In Today’s Art Market, the Early Bird Gets the Worm

“In the day sales, some of the estimates have moved down sufficiently to attract buyers back,” said Jennifer Vorbach, an art adviser who attended Sotheby’s day sale. “There was more bidding by the trade for inventory, as well from collectors.”

Such was the case with a 2006 Fred Tomaselli painting, Abductor, which set a new record of $1.082 million for the artist during that sale. The work, Sotheby’s confirmed later, was purchased by an unidentified gallery.

“It had a great estimate,” said Tomaselli’s primary dealer, James Cohan. The $250,000-350,000 pre-sale estimate Sotheby’s hung on the work was tantalizing to a number of bidders, including Cohan. “I would have bid on it at that level if I’d had the chance but it went by me.”

Scott Nussbaum, head of the Sotheby’s day sale, said that he could put a conservative estimate on the Tomaselli because it came from a cache of 16 lots offered by a European collector. That consignor, who also put up pieces like William Kentridge’s Preparing the Flute, which sold for $602,500 over another tight $200,000 high estimate, a Kara Walker installation and a Mike Kelley work on paper that both sold above estimates moments before the Tomaselli, was inclined to follow Nussbaum’s advice.

“Any time you have a good relationship with a consignor and they are willing to trust us implicitly with estimates,” Nussbaum said, “we see a much better result.”

Low estimates aren’t there just to attract buying from the trade, but they certainly help. At Christie’s day sale, David Mugrabi, John Berggruen and a smattering of other dealers milled about the salesroom; David and Helly Nahmad of the powerful art dealing family hung along the back wall, waiting to bid on a small grey abstract Gerhard Richter painting that would eventually sell to another bidder for $542,000.

“We’re at that point where dealers need to have some inventory,” said Jonathan Laib, who ran the morning sale at Christie’s, “because there is enough action out there that needs to be covered.”

As important as dealers are to his business, though, Laib had his eye on a different clientele: private collectors. “I do believe that our strategy with our estimates helps to attract more of those private people who are sometimes turned off by the galleries who are offering works at very high retail prices,” he said.

In the current art market environment, where prices are easily learned, collectors want to be on an equal footing with dealers. Laib pointed to the top 10 results from the day sale, where six works were bought by collectors–including Robert Indiana’s massive sculpture Love Red/Blue, which went for $4.1 million, and a George Condo painting that brought $1.05 million, both sales setting new auction records for the artist–as evidence that the strategy is working.

Collectors and dealers alike are looking for the next big opportunity. After 2010’s unexpected recovery in the art market, the next leg up depends upon the market’s ability to find new artists who can attract strong prices. Increasingly, day sales are where those artists will be found.


In Today’s Art Market, the Early Bird Gets the Worm