Will $500 Million Gamble on Taubman Collection Pay Off?

TaubmanIt is hard to imagine selling $420 million in art in an estate sale is not good news. But, unless more sales are forthcoming, it could be bad news for Sotheby’s, which sold that much of the art owned by the late A. Alfred Taubman this week. Sotheby’s auction house needs to generate a lot more sales from Taubman’s massive collection in the coming week to make its $500 million gamble pay off.

The art world and others have watched with morbid curiosity to see whether the sale of the Michigan shopping-mall magnate, who at one point was head of Sotheby’s, would bring in the $500 million – the highest amount ever – that the company guaranteed and paid for the auction rights. Sotheby’s bet that the results from four Taubman collection auctions, the first two of which were this week, would top the promised payout after they engaged in a bidding war with Christie’s that boosted the price considerably. Sotheby’s fought so hard for the consignment undoubtedly because it would have been embarrassing going to the competition considering TaubmaTaubmann’s former role at their firm.

The auction house heavily marketed the sale, coming six months after his death at age 91, of the vast Taubman private collection, which included some works that have been prominently displayed in the Detroit Institute of Arts. The assemblage does include some marquee names, but not their best works. There are pieces by such well-known artists as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Mark Rothko, Amedeo Modigliani, Willem de Kooning, Paul Gaugin and Edgar Degas.

In the first two auctions, buyers did bid enthusiastically for some pieces that Taubman bought early in his collecting, like a Modigliani, which he bought in 1983, that was the star of the first day’s bidding. The piece, Paulette Jourdain, sold for $42.8 million, which was well over the painting’s $25 million estimate. However, that amount is low for a work by that artist.

The other top draws were a de Kooning and a Rothko that took in $24.9 and $20.4 million each. Additionally, a 1938 Picasso portrait of his lover Dora Maar, entitled Femme Assise Sue Une Chaise, that the businessman reportedly bought for $5.3 million in designer Gianni Versace’s 1999 estate sale, sold for $20.1 million in this week’s efforts.

Conversely, a Jasper Johns abstract, Disappearance I, which was expected to sell for at least $15 million, did not receive any bids. Additionally, a Degas nude of a woman brushing her hair with a $15 million estimated price did not sell.

The spotty bidding and unsold pieces reflect Taubman’s taste and reported tendency to scoop up remainders after auctions held while he worked at Sotheby’s. Unlike others who amassed vast collections, like Eli Broad, Taubman curated his own purchases. (Broad, in contrast, has engaged professional curators for decades.) Furthermore, in many private owner estate sales, pieces go on the auction block that have not been available for sale for decades. However, this sale includes a lot of pieces he purchased in recent years, so there is no pent up demand. Additionally, one dealer quoted in the Wall Street Journal, pointed out that a lot of those works were pieces that did not sell when auctioned last time. “He bought auction leavings, and the market knew it,” the dealer noted.

Sotheby’s has auctions of Taubman’s American art and old masters coming up to try and boost the total earned for the collection over the $500 million needed to pay off their gamble. There are works by Thomas Gainsborough, Albrecht Dürer, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent and Charles Burchfield, but none will generate the millions that works in the first week earned.

Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss

Bloomberg: One Man’s Art Collection Just Sold for (Only) $420 Million
Financial Times: The Art Market: Italians in NYC
Detroit News: Second Taubman art auction does better
Wall Street Journal: Sotheby’s Auctions a $377 Million Portion of Taubman Estate
New York Times: Warmer Response at Sotheby’s 2nd Night of Auctions
New York Post: The vast collection of the art world’s anti-hero

Photos of works by De Kooning and Rothko from Sotheby’s