Sotheby’s fourth quarter off to a slow start

Sotheby’s fourth quarter off to a slow start
Courtesy Flickr Commons.

After recent reports of third quarter losses for Sotheby’s 2018 Fiscal Year, the auction house looked to Q4 (the fourth quarter) for an uptick. However, only a few weeks into Q4, Sotheby’s November 12th Impressionist and Modern Art evening sale was somewhat of a mixed bag.

In honour of Armistice Day, the auction house opened the sale with a curated selection called ‘The Beautiful and Damned: Radical Art of the Great War.’ This section aimed to capture pre, during, and post war notion while commemorating the end of World War I. Despite having artworks by Marsden Hartley, Ludwig Meidner, and Egon Schiele as catalogue highlights, the auction was strange and at times, awkward. It moved at a glacial speed with short bursts of excitement, although the evening saw a 77 percent sale through rate with $315.4 million totals landing it within Sotheby’s estimate for the evening. However, there were long periods of silence like when 10 of the final 16 lots went unsold.

A 1931 painting by Marsden Hartley headlined the sale. Hartley’s Pre-War Pageant was expected to rake in $30 million but as the gavel fell, the canvas saw only $4 million over its starting bid of $20 million. Pre-War Pageant’s $4 million from audience interest – audience interest meaning the bids above the starting bid – was unable to beat out Hartley’s 2008 record of $6.3 million set at Christie’s with Lighthouse (1915). The 1931 Hartley, which carried an in-house guarantee, will thus be left in the hands of Sotheby’s sales team to find it an appropriate home.

Persevering through somewhat underwhelming moments – even the portions shown live on social media were not what most would consider exciting – the sale forged on.

A 1937 portrait by Rene Magritte titled Le Principe du Plaisir, one of two portraits commissioned by English heir, Edward James, made its way to the top of the auction. Le Principe du Plaisir brought in $26.8 million with the buyer’s premium, though it was only estimated to make between $15 million and $20 million. These results set a new record at auction for Magritte and revitalized the auction for a bit after the Hartley passed only six lots before.

Dämmernde Stadt (Die Kleine Stadt II) (City in Twilight (The Small City II)), a dark 1913 painting of Egon Schiele’s found itself in second place by value for the evening at $21.5 million ($24.6 million with premium). The sale of Oskar Kokoschka’s 1910 Joseph de Montesquiou-Fezensac and Ernst Ludwig’s Das Soldatenbad (Artillerymen) received honourable mentions. Not only did their sales result in over $44 million, combined and with premiums, but they represent two paintings that were restituted to their rightful heirs in recent years.

The painstaking auction is not what auction houses love to see in the usually lucrative Q4 but it represents the challenges that face the art market today and could potentially foreshadow a slower market in 2019.