The S.I. Newhouse Auction: 16 Paintings, $177.8 Million

One might expect paintings from the illustrious collection of the late magazine publisher S.I. Newhouse Jr. — by Picasso, de Kooning, Lichtenstein and Bacon, among others — to generate some fireworks in the art market.

Yet even with that provenance, the Thursday evening sale at Christie’s that kicked off the spring 2023 auction season was muted. Most of the 16 lots went for solid if predictable prices at, or just above, their estimates, for a total of $177.8 million. This may well be because the market has cooled in response to recession fears and spending sprees during the pandemic.

But it is also because every item had been guaranteed — essentially presold to buyers who had promised to pay undisclosed minimum prices — adding credence to the increasingly common lament that sales have lost the suspense that used to animate bidding in the room and make auctions exciting.

While they may dampen the sense of spectacle, guarantees are now considered a staple of the auction market, as they enable sellers to hedge their risk should consignments go unsold.

In stark contrast to the high-flying $100 million masterpieces recorded recently — and the explosive prices paid for art owned by Microsoft’s co-founder, Paul G. Allen, last November — Thursday night’s sale was Roman candles. The highest estimate in the Christie’s sale was about $25 million for Willem de Kooning’s 1947 black-and-white “Orestes.”

That important early painting — said to have marked the artist’s transition from figuration to abstraction — sold for $30.9 million with fees, with back-and-forth bids by phone.

The highest price of the evening was $34.6 million with fees, for a 1969 self-portrait by Francis Bacon. (The total for the evening was midway between Christie’s high estimate of $202 million and its low estimate of $142 million.)

Since Newhouse’s death, in 2017, his estate has been selling works privately and at auction under the guidance of the former prominent Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer. Thursday’s sale was the third group of consignments. Newhouse’s 1986 Jeff Koons “Rabbit” sculpture, for example, set an auction high for the artist when it sold for $91 million at Christie’s in 2109.

Other highlights included Picasso’s colorful “L’Arlésienne (Lee Miller),” one of seven portraits Picasso painted of the American photographer Lee Miller as an Arlésienne during a 1937 trip. The piece sold for $24.6 million on an estimate of $20 million to $30 million.

“That’s not a picture for everyone — it’s too wild for some people,” the collector Alberto Mugrabi said, remarking on the low-energy bidding for the work. But he added, “I loved it.”

The painting also had a peculiar back story. Legend has it that Miller accidentally stepped into oncoming traffic and was pulled to safety by Condé Nast himself, who signed her as a Vogue model. She later studied photography under Man Ray and entered into a relationship with him. “We lived together for three years,” Miller later recalled. “I was known as Madame Man Ray, because that’s how they do things in France.”

Christie’s executives were banking on the appetites of collectors for irreplaceable works. Max Carter, the company’s vice chairman for 20th- and 21st-century art, said the sale had been brokered in the wake of the Allen sale, which hit the $1.5 billion mark at Christie’s in November, making it the biggest sale in auction history. “Those were results we could work on,” Carter said.

Not everyone believes that the market can handle more blockbuster sales. “There might be more supply than demand for objects that aren’t total masterpieces,” said Joshua Holdeman, an art adviser. “The auction didn’t feel like it had the frothiness expected from a collection sale where everything sells for four or five times its estimate.”

The art adviser Todd Levin participated in the auction on behalf of two clients, but he ultimately withdrew from bidding. He had previously told Christie’s that its estimates for three Jasper Johns paintings were too high. All three works failed to reach their low estimates.

“I was underwhelmed” about the auction, he said.

Still, the art market has defied the basic rules of economics before, and experts pointed out that exceptional artworks could still outmaneuver logic. Artworks in the Newhouse trove that qualified as remarkable paintings included one of Lee Bontecou’s haunting canvas contortions, which sold for $8.7 million (estimated at $3 million to $5 million )

Despite the lackluster tenor of the Newhouse sale, the coming auction week is expected to bring nearly $2 billion into the art market. The second auction Christie’s held on Thursday night, for its 20th century offerings, raised $328.8 million — a healthy number but not an explosively high one.

Holdeman, who formerly worked at Christie’s and Sotheby’s, said the market was in a recalibration period because of economic uncertainty and an overstuffed season of paintings. “Everyone will need to take a careful look at their estimates and reserves,” he observed. “The auctions are carefully orchestrated with evenly leveraged sales,” he added. “But there is not crazy money out there like before.”

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