Taubman American Art Evening Sale Misses Low Estimate at Sotheby’s

Is the auction house in hot water?

The Great Florida Sunset, Martin Johnson Heade, 1887.
The Great Florida Sunset, Martin Johnson Heade, 1887.

Would A. Alfred Taubman roll over in his grave if he knew what his collection was putting his former firm through? The auctions of the late real estate developer and former Sotheby's Chairman’s art collection continued last night at the York Avenue auction house, and results were again milk-warm at best.

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While on its surface the sale was not a disaster—the sell through rate was 74 percent by lot—many works failed to meet their low estimate. There were audible murmurs on the bidding floor, as some works sold for well below the low estimate, such as The Great Florida Sunset by Martin Johnson Heade, which, though it broke a record for the artist at auction, had a low estimate of $7 million and sold for $5.85 million including the buyer’s premium.

A Winslow Homer late in the sale was another example of a shockingly low sale price: $7,500 with premium for A Rural Couple, a work with a low estimate of $30,000.

Why were estimates so high? Or, rather, why were works not simply passed on when they failed to inspire better pricing? It’s unclear. However, the evening’s $13 million total for 31 lots failed to meet the evening’s total low estimate of $15.2 million.

In fairness, there was a healthy appetite for a few artists—Milton Avery’s Female Gamester netted $580,000, over the high estimate of $300,000, and his Beach Lizards also garnered $322,000 with premium, a result in between the estimates. Two Charles Burchfields, Cicada Song in September and House Abandoned to the Insects, also landed solidly in between their estimates, which, tellingly, was fairly rare during the sale as a whole.

Last evening’s auction was the third of four auctions of the Taubman collection, the largest private art collection by value ever to hit the auction block. So far, $21.7 million in American art, $42.7 in Contemporary and Modern art and $377 million from the “Masterworks” auction has been sold, according to the house.

As we’ve previously reported, the collection has become a bit of a thorn in Sotheby’s side, as they guaranteed the entire mega-collection in order to secure the business (they weren’t about to let rival Christie’s sell the collection of their former chairman, even if he did go to prison for price-fixing in the 1990s).

But Sotheby’s may be struggling. Last week, the house began offering employee buyouts. And the company’s stock prices (it is traded on the NYSE) have steadily fallen over the last six months, according to published reports.

The next auction in the ongoing Taubman saga is set for January 27, 2016.

Taubman American Art Evening Sale Misses Low Estimate at Sotheby’s