Bidders snubbed a six-foot wide turquoise 1993 Damien Hirst cabinet, estimated to fetch as much as $1.2 million at the Lehman and Neuberger Berman art liquidation sale held in New York on Saturday.
Sotheby’s tan-carpeted saleroom went quiet as not a single bidder vied for Hirst’s “We’ve Got Style (The Vessel Collection -- Blue/Green).” The irony was not lost on observers.
“On the day Lehman went bust, Hirst made a fortune,’’ said private New York dealer Neal Meltzer, referring to Sotheby’s Sept. 15-16, 2008 auction of work from Hirst’s studio, which grossed about $200 million. “On the day Lehman liquidates Neuberger’s collection, Hirst was out of luck.’’
The Hirst was the nadir of an otherwise mostly solid sale. The bankrupt Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. raised $12.3 million for creditors, just above the $8.8 million to $12 million presale estimate. Of 142 lots on offer, 118, or 83 percent, found buyers.
The priciest lot seemed thematically on point: a swirling 2001 canvas evoking chaos and implosion, by painter Julie Mehretu, “Untitled 1’’ sold for $1 million to an unidentified phone bidder, topping the $800,000 high estimate. Mehretu’s previous highest price at auction was $394,038, in 2009.
Neuberger’s foresight provided Lehman a handy return, having acquired the Mehretu in 2001 for $21,726. The artist recently completed a mural for the lobby of Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s New York office. New York-based asset management firm Neuberger Berman Holdings LLC was acquired by Lehman in 2003 and their art collections were merged.
Girl in a Snowstorm
Other hefty prices were achieved for a rainbow-hued canvas by Mark Grotjahn, which fetched $782,500, and Chinese painter Liu Ye’s 2004 “The Long Way Home,’’ of a girl in a snowstorm, which sold for $962,500, above the $700,000 presale projection.
Hirst wasn’t the only fashionable name to founder. John Currin’s painting of a matronly woman, the 1991 “Shakespeare Actress,’’ sold for $362,500, less than half the $700,000 high estimate. Richard Prince’s 2003 joke painting on gatorboard fetched $212,500, also half the $400,000 high estimate.
Results overall were respectable rather than spectacular, especially given the sale’s presale buzz. “You had curiosity from the global financial community,’’ said Sotheby’s Tobias Meyer, worldwide head of contemporary art. “You had attention from Wall Street, but Wall Street is not the art world.’’
While the bidding was dominated by serious contemporary art collectors, attracted to the higher caliber work, a smattering of Wall Streeters were attracted by the Lehman history. New York art adviser Maria Carlota Perez bid for a finance-industry client she declined to name who had “affection’’ for Lehman’s storied past. Her buys included a 1983 orange collage by German artist Imi Knoebel for $23,750.
A former Lehman investment banker who declined to identify herself came in pursuit of a print by artist Vik Muniz, lured in part by the Lehman link. Estimated to sell for up to $8,000, Muniz’s 1998 silver gelatin print of a tree, from an edition of five, sold for $23,750, leaving the ex-Lehman banker outbid.
More Lehman art will be sold at Christie’s International in London on Sept. 29 and at Freeman’s in Philadelphia on Nov. 7.
Artsy types at the Sotheby’s sale said they didn’t care one way or another about the Lehman name.
“Do you think the person who bought the Grotjahn cares it belonged to Lehman?’’ said private art advisor Josh Baer. “It’s not Jackie Kennedy,’’ he said, referring to Sotheby’s 1996 blockbuster celebrity-estate sale.
Despite some upbeat results, the sale made for poor theater. Most of the bidding occurred over the phones, conducted by Sotheby’s phalanx of 22 staffers, about as exciting as watching a tennis match with invisible players.
The Saturday morning sale attracted an atypical blend of loafer-clad finance types and die-hard contemporary art collectors, dealers and advisers. The bulk of attendees clustered in folding chairs toward the back of the salesroom, ready to observe, not bid.
Auction newbies included a man seated up front, wearing running shorts, sneakers and a well-worn T-shirt that read “Thank you Paine Webber.” He winced when auctioneer Meyer announced the customary 25 percent commission on all purchases at the start of the sale.
On the sidewalk outside Sotheby’s, painter Geoffrey Raymond hawked a $45,000 painting of a sinister-looking Richard Fuld titled “The Liquidated Fuld.’’ Raymond has also painted Eliot Spitzer and Richard Grasso, among others. He invited passersby to write comments around Fuld’s head.
“My Lehman is at the Metropolitan Museum,’’ wrote one. “I’m still speechless’’ wrote another. “You turd, you cost me and my clients money,’’ noted a third.
Raymond said he had melded the painting styles of Jackson Pollock and Chuck Close for his Fuld likeness. “It speaks on so many levels,’’ said Raymond. “Plus, it’s a smoking painting of Dick Fuld.’’