A Bad Night For Christies

November 6, 2008

The Fall auction circuit continued last night with a disastrous outing at Christies New York.

The auction house had put together similar materials from two well-known collections — the Lawrence Collection and the Hillman Collection — into a show called “The Modern Age”.  The rumours are that, in the summer when life was different, Christies had given the Lawrence Family a significant price guarantee.  However, only about $50 million was raised against pre-sale minimum estimates of more than $100 million, and 17 lots out of 58 failed to sell.  One wonders just how much this show must have cost Christies.

“The estimates were from an earlier time, and the market has changed now,” said Christopher Burge, honorary chairman of Christie’s in America and the evening’s auctioneer.

The highlight of the Lawrence pieces was supposed to be Mark Rothko’s “No. 43 (Mauve)” but no-one bit at the opening $10 million suggestion, not at any lower price indeed, even though the estimate was $20 million to $30 million — a very big hole in the sale’s expectations.  Other major failures were a Cezanne watercolour ($4m to $6m) and a $12m to $18m Manet.

chiricoThere were some successes:  Magritte’s “Empire of the Lights” sold at $3.1m, just above its high estimate, while Lucian Freud’s portrait of George Dyer (at $6m) and Fernand Leger’s “Study For A Nude Model” (at $2.9m) both sneaked (barely) over their lower estimates.  And, in a perfect illustration that estimates do not mean the same as reserves, one lucky buyer picked up a Toulouse-Lautrec for $4.4 million.  The estimates had been between $6 million and $8 million.  Someone got lucky!

The big sale of the show was Giorgio de Chirico’s “Metaphysical Composition“, a bizarre still life (see image on right), that sold for $6.1m, just above its minimum estimate.

There had been grumblings about the quality of the catalog (“Mutton dressed as lamb,” complained one critic) and even some specific comments about the condition of the Rothko, for example.  But still, this was clearly another example of the current market crisis affecting the art-buying wealthy.  I continue to read “experts” who suggest that the art market is not at all affected by the current recession, but I think they are wrong.