Sotheby’s Modern And Impressionist Art Auction Tanks


Last night, Sotheby’s (BID), the publicly traded auctioner of fine art, held its Modern and Impressionist Art auction in New York City.

It didn’t go well.  Of the 76 artworks up for sale only 56 sold.  Total sales were $270 million – 25% below the low estimate of $355 million (Press Release, “At Sotheby’s Art Auction, Buyers Were Not Impressed”, Thursday November 8, The New York Times).

There’s been a lot of concern lately that problems in financial markets might infect the soaring art market (See “Art’s Anxiety Attack” (subscription required), Sept 22, The Wall Street Journal ).  Auctioners, art dealers and collectors have played down the impact, saying that foreign buyers will pick up any slack from Wall Street.

But if last night’s auction is any indication that might not be the case.

Prior to the auction, a lot of emphasis was placed on the bidding for Van Gogh’s “Wheat Fields” (Image).  Insiders said the 1890 landscape painted just before the artist’s death would provide insight into the art market’s health.  The last van Gogh landscape came to auction in 1995 and sold for $27 million.

“I could see it going to at least $40 million, and probably $45 to $50 million.  Van Gogh is a magic name, and they don’t come up very often,” said one of New York City’s most prominent art dealers, Richard Feigen.

Shockingly, the painting failed to sell and nobody even bid: “When the painting appeared on the turntable, the overflowing audience at Sotheby’s became eerily silent.  Not a hand went up.”

The bright spot of the night was the sale of Gauguin’s “Te Poipoi”, a 1892 painting of a Tahitian woman lifting her dress to her waist and squatting in water (Image), which sold for $35 million – though that was still below its estimated range of $40 – $60 million.

Overall, though, the auction appears to have been a major disappointment.

Sotheby’s shares are being taken to the woodshed today.  The stock is the worst performer on the NYSE today, down 34%.  More than 20 million of 66 million outstanding shares, almost a third of the company, have traded hands so far today – and there’s still an hour left.

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