The Back Room: Buyer’s Choice

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This week in the Back Room: inside the collecting mind, a gossip hound’s how-to guide, a very Lalanne toast to the weekend, and more—all in a 7-minute read (1,973 words).

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Top of the Market

Decision Trees

Max Dolgicer at the Yayoi Kusama opening at David Zwirner gallery on May 11, 2023. Courtesy: Max Dolgicer

It’s been a head-spinning week in New York, with nearly $1.5 billion (after fees) changing hands by the conclusion of the marquee evening auctions at the Big Three houses last night, and millions more dollars worth of art trades at Frieze and satellite events around the city. Galleries and museums also coordinated their openings, dinners, and galas to capitalize on the influx of big spenders into the Big Apple.

We’ll do a deep dive into the flurry of auction action in this space next week. But while we’re still in the midst of the fairs-and-gavels gauntlet, let’s talk about the psychology and strategies informing the buyers who will have the final say as to how this month of market madness shakes out for the sell side.

For her column this week, Katya Kazakina caught up with several top collectors, including a Greek shipping magnate and a MoMA trustee, about how they budget their time and money during the semi-annual feeding frenzy. Here are their tips for navigating sales season.

1. Don’t pull the trigger too early.

Someone might be showing an artist on your “buy” list at Independent, but the gallery could be saving better inventory for their Frieze booth. If you’re taking an even longer view of your art budget, don’t forget that the motherlode will be offered at Art Basel, which is just around the corner in June.

“I wouldn’t buy anything that’s less than great because I have expectations for Basel,” MoMA trustee and collector Lonti Ebers said.

2. But be decisive if the price is right.

Don’t dither around if you see something good that is comfortably in your budget. If you were after the $6,000 hot-ticket ceramic sculptures by Magalie Guerin at Independent last week, you had to be on the Corbett vs. Dempsey booth within 30 minutes of opening to secure the displayed pieces. Ebers snapped one up, along with an under $30,000 Surrealist canvas by Gina Litherland, on site—knowing full well that those objects may not be there the next day.

3. For the most popular artists, shop the auctions.

Primary prices for popular artists have risen into the stratosphere due to the tight hold on supply. So if any of the hot names from the top galleries appear at auction, even with competition, you could find yourself securing a better deal. “You might get lucky and buy something cheaper at auction,” than at the gallery, Max Dolciger said. Just take the George Condo painting on offer at the S.I. Newhouse sale last week that fetched $2.7 million, factoring in the sizable fees tacked onto the hammer price by the auctioneer. Prices at his most recent show at Hauser and Wirth ranged from $2.8 million to $3.6 million.

4. Make contingency plans.

We don’t always get what we want, especially when it comes to auctions, where the setting can cause even the most even-keeled millionaires to bid irrationally. So aside from knowing your limits, think about building out your decision tree for various contingencies. If you win your first choice bid, you may need to rein in your spending for the rest of the season. Maybe you need to make room in your collection for the new acquisition by getting rid of inferior works. And if you don’t win your prize, do you know where you want to spend that cash instead?

Collector Alexander Di Persia planned to bid for the aforementioned Condo painting at Christie’s. “If I get the Condo, then I am out,” he told Katya before the auction. He ended up missing out on the winning bid but that meant he freed up the budget to acquire his first work by Alexander Calder (he already had two Condos anyway).

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The Bottom Line

If the elaborate scheduling, scheming, and maneuvering of this crop of top-tier collectors is anything to go by, it would seem that buyers felt spoiled for choice this season in New York.

And if you weren’t looking closely, the impressive total raked in across the houses would appear to confirm that suspicion. The noise of the hammer coming down repeatedly this spring helped drown out any foreboding intonations about the uncertain economic environment.

But boots on the ground at Frieze heard collectors grumbling about how primary-market prices have not yet caught up with economic reality, and more collectors said they were looking to the auctions for the prospect of getting artworks at a fair value. It would seem that if galleries hope to remain competitive, they might need to keep a closer eye on collectors’ sentiments, especially with regard to pricing.

And as for the auctions, everything started off well with the hammer totals in Christie’s S.I. Newhouse and 20th-century and 21st evening sales landing above the presale low estimate (even with withdrawals factored in). But things started to take a turn as the week progressed at Sotheby’s, where the Mo Ostin collection just scraped over the low estimate, and the Modern evening sale hammered $32.5 million below the presale low estimate.

Then Christie’s sale of the Gerald Fineberg collection fell short of presale estimates, as did Phillips with its 20th-century and contemporary sale. Sotheby’s continued the trend in its The Now and contemporary double-header last night.All that happened despite the houses stuffing the sales and inflating estimates to try and make up for the dearth in supply of mega-trophy works.

The signs seem to indicate that we’re beginning to see a contraction in the market, but we’ll get into that more fully in next week’s Back Room.

