Still Standing at Sotheby’s – Abstract Pays for Concrete
Clyfford Still still lives – in bigger numbers than ever.
Tonight at Sotheby’s in New York, four paintings by Still brought more than $114 million. The paintings, consigned by the city of Denver to raise money for the new Clyfford Still Museum, brought a better return than the auction house estimated and a bigger windfall than the city imagined.
Yet one man’s windfall is another man’s warning. Critics of the practice of selling from museum collections see the sale as a temptation that could bring other museums to the block if cashing in on your storeroom looks this easy.
In an evening that brought in more than $315 million at Sotheby’s – hammer prices plus buyers’ premium – the Stills led the way. The first abstraction, 1949-A-No. 1, rallied bidders to reach a $55 million hammer price ($61,682,500) and set a record for Still at auction, as a gaggle of Denverites watched from a private viewing room overlooking the sale floor. Champagne continued to pour when 1947-Y-No. 2 brought a hammer price of $28 million. A decorative abstraction from 1976 (PH-1033) rose to $17.5 million, in what appeared to be a mood that lifted the fortunes of a minor work. The pace had slowed by the time that (PH-351) from 1940 came up, but the Stills had broken $100 million, reaching $114.1 million with premium, more than a third of Sotheby’s total of $315,837, 000 this evening. It was the best result for a Sotheby’s contemporary evening sale since 2008.
An auction record for Gerhard Richter was also set by Abstraktes Bild from 1997, at $20,802,500. Other records were set for works by David Hammons (Untitled, an ensemble of African masks laid upon each other and jutting outward, $2,266,500) and Cady Noland (Ooozewald, a silkscreen of Lee Harvey Oswald, with white circles resembling bullet holes, from 1989, $6,578,500.)
The post-sale atmosphere was triumphant at Sotheby’s, all the more so since the auction house prevailed over the threat of a legal challenge by Christie’s to Denver’s deal with Sotheby’s. Christie’s described Denver’s decision to sell at Sotheby’s “arbitrary and capricious.” In the what-were-they-thinking department, Christie’s seemed to be suggesting that it could file charges against any potential client who chose to give a consignment to the competition.
There were skeptics, like Richard Feigen, who said, “I’ve got a show up right now, and you could buy the whole show for the price of one of these very bad paintings.”
Feigen and others said the success of the Denver Clyfford Stills could encourage a stampede of selling from museums desperate to raise funds. Guidelines of the Association of Art Museum Directors permit deaccessioning (sales of art from museum collections) only if the proceeds are used to buy similar works of art, not to build buildings.
Last week’s Impressionist and Modern evening sale at Sotheby’s included works being sold by the Museum of fine Arts Boston and the Israel Museum. It’s safe to assume that many other museums were watching tonight sale with envy. Critics warn against the temptation of what they call “lazy man’s fundraising.”
Oddly, the smart money in the market did not seem to be selling. Few cutting edge works by younger artists were on the block, an indication that dealers were wary of being forced to bid up their own artists’ prices during a weak economy.