Lehman’s Hirst Spurned by Art Buyers

Ouch. Two names emblematic of the profligate economic boom took a hit on Saturday

Sotheby’s held its bankruptcy court-forced sale of the collection of Lehman Brothers and Neuberger Berman and, while the overall results were strong, there was one notable failure.

Damien Hirst’s 1993 We’ve got Style, (The Vessel Collection, blue/green) failed to find a buyer at a pre-sale estimate circling $1 million. Ironically, Hirst had a record $198 million one-artist auction in London on the same day in 2008, Sept. 15, that Lehman filed for bankruptcy. Prior to the Lehman sale, Sergey Skaterschikov, head of Skate’s Art Investment Research, had predicted that if the console of gleaming objects failed to sell, it would “depress” Hirst collectors and dry up the artist’s market liquidity worldwide.

Overall, however, the auction was a success, coming in at the higher end of Sotheby’s pre-sale estimate at $12.3 million, with 83% of the art sold. The sale was keenly watched both because of its tabloid-times nature and because it was the first major contemporary art sale of the fall season. But it was a sedate, thinly attended event – the Sotheby’s employees manning the phones and guarding the works almost outnumbered the audience.

New York collector Larry Warsh, who currently has artworks loaned to, and on view at, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art, was at the sale bidding.  He was seeking Chinese contemporary artist Fang Lijun’s “Suimmer No. 1,” a work he said would have been priced much higher at a Hong Kong auction. Four bidders vied for the painting up from $200,000, including Warsh, who dropped out at $300,000. The winning phone bid was $310.000.

Proceeds from the sale go to Lehman Brothers creditors, though the bulk of the collection was amassed by the investment bankers’ money management unit Neuberger-Berman. Lehman bought the company in 2003 and has since sold it. 

Neuberger had an unusual strategy:  It bought low-cost works by emerging artists and also bottom-fished for works by bigger name ones, sometimes buying what had failed to sell at auction. In some cases, Neuberger Berman had paid about $25,000 for artworks, by artists likd as John Currin and Mark Grotjahn, that sold for about 10 times that at the auction. According to people close to the matter, executives of Neuberger-Berman overlooked the sale from a private skybox.

Seventeen artist’s records were set. A $1.02 million record was set for Julie Mehretu’s “Untitled,” 2001. Though far from a household name, her work was recently added to the Goldman, Sachs corporate collection. A few of the 142 Lehman works up for sale were bought by the Buenos Aires Museum, which paid $92,500 for a Robert Longo.

Christie’s will sell works owned by the European offices of Lehman at an auction Sept. 29.

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