Things Are Cold, Clammy at City Auction Houses

The Times ran a story yesterday, by Arts reporter Carol Vogel, on the pre-auction night jitters over at Christie’s and Sotheby’s following disappointing sales in the past couple of months–and that little thing over on Wall Street. Both are have their big Modern and Postwar & Contemporary sales this month. (Sotheby’s is scheduled for tonight; Christie’s on November 12.)

From the Times:

A $60 million painting by Kazimir Malevich. A $40 million self-portrait by Francis Bacon. It hardly seems the ideal moment to be selling such pricey art. As Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips de Pury brace for their big fall auctions in New York, starting with a sale of 71 Impressionist and Modern paintings, drawings and sculptures at Sotheby’s on Monday night, anxiety is the dominant mood.

Only 10 days ago, Sotheby’s reported a loss of $15 million in guarantees – the undisclosed amount that the houses promise to sellers regardless of the outcome of a sale – from recent auctions in Hong Kong and London.

Millions of dollars of art went unsold at those September and October sales, with many works going for well below their estimates. Since then auction house officials have been busy trying to get sellers to lower their expectations. Much of the art up for auction this week and next was secured early in the summer, when the world seemed a far different place. Now, with the net worth of so many buyers plummeting, auction houses have been trying to persuade sellers to lower their reserves, that is, the undisclosed minimum price that a bidder must meet for the art to be sold.

“Prices of all assets have fallen – stocks, gold, oil, real estate – and it would be unrealistic to expect works of art to be immune to the market’s pressures,” said Marc Porter, president of Christie’s in America. “We are actively encouraging consignors to set reasonable reserves.”

Thus, we enter into voodoo season for the art market. Until the numbers come out, cold sweat, gastric knots, and ‘I got a bad feeling about this’ are all we have to go by. (Mind you, these people probably aren’t even Democrats.) But reading Ms. Vogel’s story, one is touched by the thought that somewhere there is an incommensurably small and lapped section of New York where the biggest worry as of November 3, 2008, has to do with the price of a Richard Prince painting.

That, and the fascinating story of “Untitled (Boxer),” a 1982 Jean-Michel Basquiat painting owned by Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. If you ever wondered where the dollar and change royalty from your copy of Ride the Lightning went, now you know. Christie’s has estimated the painting to sell for $12,000,000 to $16,000,000.

Things Are Cold, Clammy at City Auction Houses