Sotheby’s held the latest editions of its The Now and Contemporary evening sales back-to-back. Just 24 hours after Christie’s and Phillips’s dueling sales produced relatively uninspiring results—and 48 hours after the uneven performance of Sotheby’s own Mo Ostin and Modern evening auctions—there was a sense in the salesroom that anything could happen. 

It turned out that a little bit of everything did by the time the night was over. Below, the key data from the double-header. 

“The Now” Evening Sale:  

  • Total Sales After Fees: $37.2 million
     
  • Lots Sold (Including Guaranteed Lots): 19
     
  • Lots on Offer Before Withdrawals: 25
     
  • Lots Withdrawn: 2
     
  • Lots Bought In: 4
     
  • Sell-through Rate Counting Withdrawals: 76 percent
     
  • Sell-through Rate Excluding Withdrawals: 82.6 percent
     
  • Hammer Total: $30.1 million
     
  • Presale Low Estimate Before Withdrawals: $42.4 million
     
  • Hammer Total vs. Presale Low Estimate:  –$12.3 million
     
  • Total Low Estimate of Withdrawn Lots: $13.2 million (31.1 percent of total presale low estimate)
     
  • Total Low Estimate of Guaranteed Lots: $10.5 million (24.6 percent of total presale low estimate)
     
  • Lots With House Guarantees: 7
     
  • Total Low Estimate of Third-Party Guaranteed Lots: $14.5 million (34.1 percent of total presale low estimate)
     
  • Lots with Third-Party Guarantees: 8
     
  • Top seller: Kerry James Marshall’s Untitled (Mask Boy), hammered at $4.7 million ($5.7 million after fees)
     
  • Lasting Memory: When auctioneer Michael Macaulay announced that Yoshitomo Nara’s Haze Days (1998), the cover lot of “The Now,” had been withdrawn from the evening’s proceedings, something between surprise, concern, and maybe even a little schadenfreude was perceptible in the wave of murmurs (and even a few audible gasps) that erupted from the crowd. No wonder: the painting’s removal instantly vaporized an estimated $12 million to $18 million from an auction that Sotheby’s anticipated would make at least $42.4 million presale.
Yoshitomo Nara, Haze Days (1998). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Yoshitomo Nara, (1998). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

While the specter of the unexpected was most certainly in the salesroom before The Now kicked off, it took on a darker cast during the intermission. A strong showing from the opening lot of the Contemporary frame exorcised some of the tension, as David Hockney’s Drawing of a Pool and a Towel hammered $1 million above its high estimate of $1.5 million. The greatest relief came from Sotheby’s ability to find buyers for all five of the works in the sale estimated to sell for $10 million or more—though two hammered beneath their low expectation, and none of the other three exceeded their high estimate.  

Five withdrawn lots, all anticipated to go for at least $1 million, contributed to the Contemporary sale’s failure to launch. (One has to wonder how many of those withdrawals were finalized by calls or texts to consignors during the roughly 15 minutes between auctions.) But Sotheby’s specialists kept disaster at bay by selling all 28 of the other lots on the call sheet. 

Here’s how the data shook out… 

Contemporary Evening Sale
 

  • Total Sales After Fees: $167.5 million
     
  • Lots sold (Including Guaranteed Lots): 27
     
  • Lots on Offer Before Withdrawals: 32
     
  • Lots Withdrawn: 5
     
  • Lots Bought In: 0
     
  • Sell-through Rate Counting Withdrawals: 84.4 percent
     
  • Sell-through Rate Excluding Withdrawals: 100 percent
     
  • Hammer Total: $145.8 million
     
  • Presale Low Estimate Before Withdrawals: $154.9 million
     
  • Hammer Total vs. Presale Low Estimate:  –$9.1 million
     
  • Total Low Estimate of Withdrawn Lots: $15 million (9.6 percent of total presale low estimate)
     
  • Total Low Estimate of Guaranteed Lots: $92.1 million (59.5 percent of total presale low estimate)
     
  • Lots With House Guarantees: 13
     
  • Total Low Estimate of Third-Party Guaranteed Lots: $111.1 million (71.7 percent of total presale low estimate)
     
  • Lots with Third-Party Guarantees: 13
     
  • Top seller: Louise Bourgeois’s Spider (1996), hammered at its $30 million low estimate (and rose to $32.8 million after fees)
     
  • Quote of the Night: “It felt real tonight,” David Galperin, Sotheby’s senior vice president and head of contemporary art, said of the evening’s selectively spirited bidding.  

 

Next sale up: Mercifully, none. Let’s all try to get some sleep, no?  

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