The Back Room: A Macro View of the Spring Auctions


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2. For Blue-Chip Standbys, the Auction (Mostly) Happens Before the Auction

The presale period is when the houses field third-party offers to assume the risk (and upside) of the guarantees they’ve made to consignors. Once those back-room competitions play out, there’s seldom much demand left for the salesroom anymore.

At Christie’s, solid (if not spectacular) works by Gerhard RichterChristopher Wool, and Richard Prince sold to their guarantors with no outside resistance—often well beneath their low estimates. (Katya Kazakina’s latest column dug into these works and others consigned to Christie’s by private equity titan Thompson Dean.) In total, 16 of the 39 works in the sale were guaranteed, and most were backed by third parties.

In Sotheby’s contemporary segment, a classic Cy Twombly “blackboard” painting barely crept within presale estimate range by hammering at $36 million on one bid to its backer. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Versus Medici hammered below its $50 million presale expectation. (Fees pushed it to $50.7 million.) Incidentally, nine of the 32 lots to reach the rostrum in this portion of the evening were guaranteed, with seven of the nine backed by third parties. (Two works were withdrawn presale, further reducing the drama.)

Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern sale, largely defined by uneven bidding and few fireworks, counted 14 guarantees—11 of which had third-party backing.

The point: Many works seen as reliable stores of value (but not much more) are likely to be more in demand behind the scenes than in front of them anymore. This week’s sales did little to dispel that notion.

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