Tonight, May 12th, is the much-anticipated sale of contemporary art at Sotheby’s in New York. Usually one of the most hyped auctions of the year, everyone was waiting to see just how the global economic downturn would effect the art market at its most elite levels. I’m thrilled to report from…a half-filled 2nd floor salesroom, since I’m not credit-worthy enough for a paddle to bid (come on, I’m 26 and don’t have a trust fund) to get me into the 7th floor where the sale took place. Be that as it may, I’m perfectly happy watching auctioneer Tobias Meyer on a flatscreen threaten “I shall sell it then!” just a few floors away. My room was under the watchful eyes of three staff members, including one bid caller.
There were just 48 lots (originally 49, but lot 43- an Uklanski gouache- was pulled before the auction started), a substantial decrease from the number of lots offered last year. 8 lots went unsold, including a large Rauschenberg, a small-ish (for him!) Richard Serra, and a Frank Stella with an unbeatable provenance, giving the sale a sell rate of 83%.
The most expensive lot was a Koons sculpture, Baroque Egg with Bow (Turquoise/Magenta), which sold for $4.8 million but well under its $6-8 million estimate. Two winning lots were a 1934 Alexander Calder sculpture that sold for $3.05 million (estimate of $1-$1.5 million) and a Dan Colen oil on canvas that sold for $320,000 (estimate of $100,000-$150,000). All selling prices are before buyer’s premium is added.
Sale total: $47,033,500 with buyer’s premium, slightly under the approximately $52 million low-end estimate that does not include buyer’s premium. Most reporters will certainly call this a disappointing sale, but given the shift in scale of this auction compared to seasons past and the lowered estimates to encourage bidding despite the financial crisis, the major auction houses and galleries must be thankful tonight that still very wealthy people and institutions are still going after many big-name contemporary artists and pieces.