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Koons `Panther,’ Warhol `Jackies’ Disappoint in Sotheby’s Sale

"Pink Panther" (1988) by Jeff Koons, porcelain, 41" tall. Source: Sotheby's via Bloomberg

A racy Jeff Koons sculpture and an assemblage of Jackie Kennedy portraits by Andy Warhol drew tepid bidding last night as Sotheby’s New York saw its lowest tally for an evening contemporary-art auction in two years.

The $128.1 million total was just over the low presale estimate of $120 million. As in last week’s Impressionist and modern-art sales, buyers balked at what they perceived as aggressive estimates and lackluster quality.

“There’s nothing really outstanding here,” billionaire collector Eli Broad said as he left the Manhattan salesroom with his wife, Edythe. “There’s no excitement.”

The top lot was Warhol’s “Sixteen Jackies,” assembled by the seller from 16 individual canvases of the former First Lady on the day of her husband’s assassination. It fetched $20.2 million, or $1.3 million per painting, compared with presale expectations of $20 million to $30 million. Painted with blue, white and gold, some images show Jackie Kennedy smiling, others grief-stricken.

Individual “Jackie” silkscreen paintings sell privately for between $800,000 and $1.2 million, dealers said.

“It’s the perfect example of people willing to pay the market price but no more,” said Todd Levin, director of New York-based Levin Art Group.

“The sale felt overestimated by about 10 to 15 percent,” he said. “If you are going to have aggressive estimates, you’ve got to have masterpieces.”

‘Pink Panther’

A Jeff Koons sculpture depicting a topless blonde hugging the Pink Panther fetched $16.9 million, falling short of the presale estimate of $20 million to $30 million and of the artist’s auction record. The porcelain piece went to a telephone client of Patti Wong, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia.

Described as one of the most important works by Koons, “Pink Panther” (1988) was consigned by publisher Benedikt Taschen, who had been guaranteed an undisclosed amount through a third-party irrevocable bid.

The auction record for a Koons sculpture is $25.8 million paid for “Balloon Flower” at Christie’s in London in 2008. Sotheby’s priciest Koons was a giant magenta-and-gold “Hanging Heart” that fetched $23.6 million in November 2007.

‘Eroica I’

A large canvas by Jean-Michel Basquiat titled “Eroica I” went for $5.9 million, topping the $4.5 million forecast. Two small Primitivist canvases by Jean Dubuffet from the estate of San Francisco art patron Dodie Rosekrans also beat estimates, each fetching $1.1 million.

An Anselm Kiefer canvas attracted six bidders and sold for $1.6 million on the telephone, about double the presale forecast.

“Ten years ago, a lot of the material would have been in a day sale,” said London-based dealer Ivor Braka. “Under the circumstances, the sale did well.”

On Monday, Sotheby’s had success with one of the few estates of the season. Classic postwar works from the collection of the late art dealer Allan Stone brought in $54.8 million, with 93 percent of the lots finding buyers.

In a filing on Monday, Sotheby’s said “competitive pressures” forced it to accept lower commissions from sellers to win consignments. The shares yesterday were down as much as 10 percent, before closing down 6 percent on a day major indexes rallied. The shares have lost a fifth of their value since May 5, closing at $43.71 in New York Stock Exchange composite trading yesterday.

Sotheby’s charges buyers 25 percent of the hammer price up to $50,000, plus 20 percent from $50,000 to $1 million, plus 12 percent above $1 million.

Coming Auctions:
May 11: Christie’s postwar and contemporary art.
May 12: Phillips de Pury’s contemporary art.

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