Contemporary-Art Sale Disappoints at Christie's

By Lindsay Pollock and Philip Boroff
Friday, November 14, 2008

NEW YORK, Nov. 13 -- Lehman Brothers chief executive Richard S. Fuld Jr. and his wife, Kathy, sold a collection of 16 drawings Wednesday night for $13.5 million, below the low estimate of $15 million, at a Christie's International sale in New York that reflected the slide in financial markets.

The auction house sold $113.6 million of contemporary artworks, half its pre-sale low estimate. Almost one-third of the 75 lots found no buyers in a salesroom that included tennis great John McEnroe and billionaire Eli Broad.

"The market is adjusting down," Marc Porter, president of Christie's North and South America, said after the sale. The auction followed Sotheby's lackluster $125.1 million contemporary-art sale the previous evening. Christie's May evening sale of contemporary works raised more than $300 million.

In August, London-based Christie's gave the Fulds a guarantee for the drawing collection, which included four works by Arshile Gorky, five by Barnett Newman and four by Agnes Martin. The Fulds, who live in Greenwich, Conn., have retained the majority of their collection while pruning some older works. Fuld will step down at the end of the year as chief executive of Lehman, the investment bank whose collapse helped trigger a widespread financial crisis, but he will remain as chairman.

New York dealer Matthew Marks bought a Martin drawing, a Gorky and a de Kooning with three lounging women. He sat next to Louisa Stude Sarofim, chairman of Houston's Menil Collection, and whispered to her while bidding.

Among the Fulds' top lots was Gorky's 1946-47 "Study for Agony I" in pencil, crayon and ink, which sold for $2.2 million including premium, the low estimate. The Fulds bought the work at Christie's in New York in 1996 for $370,000.

De Kooning's 1951 charcoal "Woman," from the coveted series of abstracted female forms, fetched $2.8 million from an anonymous phone bidder, below the $3 million low estimate. The Fulds bought it at Christie's New York in 2001 for $2.1 million.

Among the rejects at last night's auction was the projected top lot, a Francis Bacon self-portrait that Christie's, which is owned by French billionaire Francois Pinault, had estimated would sell for about $40 million. As at Sotheby's, trophy works by Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst also were shunned. Estimates assigned in the spring now seem too high, dealers said.

In an effort to boost sales, Christie's specialists persuaded consignors to reduce reserves, the confidential minimum price that a seller will accept. As a result, 52 percent of the lots sold below the low estimate, an unthinkable statistic during boom times, when lots often sold above the high estimate.

Christie's guaranteed the sale of 39 lots, and 12 didn't sell, with a combined low estimate of $48 million. The low estimate is typically the price an auction house will guarantee.

Americans bought 60 percent of the lots, Christie's said.

Prices include a buyer's premium, or commission, of 25 percent of the hammer price up to $50,000, 20 percent of the price from $50,000 to $1 million and 12 percent above $1 million. Estimates do not reflect commissions.

The evening's surprise top lot was Gerhard Richter's 1989 eight-foot-tall orange-and-blue "Abstraktes Bild (710)," painted with a squeegee. It sold for $14.9 million.

The Guggenheim Museum's board president, Jennifer Stockman, and her husband, David, offered paintings by Richard Prince and Peter Doig. The Prince, "Lake Resort Nurse," made just $3.3 million, under the $5 million low estimate. The buyer was Giancarlo Giammetti, fashion designer Valentino Garavani's business partner. The Doig, which carried a guarantee, didn't sell.

Takashi Murakami's trippy eyeball-covered mushroom sculpture "DOB in the Strange Forest (Red DOB)," estimated to sell for $5 million to $7 million, fetched just $3.4 million from art adviser Philippe Segalot. The seller was art investor Adam Lindemann, who had a guaranteed price from Christie's.

"The fear was that the market would be dead," Segalot said when exiting Christie's. "It's not."

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