A couple of days ago, on November 4th, Sotheby's held an art auction. On the block were 77 works from the collection of the late A. Alfred Taubman, the billionaire former real estate developer who bought the auction house in 1983 and nursed it back to health, protecting it from predators along the way. (Sotheby's is lately doing very well.)
Artnet wrote a fascinating article about the sale. The headline on the email (not the article itself) was "Weak Bidding Characterizes Sotheby's Tepid $377 Million Taubman Sale."
$377 million in one night and everyone's unhappy, apparently.
At issue were a number of underperforming offerings. The painting at the top, Picasso's Femme assise sur une chaise (1938), was supposed to draw $25–35 million and stunk up the room by stalling at $17 million and hammering for only $20 million including the auction house's premium. (Room was full of pikers, obviously.)
More satisfactory was Amedeo Modigliani's Portrait de Paulette Jourdain (circa 1919), which was forecast at the same $25–35 million level but "drew a volley of bids from all over the room before being hammered down for $38 million, or $42.8 million with premium." (Well, whew, finally, somebody with a little cash.)
So I was just wondering. Could the relative performance of the two sales have anything to do with the fact that the Modigliani is...dare I even mention this...a much better painting?
First, look at that Picasso. Look at it hard for a few minutes. Does it work, do you think? He was a great artist (visiting Mother and Child (1921) at the Art Institute of Chicago is a near religious experience—in fact, if you want to appreciate Picasso, the AIC is a great place to make a pilgrimage to), but to my eye he created a higher percentage of misses than many major painters. I've been trying to put forward for a while now (well, only in photography) the notion that the concept of a work of art isn't everything—it also has to be good to look at in some way. To my eye, Femme assise sur une chaise is one of Picasso's many duds, however impressive to the cool kids it must have been in 1938.
But really now—it's a rectangle of canvas with oil paint on it, and it looks more or less like the JPEG above, and it pulled 20 million dollars. Let those facts percolate for a sec. I'm just an Artnet reader, not an art critic, but my takeaway is that getting an admittedly paltry and pikerish $20 million for that eyesore ain't actually half bad, is it? I'd wager Taubman himself kept that one in the closet. If I were the sellers, I might consider myself pretty well rid of the thing. Off you go.
And that handsome Modigliani is another story altogether. It does seem to me like it's worth twice as much, indeed, on whatever scale we're using.
(JPEGs courtesy of Sotheby's)
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Featured Comments from:
G Dan Mitchell: "This gets at something that is a basic (and obvious) issue, the question of how a thing that made its initial impression more on its newness and conceptual value will hold up when neither the concept or newness are longer an issue—will it simply work as art? I like Picasso, but in this case I have to agree with you."
Hans Muus: "Re 'The concept of a work of art isn't everything—it also has to be good to look at in some way.' Great! Made me laugh. And I couldn't agree more. (It needn't be easy to be appreciated as looking good, but that is another matter.)"