Taubman art collection auction yields surprise prices

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer
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The first night of Sotheby’s auction of A. Alfred Taubman’s spectacular art collection, valued at $500 million, scored hits and misses when the gavel came down in New York on Wednesday.

Frank Stella’s powerful red geometric, “Delaware Crossing,” which Taubman bought in 1982, pulled $12 million, hitting the high end of Sotheby’s estimate, and nearly doubling the artist’s previous all-time record of $6.7 million.

But one of the evening’s big surprises was the failure of Picasso’s “Femme Assise sur une Chaise” to meet its price spread of $25 million to $35 million, selling for a gavel price of just $17.7 million, despite the earnest efforts of Sotheby’s tuxedoed auctioneer, Oliver Barker.

One art world insider, Asher Edelman, former chairman of the Brooklyn Academy of Music who now runs a firm that finances major art purchases, called the Sotheby’s estimates “insultingly high,” suggesting ultimate sales figures may have been destined to fall short in too many cases.

All in all, 32 of 77 lots failed to meet their minimum estimate. (Prices cited are gavel prices, which do not include commissions that boost the overall figure.) In total, the auction drew $377,033,999, still not too far off Sotheby’s guarantee to the Taubman estate of $500 million, with three more auctions yet to go.

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit founding director Marsha Miro said in a text Wednesday that her predictions were all way off, leading her to wonder whether foreign buyers had decided not to jump in.

“All the same,” she added, “Sotheby’s made their base on most sales, which isn’t bad at all.”

“They may make their $500 million guarantee,” Edelman wrote, “but they’re not going to make much profit.”

Wednesday’s “Masterworks” auction included 77 high points from Taubman’s collection of early Modern and Contemporary works.

Global economic uncertainty, of course, may be playing a much bigger role in these sorts of auctions than one year ago. But whatever the artworks pulled, there’s no denying that the 77 “Masterworks” assembled were choice, by anybody’s standards.

“Almost everything in this auction is just great,” Miro said, nodding in particular to a Picasso work on paper, “Tete de Femme,” and “La Clownesse Cha-U-Kao” by Toulouse-Lautrec that she suggested “really shows his powers of observation.”

Birmingham collector SuSu Sosnick, who once had her portrait painted by Andy Warhol, called the exhibition for sale Wednesday evening and Thursday “quite exquisite,” adding, “Sotheby’s mixed the old and the new so beautifully.”

Sosnick calls Taubman, who died in April at 91, “a dear friend.”

The auction hall was packed with potential bidders and an endless sea of smiling Sotheby’s employees, all dressed in black tuxedos or little black dresses. Banks of video cameras made things feel a bit like a highly civilized sporting event, while dozens of formally dressed operators worked the phones taking bids from all around the world. (Alas, purchasers’ identities are not revealed.)

Very few bids came in from the assembled audience, virtually all were by phone.

Proceeds from the auction, which Sotheby’s has guaranteed at $500 million after a bidding war with Christie’s, will pay taxes on Taubman’s considerable estate, with the balance funding the Taubman Foundation in Michigan.

“This is a good night for Detroit,” said Christopher Tennyson, the family’s spokesman. “The foundation will focus on institutions the family loves in southeast Michigan,” among them the Detroit Institute of Arts, where Taubman was a huge contributor over the years.

He was a major philanthropist who gave generously to educational and cultural institutions around Metro Detroit, including the University of Michigan, to which he donated nearly $155 million.

Tennyson added that all of Taubman’s children — Robert, William and Gayle — planned to attend the auction, as well as his widow, Judith, who’s estranged from the kids.

The artworks originally hung in one of Taubman’s four homes in Bloomfield Hills; Palm Beach, Fla.; Southampton, N.Y.; and New York City. In a nice touch, Sotheby’s plastered its elevators inside and out with images of those residences.

Taubman bought Sotheby’s in 1983, and ran it until he was convicted of price-fixing with Christie’s in 2001. He served just under a year in a minimum-security federal prison, and ultimately sold his controlling share in the auction house in 2005.

One concern some have voiced is that most of the works sold are likely to fall into private collections, effectively disappearing from view – including seven Baroque works Taubman had given the DIA on longterm loan. (Those will be sold at the Old Masters auction, the last of the four, on Jan. 21.)

Before the auction, Edelman precicted that there would be a lot of “telephone bids from China and Russia,” but noted that purchases from the latter have rapidly slowed in recent months along with the drop in oil prices.

Foreigners, particularly in newly rich societies where artwork is taken as a sign of success, are likely to be enthusiastic about the 19th and 20th century works on sale, he suggested.

“Americans have moved away from early Modern and Impressionism,” said Edelman, “unless it’s something very special. But others often buy for that ‘blam!’”

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