Mixed results for the first part of the Taubman sales

[10 Nov 2015]


The room was packed for this historic sale and the atmosphere was electric…at least, at the start of the bidding, which often lost its momentum somewhat prematurely, leading to a certain amount of anxiety. In short, although the sale did not live up to expectations, the end result was honourable..

On Wednesday 4 November in New York, Sotheby’s entire team was dressed to the nines with bow ties and evening dresses to sell the 77 Modern and Contemporary masterpieces offered in the first session of four sales dedicated to Alfred A. Taubman’s collection, one of America’s most sumptuous private art collections.

Results and guarantees, the financial stakes…

The stakes were high, Sotheby’s having clearly invested heavily in the sale with a catalogue of almost 400 pages for the 77 lots offered on Wednesday. However that was only the icing; the main investment is Sotheby’s mammoth guarantee of $500 million, by far the largest guarantee ever made in auction history!
The American sales company – also a publicly traded company – has therefore made a huge financial commitment to the vendors (Taubman’s heirs) and must sell more than $500 million worth of works (in the four sessions) to avoid a call on its own resources. Guaranteeing a global sum from an auction sale is indeed unprecedented… but Sotheby’s could not afford to miss the opportunity of selling the collection that belonged to its own Chairman and CEO.
Although a substantially higher figure was expected, the first of the four sales generated a colossal $377 million including fees. So the Taubman sale has already beaten grand total generated by the Pierre Bergé – Yves Saint Laurent collection in Paris in 2009, announced at the time as the “sale of the century” (€255 million sales from Fine Art).

The ‘$10 million plus’ results… some of which disappointed …

Twelve works fetched more than $10 million including fees, compared with fifteen earmarked in that range. Besides the new record for a superb canvas by Frank Stella, the bidding was not particularly frenetic and some lots experienced lengthy and arduous climbs. In the end, most of the works sold well below their estimates.

NEW RECORDFrank STELLA’s large geometric canvas Delaware Crossing set a much anticipated new auction record for the artist at $13.69 million including fees, doubling the iconic American artist’s previous record. Its offer was timely in the US market as the Whitney Museum is currently hosting a major retrospective of Stella’s work.

THE STAR LOTAmedeo MODIGLIANI’s Portrait of the Paulette Jourdain (1919) was one of Mr. Taubman’s favourite pieces and one of the last paintings by the artist. The bidding went more or less as anticipated, starting at 17 million rising to $42.8 million including fees. Portrait of Paulette Jourdain is now Amedeo Modigliani’s second most expensive canvas … but that might not be for very long if Christie’s manages to sell his sublime Reclining Nude on 9 November.

Willem DE KOONING :Untitled XXI (1976), fetched $24.89 million including fees. The bidding started at $16 million easily climbing to $18 million, but there followed what seemed an interminable wait (despite the mobilization of numerous telephones) before the hammer fell. Sotheby’s had expected more (estimated between $25 and 35 million).

Mark ROTHKO he two Rothko paintings sold timidly: Untitled (Lavender and Green) (1952) reached its low estimate ($20.41 million including fees) whereas No/6 Sienna Orange on wine (1962) stopped at $17.61 million against a low estimate of $20 million.

Clyfford STILL : his historic PH-218 (1947) sold without any froth within its estimated price range at $14.81 million.

Pablo PICASSO Femme assise sur une chaise (1938) fetched $20 million compared with Sotheby’s low estimate of $25 million.

Francis BACON : Man with armed raised – not one of Bacon’s strongest works – fetched $10.33 million within its estimated range.

Edgar DEGAS : Danseuses en blanc (1878) – one of the sale’s grand masterpieces – was the subject of high expectations and no less than seven pages in Sotheby’s catalogue. The result could have joined Degas’ Top 3 but was ultimately disappointing: the bidding started at $13 million, faltered at $14 million and ended at $17 million (including costs) against an estimate of $18-25 million. In 2008, a drawing like that would have reached that target.

Other disappointments included Henri MATISSE’s Mlle Matisse en manteau écossais, an oil on canvas from 1918, that fetched $13.69 million including fees against a high estimate of $18 million; Joan MIRO’s La porte (1931) which sold for $13.4 million including fees against an estimate of $15-20 million, and even Henri DE TOULOUSE-LAUTREC’s La Clownesse de Cha-U-Kao which sold timidly at its low estimate of $12 million including fees. But there were also a couple of gems that failed to sell including Jasper JOHNSDisappearance I and Degas’ magnificent pastel Femme Nue de dos.

These mixed results, some of which were frankly disappointing, have not jeopardised Sotheby’s $500m guarantee: 400 works from the Taubman collection remain to be sold through January 2016.

Alfred Taubman

Trained as an architect, Alfred Taubman built his first small shopping center with a loan and subsequently become a “shopping mall” giant… He embodied the American dream, starting out with nothing and quickly building an impressive fortune. Mr. Taubman made his first art acquisitions in the 1950s and continued to collect in all fields of creation throughout his life ranging from ancient Egyptian and Chinese artefacts to Contemporary art and encompassing lots of high quality Old Master, Impressionist, Modern and American works. In the 1960s, he regularly visited the galleries on New York’s 57th Street where he discovered the avant-garde of that epoch (thanks to the art dealer Richard Bellamy) and acquired works by Robert Indiana, Jasper Johns and Francis Bacon. His passion for art extended to the art market and particularly for the auctioneer Sotheby’s which he eventually bought in 1983. He was at the helm of Sotheby’s in the late 1990s when Sotheby’s and Christie’s were accused of illicit price-fixing on buy and sell commissions. In 2001, he resigned as CEO of Sotheby’s but retained a majority holding until 2005.
Alfred Taubman applied to Sotheby’s certain formula that he mastered well, particularly in the field of marketing. He used to say that the marketing of a precious work by Degas and that of a glass of cold beer had much more in common than we could possibly imagine…