Source: Sotheby's

One Man’s Art Collection Just Sold for (Only) $420 Million

Yet the Sotheby’s sale of Alfred Taubman’s estate was expected to do much, much better. A look at its top 10 lots.

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

Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de Paulette Jourdain, circa 1919
Amedeo Modigliani, Portrait de Paulette Jourdain, circa 1919
Source: Sotheby's

 

2. De Kooning, Untitled XXI — $24,890,000

Willem De Kooning, Untitled XXI, 1976
Willem De Kooning, Untitled XXI, 1976
Source: Sotheby's

 

3. Rothko, Untitled (Lavender and Green) — $20,410,000

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Lavender and Green), 1952
Mark Rothko, Untitled (Lavender and Green), 1952
Source: Sotheby's

 

4. Picasso, Femme Assise Sur Une Chaise — $20,074,000

Pablo Picasso, Femme assise sur une chaise, 1938
Pablo Picasso, Femme assise sur une chaise, 1938
Source: Sotheby's

 

5. Rothko, No. 6/Sienna, Orange on Wine — $17,610,000

Mark Rothko, No. 6 / Sienna, Orange on Wine, 1962
Mark Rothko, No. 6 / Sienna, Orange on Wine, 1962
Source: Sotheby's

 

6. Degas, Danseuses En Blanc — $17,050,000

Edgar Degas, Danseuses en blanc, circa 1878
Edgar Degas, Danseuses en blanc, circa 1878
Source: Sotheby's

 

7. Still, PH-218 — $14,810,000

Clyfford Still, PH-218, 1947
Clyfford Still, PH-218, 1947
Source: Sotheby's

 

8. Stella, Delaware Crossing — $13,690,000

Frank Stella, Delaware Crossing, 1961
Frank Stella, Delaware Crossing, 1961
Source: Sotheby's

 

9. Matisse, Mlle. Matisse en Manteau Écossais — $13,690,000

Henri Matisse, Mlle. Matisse en manteau écossais, 1918
Henri Matisse, Mlle. Matisse en manteau écossais, 1918
Source: Sotheby's

 

10. Miró, La Porte (Objet) — $13,410,000

Joan Miró, La Porte (Objet), 1931
Joan Miró, La Porte (Objet), 1931
Source: Sotheby's
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