Sotheby’s took the unprecedented step of writing down $17m in “probable losses” ahead of its major evening sale of contemporary art, held in New York on Tuesday. The write-down, announced in its third-quarter results a few days earlier, turned out to be well short of what actually happened on the night. The sale totalled just $125.1m, well under pre-sale estimates of $202.4m-$280.4m. Most punishing was the level of guarantees – an arrangement whereby the firm promises a certain price to the vendor of a work of art, whatever it actually sells for. Of the 63 lots in the sale, a hefty 26 were guaranteed, and Sotheby’s had an ownership interest in one more. Pre-sale estimates for the guaranteed lots were $75.2m-$117.4m, and five works failed to sell at all, while some others sold sharply below their estimates. Philip Guston’s “Beggar’s Joy” (1954-55), for example, sold for just $10.2m, almost a third below its $15m estimate. It was reported in The New York Times to be carrying a guarantee of $18m. Worse still, there were no takers at all for the cover lot, Roy Lichtenstein’s “Half Face with Collar”, (1963), estimated at $15m-$20m, and also guaranteed.
“We are closing the door on guarantees,” said Sotheby’s chief executive Bill Ruprecht when he announced a net loss of $46.2m in the third quarter, of which $42m was for guarantees alone. “The market’s changed, the world’s changed.”
The following night at Christie’s saw a similar pattern, with the firm garnering just $113.6m, less than half of the pre-sale estimates of $332.2m-$470.7m. Its star turn, a Bacon self-portrait carrying expectations of about $40m, did not sell. Christie’s had also given guarantees on 39 works, and 12 failed to find buyers. Not everything failed, though: Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich successfully sold Basquiat’s “Untitled (Boxer)” (1982) for $13.5m, above its estimate of $12m.
An impressive list of lenders have contributed to Robilant and Voena’s exhibition Italian Views from the early 1700s by Gaspar Van Wittel, which opens in London on November 19. Among them are Chatsworth, Compton Verney, Bath’s Holburne Museum of Art, Holkham Hall and Petworth House: “People have been incredibly generous, helping me put on this first show of his work in the UK,” says Edmondo di Robilant. Van Wittel or Vanvitelli (1652/53-1736) was born in Holland but moved to Rome as a young man; he remained there, painting Italian view paintings, or vedute, until the end of his life. “Everybody has heard of Canaletto and Guardi, but Vanvitelli is less well known, and I’d like to bring him to wider attention,” says Di Robilant. “There are not many of his works in museums because he worked essentially for private collectors.” The exhibition of 32 works is mainly non-commercial, with only four actually for sale, at prices between £250,000 and £3m, including the 1689 “View of the Port of Ripa Grande from Ripa Grande, Rome” (pictured above).
Two exhibitions in New York are currently focusing on the hybrid speciality of design/art/architecture. The London-based dealer Kenny Schachter has organised a Zaha Hadid show at Sonnabend gallery and at 10th Avenue, with large-scale sculptural installations as well as small cut-paper reliefs. While some of the pieces can be used – for example “Kloris” is a set of 10 outdoor seats in polished steel – this is not the main point, says the Sonnabend gallery: the works “describe movement in a static material using state-of-the- art methods of design and fabrication”. One piece is a huge wall that flows into a desk, while “Stalactites” is a series of smooth, organic shapes hung from the ceiling. Prices range from $1,000 to $850,000 for the reliefs, furniture (in editions of 12) and at the time of writing one set of “Kloris” and three of the four large installations (in editions of three) had sold.
A group of E.H. Shepard’s original drawings for Winnie-the-Pooh books are coming up for auction next month at Sotheby’s in London. The drawings, which date from the 1920s, come from the secretive American art collector Stanley J. Seeger, who once owned the Tudor mansion Sutton Place. Among the drawings he has sent for sale is “He went on tracking, and Piglet …ran after him” estimated at £40,000-£60,000; the whole group of 22 drawings are expected to fetch a total of £400,000. Earlier this month at Bonhams London, a German collector paid well over estimate, £31,200, for another Shepard sketch, showing Pooh reaching into a honey pot. High prices were also paid last summer for 10 drawings by the Irish stained glass designer and book illustrator Harry Clarke, illustrations for a de luxe 1916 edition of Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales. The Dublin collectors Lochlann and Brenda Quinn bought them in London at the Fine Art Society for a reported £250,000 and have given them to The National Gallery of Ireland. The fragile drawings will not be on permanent display, but can be viewed by appointment.
Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper
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