Sotheby’s trumps Christie’s in New York autumn auction season

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Sotheby’s, the auction house under fire from activist investor Dan Loeb, on Thursday relished a welcome boost after its sale of Impressionist and Modern paintings trumped forecasts and eclipsed rival Christie’s dismal start to New York’s autumn auction season.

Sales for the evening hit $290.2m, with 94.2 per cent of the artworks selling for their highest estimates or above.

“The strength of Sotheby’s is that we have the expertise to understand the marketplace, to get the estimates right, and to bring works of great value to our worldwide sales rooms,” said Bill Ruprecht, chief executive, whose stewardship of the company came under withering attack in a letter from Mr Loeb last month.

The star piece in Wednesday evening’s sale, a bronze sculpted bust by Giacometti entitled “Grande tête mince”, sold for $50m to Acquavella Galleries, the New York dealer, after frenzied bidding.

Another standout work, Picasso’s “Mousquetaire à la pipe”, sold for $30.96m, smashing its $18m estimate and breaking auction records for a late Picasso. The buyer was billionaire art dealer David Nahmad.

“Tête de femme”, the second of four Picassos to go under the hammer at the sale, was the third and final lot of the night to top $30m, with an eventual price tag from an anonymous telephone bidder of $39.9m.

Several of the bids broke records for artists including Picabia, Balla, Arp and Man Ray.

By contrast, a three-day series of Impressionist and Modern art sales at Christie’s disappointed, ending on Tuesday afternoon with a total of $293.7m – just a fraction over the figure reached by Sotheby’s on its opening night alone.

Industry observers said Sotheby’s had outperformed its rival by offering a clutch of artworks rarely seen on the auction house circuit. Pieces from 13 countries found buyers of 36 nationalities, both from the mature and developing markets.

Third Point, the fund owned by Mr Loeb, has built up a 9.3 per cent stake in Sotheby’s. In response to Mr Loeb’s public attack – in which he doubted its ability to keep up with shifting art market trends – Sotheby’s has adopted a defensive poison pill shareholder rights plan.

“Its clear that bidders saved their bids for Sotheby’s this week, with most higher value lots going for well above their expected range,” noted Oliver Chen, luxury analyst at Citigroup.

“However, questions still remain over what auction commission margins these items were sold at.”

The seasonal sales continue in New York.

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