Sotheby’s and Taubman… over-marketed, perhaps



The winter cease-fire has begun as the auction firms close out their year and prepare for their next sales in the first quarter 2016. Sotheby’s is already well prepared for the sale of Old Masters belonging to Alfred Taubman, the businessman-collector who presided over the illustrious auction company from 1983 to 2005. The sale, scheduled for January 27, 2016, will be the fourth and last assignment under the Alfred Taubman label.

The autumn of 2015 already saw three Sotheby’s sessions dedicated to Taubman’s very extensive collection. The first and largest session (by volume) took place on 4 November and offered 77 handpicked masterpieces amidst a frenzy of media attention. The sale generated a total of $377 million (including 12 works that fetched over $10 million each, and Amedeo Modigliani’s portrait of Paulette Jourdain, which reached $42.81 million), an impressive result for a private collection, but nevertheless disappointing compared with expectations.

Two weeks later a third and substantially smaller Taubman session offered a catalogue of 19th and 20th century American Art that attracted much less media attention. The sale generated $13 million and signed a new auction record for the artist Martin Johnson HEADE at $5.85 million (The Great Florida Sunset); but even that result was disappointing compared to its estimate of $7 – 10 million.

After a difficult first semester for Sotheby’s (its share price fell 7.45% in the first six months of the year), the worse-than-expected results from the Taubman sales have aggravated the firm’s share price even further (-16% after the November sales). In effect, a combination of the high costs associated with preparing and organizing major sales, the guarantees (Sotheby’s has offered the Taubman family alone a guarantee of $500 million) and the general absence of overbidding, has put Sotheby’s in a difficult spot. Its new Director, Tad Smith, has already announced a voluntary departures program for the company that could possibly prefigure a more aggressive redundancy plan. But Smith’s money-saving initiatives are not the only measures Sotheby’s is taking to put its house in order; the firm has recently hired the former head of Christie’s America, Marc Porter (December 2015).

The fourth session of the Taubman sale will take place on 27 January 2016 and for the occasion Sotheby’s has announced rare pieces by Renaissance artists RAPHAEL and Albrecht DÜRER – “two of the most iconic names in the history of art”. Although these signatures are indeed in the catalog, the pieces on offer are not particularly spectacular: Raphael’s oil Portrait of Valerio Belli is painted on a small oval panel measuring 12 centimetres across. The work — one of the few Raphaëls still in private hands — is estimated at $2 to 3 million. As for the Dürer piece, it’s an ink drawing of Christ nailed to the cross, estimated $1 to 1.5 million. The highlight of the sale will be Thomas GAINSBOROUGH’s Blue Page, which is expected to generate between $3 and 4 million. Apart from these three masterpieces, the sale doesn’t really have a great deal to get excited about.

Fortunately for Sotheby’s it has programmed a far more exciting Old Masters sale for the following day (January 28, 2016). Apart from some superb paintings by Cranach and Jordaens, buyers will get an opportunity to bid for one of the most important Baroque paintings seen at auction for decades: Orazio GENTILESCHI’s superb Danae that visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art have been able to admire over the last two years. If it sells within its estimated range of $25 – 35 million it will set a stunning new record for Gentileschi, whose current auction record has stood at $7 million for 20 years (since the sale of The Finding of Moses at Sotheby’s London, on 6 December 1995).

So as the series of Taubman sales draws to a close it does rather look as though Sotheby’s may have focused rather too much attention (and perhaps cash as well) on the AAT collection at the expense of other qualitatively more interesting sales…