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Paint Drippings

In lieu of Wet Paint this week, our columnist offers a list of tricks she’s learned while on the art gossip beat over the years, including the back entrance to parties at the Whitney and how to maneuver Art Basel Miami Beach

Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…

 

Art Fairs

  • Frieze is back in New York in a big way—and so were the sales on opening day, according to dealers and collectors in the mix at the Shed. (Artnet News)
  • At Taipei Dangdai, ongoing tensions with China impacted attendance, and sales were slower off the mark than at competing Asian fairs. (Artnet News)
  • Arcual will have a booth in the Collector’s Lounge at Art Basel in June, where the blockchain-based platform for art transactions and Art Basel partner will present an artwork commission by the artist Phoebe Cumming. ()

 

Auction Houses

 

Galleries

  • Painter Joe Bradley has officially joined the stable at mega-gallery David Zwirner. The move comes just two years after Bradley left Petzel for Gagosian. ()
  • Sprüth Magers has taken on representation of 2023 Guggenheim fellowMartine Syms, who will also continue to be represented by Sadie Coles HQ in London and Bridget Donahue in New York; while Heidi Hahn brings her “spectral figurative paintings,” to Mitchell-Innes & Nash, which now represents the artist. ()
  • Ortuzar Projects is doubling its square footage by opening a new location next to its existing space in Tribeca this fall. First up: an exhibition of works by the late, great Ernie Barnes curated by Derrais Carter. ()

 

Institutions

  • The University of Oxford, including the Ashmolean Museum, will be taking the Sackler family name off its buildings, spaces, and staff positions. Two galleries at the museum previously bore Sackler branding.  (Artnet News)
  • The Warhol Museum has named Aaron Levi Garvey as its new chief curator. ()
  • The Australian government will launch an investigation into recent allegations that white employees at Aboriginal art center Tjala Arts have interfered in the work of Indigenous artists. (Artnet News)

 

Tech and Legal News

  • High profile art advisor Lisa Schiff has been hit with a lawsuit by two clients alleging that she owes them $1.8 million related to the sale of a painting by Adrian Ghenie. The complaint contends that Schiff has been operating a Ponzi scheme, and the ensuing scandal has apparently led her firm, Schiff Fine Art advisory, to shutter. (Artnet News, )
  • Two professional photographers have won early victories in a pair of ongoing lawsuits accusing appropriation artist Richard Prince of copyright infringment. A U.S. federal judge ruled that the lawsuits can proceed because the works at issue, part of the artist’s controversial “New Portraits” series, did not sufficiently modify the originals they appropriated to be protected as parody or satire. (Courthouse News)
  • José Viamonte de Sousa, has avoided a prison sentence due to the statute of limitations. The former director general of the private banking department at Banco Português de Negócios was convicted of fraud in connection with a $20 million art deal that happened more than 20 years ago. (Artnet News)

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“The most glaring thing to me is that several of the artists who were at the center of the most heated bidding wars in these same auctions five years ago have now become kind of solidly, boringly blue-chip to bidders. A Mark Bradford hammering $400,000 below its low estimate? A Rashid Johnson hammering right at its low estimate? Millionaires were practically punching each other in the mouth to pay above the high estimate for these artists in May 2018.”

—our own Tim Schneider, weighing in on the big takeaways from Christie’s 21st century evening sale in the Paper of Record. (New York Times

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Work of the Week

François-Xavier Lalanne’s

François-Xavier Lalanne, Sauterelle Bar (ca. 1974). Presented by Mennour.

François-Xavier Lalanne, (ca. 1974). Courtesy of Mennour.

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Date:          ca. 1974

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Seller:         Mennour

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Selling at:   TEFAF New York

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Fair dates:   May 12-16, 2023

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By this point in the onslaught of May, I think we could all use a strong drink. Apparently, Mennour agreed. Featured in the gallery’s TEFAF New York booth was an extremely rare, never-publicly-seen entry from the beloved series of functional animal sculptures that François-Xavier Lalanne began creating in 1964.

The enabling grasshopper of joins a menagerie that also includes a bull, a donkey, an ostrich, and a cat. Its wings open to reveal an oversized wet bar with storage space for an assortment of liquor, glassware, and whatever else a collector’s thirst might demand.

The work comes directly from the holdings of its original commissioner, according to Mennour. But, as my colleague Lee Carter noted in his highlight reel of special objects at TEFAF, the provenance gets even more illustrious:

“Only two other are known to exist, both featuring Sèvres white porcelain—one is in the collection of the late Queen Elizabeth II (a gift from French president Georges Pompidou, namesake of the Pompidou Centre) and currently on display at Buckingham Palace, while the other is in a private collection.”

This particular is also a relative bargain; a patinated bronze hippopotamus bar by Lalanne (which also came to market from the original owner) just sold for $7.6 million in Christie’s 20th century evening sale on May 11. So if anyone wants to jump on this opportunity, feel free to use a little of the $100,000 you saved by ordering the Back Room crew a cocktail (or four).

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Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.

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