On Thursday night, Sotheby’s staged a set of evening auction, one dedicated to works from the estate of music executive Mo Ostin, the other to modern art. Together, the back-to-back sales, held during the marquee sale week in New York, brought in a collective $427 million with buyer’s fees.
Fifteen works from the Ostin collection were offered, including pieces by blue-chip figures like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Joan Mitchell. Fourteen of those works sold, generating a sum of $123 million and outpacing the $103 million estimated for the sale by specialists. Four lots in the Ostin sale, among them works by Mark Tansey, Mitchell, and Pablo Picasso, were backed with third-party guarantees or irrevocable bids. In the second portion of the night, works by artists active during the 20th century, like Gustav Klimt and Picasso, were among the 40 lots sold. By the night’s end, that sale raked in $303 million with fees after a total of five lots were withdrawn.
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The total hammer price for both sales (before fees were added) came to $362 million, which was below the pre-sale estimate of $375.4 million to $534 million.
Sotheby’s UK-based auctioneer Oliver Barker took to the podium on Tuesday night to lead the event from the house’s Manhattan headquarters. The sales were anchored by auction debuts for works by René Magritte from Ostin’s holdings, as well as new records for Vilhelm Hammershøi and Isamu Noguchi.
With a smaller grouping of lots than in last year’s equivalent May edition, Sotheby’s, like its competitors Christie’s and Phillips, confronted a more cautious bidding atmosphere this week. Abounding throughout the sales is evidence that the market has grown incrementally softer amid a chillier financial climate, something that market experts based between London and New York predicted ahead of the sale in interviews with ARTnews.
In the first portion of the night, the work that fetched the highest price was Magritte’s L’empire des lumières (1951), which had been in Ostin’s collection since 1979. The painting, which shows the facade of a residential home that appears to be set in day and night simultaneously, sold for $42.3 million with fees, far surpassing its $35 million estimate. The result was the second-highest price paid for a work by the Belgian artist during a public sale. After a seven-minute bidding battle, another work by Magritte, titled Le domaine d’Arnheim, an image of a broken window that leads out to a landscape scene, achieved $18.9 million. The painting was estimated to sell for at least $15 million.
Elsewhere in the Ostin sale, five bidders vied for Cecily Brown’s vibrant abstraction from 2015 titled Free Games for May, driving up the final sale price with fees to $6.7 million. The work hammered at $5.5 million, above the low estimate of $3 million. The bidding attention comes amid Brown’s mid-career survey that recently opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The work went to a bidder on the phone with Sotheby’s New York–based chairman Brooke Lampley.
At another point in the beginning portion of the night, Basquiat’s 1984 canvas Moon View also shot past expectations. It hammered at $9 million, above the estimate range of $7 million–$8 million. The final price for the work was $10.8 million.
But other lots with large estimates didn’t fare as well. An untitled 1962 canvas by Cy Twombly carried a low estimate of $14 million; it hammered at just $10 million, going to a bidder on the phone with Lisa Dennison, Sotheby’s chairman, Americas, who is based in New York.
The second portion of the night was led by Gustav Klimt’s Insel im Attersee. Painted around 1901–02, the painting sold to a private Japanese collector for $53.2 million following a seven-minute-long bidding war. It was estimated to sell for a price around $45 million.
Two bidders incrementally rose the stakes for a work by Danish 20th-century painter Vilhelm Hammershøi. Eventually, the 1907 still life painting Interior. The Music Room, Strandgade 30 hammered at $7.5 million, going to a bidder in the room who beat another competing by phone with Sotheby’s New York-based contemporary art specialist Gregoire Billault. The final price was $9 million, three times the low estimate. The result was the highest price paid for a work by the artist. According to a statement from Sotheby’s following the sale, the work was purchased by a museum in the U.S, the location of which was not disclosed.
Works on canvas by Georgia O’Keeffe and Pierre-Auguste Renoir were among the lots that failed to find buyers.
There was another big-ticket item that failed to attract the bidding attention despite hype around its institutional merits. Edward Hopper’s Cobb’s Barns, South Truro (1930–33), a disquieting still-life image of a red barn, was among a group of works the Whitney Museum of American Art deaccessioned to raise funds for future acquisitions. It failed to reach its low $8 million estimate, going to a phone bidder with Sotheby’s Americas chairman, George Wachter, at a hammer price of $10 million.
Paintings tend to perform best at auction, but works in other mediums fared well here, too. Noguchi’s sculpture The Family sold to applause in the room after a six-minute bidding battle between specialists in New York and London that brought the hammer price to $10.4 million. The final price of the monumental sculpture was $12.3 million, minting a new auction record for the artist and doubling the $6 million low estimate. Thursday’s sale marked the first time the work had appeared on the market since Noguchi produced it 60 years ago. It was sold by the owners of its longtime home on a Connecticut golf course.
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