2017-05-18 07:00:02
Contemporary Art Buyers Cautious After Wall Street Dips

A substantial fall on Wall Street cooled demand Wednesday night at a Christie’s auction of contemporary works that was regarded by many as the first serious test of the art market in the Trump economy.

The 71-lot sale raised $448.1 million with fees against a low estimate of $339 million. Ninety-six percent of the works found buyers — helped by the auction house’s guaranteeing the minimum price of no fewer than 39 works — but bidders were conspicuously cautious, and few lots sold significantly above their estimates. Fifty-five percent of the lots were bought by American bidders, Christie’s said.

“If Wall Street hadn’t taken a dive, there would have been fireworks,” said David Benrimon, a New York dealer. “While the sale was strong over all, it did change the mood among American bidders, and these contemporary sales are about Americans.”

The core of Christie’s sale was a group of 25 works formerly owned by the eminent Kings Point, N.Y., collectors Emily and Jerry Spiegel, who both died in 2009. In September, their collection was divided between their daughters, Pamela Sanders and Lise Spiegel Wilks, who were reported to be feuding. Ms. Sanders is selling a total of 107 pieces with a value of more than $100 million at Christie’s while Ms. Wilks will be offering a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting valued at $60 million at Sotheby’s on Thursday night. Both sisters have been guaranteed minimum prices by the auction houses.

Ms. Sanders’ most highly valued Spiegel collection works at Christie’s were Sigmar Polke’s 1964 Ben-Day dot canvas, “Frau mit Butterbrot,” and “Untitled,” a 1988 Christopher Wool word painting emblazoned with “PLEASE” six times. Both works sold toward the low end of their estimates to telephone bidders, for $17 million and $17.2 million.

The Spiegel pieces, all of which were guaranteed — which can in itself sometimes dampen demand — raised $116 million against an estimate of $79 million.

Tellingly, the two highest-bid lots in Christie’s sale were both offered without guarantees. Cy Twombly’s six-foot-tall abstract, “Leda and the Swan,” was fresh to the auction market and was valued at $35 million to $55 million. It attracted at least five bidders before going to the dealer Larry Gagosian, who was in the room to bid the night’s top price of $52.9 million.

Francis Bacon’s brooding “Three Studies for a Portrait of George Dyer” from 1963 was also fresh to the market without a guarantee. Entered from a private collection in Paris, having previously been owned by the author Roald Dahl, this triptych of expressive head studies of the artist’s lover was estimated to sell for at least $50 million — an auction high for Bacon canvases of smaller format. It attracted two telephone bidders and a winning bid of $51.8 million, including fees.

“The Bacon could have done a bit better,” said Ivor Braka, a private dealer based in London. “Because it wasn’t glazed, it lacked luster.”

Mr. Braka added that the bidding was “measured and stable — unlike the politics in this country.”

Mr. Braka said that demand was all the more measured because of some ambitious estimates. Eyebrows were raised before the sale by Christie’s $13 million valuation on a monumental and thickly textured abstract by Mark Grotjahn, “Untitled (S III Released to France Face 43.14),” dating from 2011. The painting had been acquired by Patrick Seguin, a collector and dealer in 20th-century design based in Paris, directly from the artist for an undisclosed price.

Paintings by Mr. Grotjahn, who is based in California, are on the shopping lists of many wealthy collectors, but this work was valued — and guaranteed by a third party — at a level that was exactly double the artist’s previous auction high. Nonetheless, two telephone bidders pushed the price up to $16.8 million.

“It was a strong estimate, but we went for it,” said Alex Rotter, Christie’s co-chairman of postwar and contemporary art in the Americas. He added: “It’s a competitive environment, and that leads to certain price expectations. I was worried when I looked at the stock market today, but if a lot sells for a couple of ticks above estimate, that’s a success.”