Mini Hitler Figure Leads $125 Million Sales as Frenzy Dissipates

  • `Bound to Fail' auction at Christie's totaled $78 million
  • Brice Marden led Phillips's $46.6 million sale in New York

A child-size sculpture of Adolf Hitler fetched $17.2 million, leading two evening auctions that proceeded at a steady, if not frenzied, clip on Sunday in New York.

Maurizio Cattelan’s kneeling Hitler, consigned by money manager David Ganek, set an auction record for the Italian artist and exceeded the high presale estimate of $15 million at Christie’s.

Cattelan’s "Him"

Photographer: Katya Kazakina/Bloomberg

Sunday’s sales kicked off a week of semiannual bellwether auctions that have a combined target estimate of $1.1 billion to $1.6 billion. The stakes are high: After five years of growth, the global art market is slowing down. The separate sales of contemporary art at Christie’s and Phillips offered 76 lots that tallied $124.7 million. That’s less than the $141.3 million a lone Alberto Giacometti sculpture fetched a year ago.

Contracting Market

“That’s largely a result of a contracting market,” Ed Dolman, chief executive officer of Phillips, a boutique auction house owned by Russia’s Mercury Group, said about the decline from a year earlier. “We are going to see smaller sales across the board.”  

The auction houses were competing for consignments amid falling oil prices, underperforming hedge funds and greater scrutiny of the art market. Despite the smaller tallies and fewer masterpieces than a year ago, both houses sold more than 90 percent of the lots offered, a reassuring sign for the market. Prices include buyer’s commission; estimates don’t.

“There’s a great deal of money in people’s hands willing to invest in the works of art,” Dolman said.

Christie’s special auction “Bound to Fail” tallied $78.1 million, within its target range but nine times less than its themed sale in May 2015. All but one of the 39 offered works found buyers and seven artist records were established. In addition to Cattelan, these included Daniel Buren, Rebecca Horn and Paola Pivi.

“Each object was hand-picked for the sale,” said Brett Gorvy, Christie’s global head of postwar and contemporary art. “It was very difficult to get these works from collectors in a market that’s apprehensive.” The auction house made an effort to keep the estimates conservative to inspire bidding, he said.

‘Stone Head’

The auction had 11 guaranteed lots, all financed by third parties, according to Christie’s. Most items were purchased by Christie’s staffers on behalf of clients bidding by phone. The room, filled with advisers, dealers and collectors, was often muted. The sale was attended by actor Christian Slater, heiress Paris Hilton and billionaire money manager Steven A. Cohen.

David Hammons’s stone and hair sculpture, “Stone Head,” consigned by Michael Evans, former vice chairman of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., fetched $1 million, within the estimated range. An oversize stick of butter -- a beeswax sculpture by Robert Gober -- fetched $2.3 million, also within the estimate.

Marden’s “Star (for Patti Smith).”

Source: Phillips

“For difficult conceptual art, the result was quite good,” Christophe van de Weghe, an art dealer in New York, said about the Christie’s sale. “This is not easy material. A stone with some hair on it -- it’s tough.”

Phillips’s sale, which followed Christie’s, tallied $46.6 million, within the estimated range, but half of its total a year ago. Of the 37 lots, three failed to sell and two artist records were set. The auction house had 20 guaranteed lots.

The top lot was Brice Marden’s somber painting “Star (for Patti Smith)" that fetched $6 million, within the presale target. A sculpture of two naked children by Jeff Koons sold for $5.8 million, also within the estimate. A small sculpture by Cattelan titled “Mini-Me" fetched $749,000, surpassing its high estimate.

“The froth is coming off and it’s great,” said Edward Tyler Nahem, an art dealer in New York. “It eliminates speculators and brings back true collectors.”

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