A brilliant blue painting by Pablo Picasso of his young mistress was crowned the prized lot of the November auction season so far after it sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $139.4 million, with buyer’s fees, on Wednesday.
Completed during one of the most intense years of the artist’s personal life, the 1932 portrait of Picasso’s great muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter, remained on the auction block for four minutes as three collectors over the phones from around the world fought to establish control. But it was an anonymous bidder who named the winning price over the telephone. (The work nonetheless fell short of the $179.4 million auction high for the artist, established at Christie’s in 2015.)
The evening sale of blue-chip modern and contemporary art from the estate of Emily Fisher Landau, an arts patron who had her own private museum in Long Island City, Queens, was somewhat protected from market volatility because Sotheby’s had assured the owners that it would purchase the Picasso — and nearly 30 other consignments from the estate — if buyers failed to bid above a minimum price. Auctioneers said that over recent weeks they were in a frenzy to secure third-party guarantees that were slightly higher, saving their company from assuming debt on the trove of artworks.
“When it’s hard to compel someone to sell something, you need to put money on the table,” said Benjamin Godsill, an art adviser watching the sale. “The headline for me is keep calm and carry on. There is still a market, even if there weren’t fireworks.”
The sale drew a total of $406.4 million, on estimates of $344.5 million to $430 million. It included a new benchmark for the painter Agnes Martin, whose 1961 “Grey Stone II” went for $18.7 million — the estimate was $6 million to $8 million — in a bidding war between gallerists and collectors in the room that briefly recalled the rabid buying of last year.
“The estimate was extremely conservative, likely because the market had never been tested for a piece like that,” said Betsy Bickar, a senior art adviser at Citi Private Bank.
But that electricity soon faded when the marquee Picasso arrived on the auction block. The room was quiet as Sotheby’s staff worked the phones to arouse bidders. The winning bid was taken by Brooke Lampley, the company’s chairman and head of global fine art, who organized the sale.
“That was a lot of effort for a foregone conclusion,” the arts journalist Marion Maneker remarked in the room. The Picasso had an irrevocable bid ensuring the lot would sell. The price of an irrevocable bid is typically close to the painting’s low estimate.
Financial engineering and tight choreography have become an industry standard as higher prices collide with the headwinds of economic uncertainty. High interest rates and two wars have knocked out a sizable portion of collectors. Sanctions brought after the outbreak of war in Ukraine prevented many Russian collectors from directly participating in the auctions, and more recently, the Israel-Hamas war has diverted the attention of some Middle Eastern collectors.
Asian buyers have also indicated a soft retreat from the market. Last month, an auction of deaccessioned paintings from the Long Museum in Shanghai only achieved a fraction of its high estimate of $150 million. The total after fees was $69.5 million, with 10 artworks failing to sell, including a $7 million picture of a lion by the artist David Hockney. Some analysts attributed the lackluster results to China’s cratering property market.
But there were signs of return at Sotheby’s, where the auction house said a $22 million painting by Mark Rothko and a $1.4 million Jean Arp sculpture were among the pieces that went to Asian collectors.
“This has definitely moved from a seller’s market to buyer’s market,” said Kristine Bell, a senior partner at David Zwirner who monitors auctions for the mega-gallery.
On Tuesday, the “21st Century” evening sale at Christie’s inaugurated the biggest week of the art market with a thud. Premium fees kicked the total to $107.5 million across 41 lots, after two paintings were withdrawn and others failed to gain bidders. The sale estimate range, which does not include fees, was $99 million to $143 million.
Patterns seen in the uneven spring sales continued this season: Speculation on paintings by “ultracontemporary” artists — those born after 1975 — remained the liveliest part of the evening. Works completed in the last three years by artists like Stefanie Heinze, Jenna Gribbon and Jadé Fadojutimi zoomed past their high estimates. (Four women achieved their auction highs: Gribbon, Fadojutimi, Jia Aili and Ilana Savdie.)
But some works from established artists like Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring and Jeff Koons failed to reach their low estimates.
“They just didn’t feel like once-in-a-lifetime opportunities,” said Godsill, the art adviser. “And it’s important to note that new artists who did succeed were women and artists of color.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s evening auction, Sotheby’s executives boasted about the Picasso, saying that the artist used the painting to unveil his affair simultaneously to his wife and to the world.
“My only question is, should the estimate have been higher?” Lampley mused. “No one has challenged me to say that the estimate is too high.”
The major auction houses will continue to offer paintings through next week as they try to close nearly $1 billion each in total business. Upcoming highlights at Christie’s include two Nazi restitution cases. The Thursday evening sale of 20th-century art at Christie’s includes a Cézanne, estimated at $35 million to $55 million, specifically meant to help a Swiss museum with financial problems; it will also involve some compensation for the family of a Jewish dealer who once owned the painting. A second sale at Christie’s offers several Egon Schiele drawings, returned to a family that has been seeking them for more than a quarter-century, which will fund a scholarship program for young musicians.
Both major houses are spicing up their sales with luxury items. Christie’s sold a Jean Royère sofa on Tuesday for $945,000, while Sotheby’s is planning to auction a Ferrari GTO next week for more than $60 million. Both sales will contribute to the grand totals that the companies will promote when the fall auction season ends.
Natasha Degen, professor of art market studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said these unorthodox offerings attract new clientele and generate publicity. “It is yet another example of the auction houses wanting to be perceived as central clearinghouses for luxury writ large,” she said. “And if the Ferrari does meet its mark, then Sotheby’s will have another headline-grabbing price.”
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