Record Prices, and Some Duds
By CAROL VOGEL
Published: January 31, 2013
There were record prices for artists like Fra Bartolommeo, Sandro Botticelli, Pompeo Batoni and Hans Memling at the old master painting auctions held on Wednesday and Thursday at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York. But there were also scores of works by artists like Goya, Bassano and Guercino that went unsold without so much as a bid.
Jeff Koons, Barbara Kraft
In trying to decipher the patchy results, dealers grumbled that estimates were too high. Auction house experts, trying to put a positive face on their sales, spoke of the influx of Russian buyers who bought many of the top works.
“There was a definite taste for the 18th century, and those paintings brought good prices,” said George Wachter, the worldwide co-chairman of old master paintings at Sotheby’s, after the morning session of his sale on Thursday.
Nicholas Hall, Mr. Wachter’s counterpart at Christie’s, said works that were either “really recognizable or really rare” tended to fare best. “There was bidding from three different continents for the Botticelli,” North America, Asia and Europe (in this case, Russia), he said of a devotional panel that Christie’s had named the “Rockefeller Madonna,” because it was once owned by John D. Rockefeller Jr. It sold for $10.4 million, a record for that artist at auction, on Wednesday. (It had been estimated to bring $5 million to $7 million.)
Mr. Hall also noticed an absence of dealer bidding this year, perhaps because works tended to have what he called “retail estimates,” which made it hard for bargain-hunting dealers wanting to replenish their stock.
At Sotheby’s, Batoni’s “Susanna and the Elders,” a history picture from 1751 expected to bring $6 million to $9 million, sold to a telephone bidder for $11.4 million, also a record price for that artist at auction.
Memling’s “Christ Blessing,” a panel painted on gold ground depicting Jesus, bust length, his right hand raised in blessing, brought $4.1 million. It had been in the same family for 150 years. The price was far above its $1 million to $1.5 million estimate and was another record for the artist at auction.
(Final prices include the buyer’s commission to Sotheby’s: 25 percent of the first $50,000; 20 percent of the next $50,000 to $1 million and 12 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
Few museums purchased paintings this week, experts said. One that did was the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Anthony Crichton-Stuart, a director of Noortman Master Paintings in London, bid in behalf of the museum for Fragonard’s “Goddess Aurora Triumphing Over Night,” a mythological canvas from 1755-56. It paid $3.8 million for the painting, well above its high $2.5 million estimate.
‘TULIPS’ FOR MACAU CASINO
The Las Vegas casino owner Stephen A. Wynn has collected trophy paintings by masters like Vermeer and Rembrandt, Rubens and Picasso. Many have hung either in his art gallery or on the walls of his various resorts. Recently, however, Mr. Wynn has been a quiet collector, not talking about his purchases or his sales. This week he broke his silence, acknowledging that he was the mystery telephone buyer who scooped up “Tulips” — a monumental sculpture of colorful, polished stainless-steel flowers by Jeff Koons — at Christie’s in November, paying $33.6 million, a record price for that artist at auction. A few days ago “Tulips” went on view at the Wynn Theater rotunda in Las Vegas.
“This fall I was hanging around the auction houses like all of us art junkies and saw ‘Tulips’ outside of Christie’s and thought it would be perfect for the new hotel I am building in Cotai,” he said, referring to the Cotai Strip in Macau, the gambling haven on China’s tropical southeastern coast. The $4 billion project will be Mr. Wynn’s third hotel and casino in Macau. He said he was hoping it would open in early 2016, in time for the Chinese New Year. “Tulips” will be on a turntable in one of the resort’s three lobbies. But for now it is in Las Vegas.
“It’s right at the intersection where the Encore and Wynn Theaters meet,” Mr. Wynn said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
FAVORITES AT THE MET
Museum Web sites used to offer users little more than basic information about exhibitions, collections and programs. But increasingly those behind the scenes — directors, curators, conservators and installers, even guards — are contributing their thoughts and opinions.
Two years ago the Metropolitan Museum of Art started “Connections,” in which staff members talked about a theme they had discovered in the museum’s collection. Since it began in 2011, it has been seen by 1.5 million viewers. On Friday the Met is introducing another video project, called “82nd & Fifth,” in which 100 curators talk about 100 works of art at the Met. Each curator was asked to choose something — a painting or sculpture, drawing or object — that changed the way he or she sees the world. The curators have just two minutes to tell viewers why.
“The project fits neatly with my desire to position the museum and its curators as a trusted, authoritative voice that is relevant today and rises above the clutter of crowdsourced thinking,” said Thomas P. Campbell, the Met’s director, in an e-mail from Beijing.
The series starts on Friday with six episodes and will be followed by two more every week, beginning on Wednesday at 11 a.m. It will run through Dec. 25.
In one segment Luke Syson, the curator in charge of the department of European sculpture and decorative arts, talks about Antonio Rossellino’s 15th-century marble sculpture relief titled “Madonna and Child With Angels.” Mr. Syson said that “the very nature of sculptural relief is that bridge between something that is there with you, something that is three dimensionally present and something which is like a window on another world.”
In another segment Jayson Kerr Dobney, associate curator in the department of musical instruments, discusses a guitar created by Hermann Hauser for Andrés Segovia. “When I first encountered this instrument,” he said, “I thought it was pretty plain, but to understand how it changed music history I found to be very profound.”
Each clip also allows viewers various ways to see the featured works of art or objects up close.
NEW YORK IN ROME
Norman Rosenthal, the former longtime exhibition secretary of the Royal Academy in London, will forever be known for putting together exhibitions like “Sensation,” the show of works by Young British Artists from the collection of the advertising magnate Charles Saatchi that caused quite a stir, first at the Royal Academy in 1997, and then two years later when it opened at the Brooklyn Museum. Now an independent curator, Mr. Rosenthal is still organizing shows, but focused on New York instead of London. So when the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome decided to present a series of exhibitions based on cities, he signed on to put together one on New York.
Mr. Rosenthal and Alex Gartenfeld, a New York-based curator, writer and editor, have organized “Empire State,” which explores the notion of New York as the new Rome of the art world. It opens in Rome on April 22.
“The center of the creative art world right now is New York,” said Mr. Rosenthal. “It’s the place artists are most drawn to.”
Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Gartenfeld spent about two years visiting some 150 artists’ studios. But rather than concentrate on the work of emerging artists, the show will include well-known names like Mr. Koons, Dan Graham and Julian Schnabel alongside less familiar ones including Tabor Robak, whose art primarily circulates online, and Michele Abeles, who creates inventive photomontages.
The show’s name refers both to the 2009 song “Empire State of Mind“ by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys and also Thomas Cole’s famous series of paintings, “The Course of Empire,” which were made in New York in the 1830s. “People keep talking about New York as an empire, a culture that can be exported,” Mr. Gartenfeld said.
Mr. Rosenthal called it “a poem about the creativity of New York.” Right now, strangely, there are no plans for “Empire State” to travel to New York.