On Wednesday and Thursday, 200 art objects from the late billionaire Alfred Taubman's estate sold for a total of $419.7 million. For many (most?) human beings on the planet, a few hundred objects netting close to half a billion dollars would be cause for celebration. Among the art world's dealer/adviser/journalist class, however, the sale occasioned hand-wringing and recrimination.
The problem lay in the fact that Sotheby's had reportedly guaranteed the sale of Taubman's 500-piece collection (more art will be sold later) for an unprecedented $500 million. The guarantee, which was a record in the art world, came about because of a reported bidding war between Sotheby's and its rival auction house, Christie's. Taubman was the onetime chairman of Sotheby's (a price-fixing scandal sent him briefly to jail and put an end to his tenure), and so, from the outside at least, it appeared that the auction house had to do anything—even saddle itself with a $500 million bet—to represent the sale of its ex-chairman. As a result, if the art sold for less than that guaranteed amount, they would actually lose money.
After the first two sales, Sotheby's has yet to break even, prompting Chief Executive Tad Smith to issue a statement that he expects "to cover the Taubman guarantee in its entirety." On Wednesday night, the first sale netted $377 million for 77 lots, barely above the night's aggressive low estimate. The next day, a larger sale of 123 lower-priced lots netted $42.7 million, which came close to the high estimate. (Totals include buyer's premiums, which are an additional fee that auction houses tack on to an object's hammer price; the estimates do not.)
Within the context of such lofty stakes, it's true that the results could be considered lackluster. But eliminate the insider chatter and the sale—in absolute terms—is impressive. Look no further than the top 10 highest-selling lots below, which by themselves total nearly $185 million.
1. Modigliani, Paulette Jourdain — $42,810,00
2. De Kooning, Untitled XXI — $24,890,000
3. Rothko, Untitled (Lavender and Green) — $20,410,000
4. Picasso, Femme Assise Sur Une Chaise — $20,074,000
5. Rothko, No. 6/Sienna, Orange on Wine — $17,610,000
6. Degas, Danseuses En Blanc — $17,050,000
7. Still, PH-218 — $14,810,000
8. Stella, Delaware Crossing — $13,690,000
9. Matisse, Mlle. Matisse en Manteau Écossais — $13,690,000
10. Miró, La Porte (Objet) — $13,410,000
- For the best in travel, food, drinks, fashion, cars, and life, sign up for the Pursuits newsletter. Delivered weekly