The $500 Million Art Sale

January 13, 2016


THE PREVIEW When I read that Sotheby’s auction house was having a $500 million sale of art from the estate of billionaire Alfred Taubman, who died in April 2015, I said to myself, “This I have to see.”

To take a look at the art on October 26th, I went up to Sotheby’s, which is located on York Avenue between 71st and 72nd. After entering the building I was greeted by an elegant Grace Kelly-type who gave me directions.

I took the elevator up to the 10th floor that had been completely redesigned to showcase the sale. I was stunned by what I saw. Renowned names were everywhere: Degas, Braque, Matisse, Pollock, Giacometti – and on and on -- one after another.

Danseuses En Blanc by Degas sold for $17,050,000

Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

The two-day preview was well attended. At one point I passed a woman who commented to her friend, “I wonder how many of these people will actually attend the auction.”

THE EVENING AUCTION I think everyone wanted to go. I definitely did, so I gave my name and email address to a handsome young man, who told me I needed a ticket and that I would be notified by email.

I decided to take matters into my own hands and called Sotheby’s every day from October 27th until Wednesday, November 4th, the day of the auction. At 3pm on that day I received an email: “the requests for tickets have been in high demand”. That meant “no ticket”, but I could watch the entire sale at at 7pm.

What a performance! I was riveted by what I was seeing on the screen. The highlight was the sale of Modigliani’s portrait of Paulette Jourdain, one of Taubman’s favorites. This masterpiece, which attracted five bidders, had a Sotheby estimate of $25 million and ultimately sold for over $42.5 million.

Modigliani’s Paulette Jourdain had five bidders and sold for $42,810,000

Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

I was amazed at the speed of the auction and the skill of the auctioneer, Oliver Barker, who was charming, relaxed and pleasantly ruthless. He made people compete without pushing too hard. The bidding moved rapidly. A Henry Moore 28-inch bronze sculpture, Mother and Child, went from $4.3 million to $6.7 million in a matter of minutes.

Henry Moore’s Mother and Child with Apple 28 inches high, sold for $6,746,000

Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

THE NEXT MORNING The email I’d received on November 4th also invited me to attend a second Taubman auction, on-site at Sotheby’s, the next day at 10am. I couldn’t help but compare this one with the night before.

The evening sale had two phone desks with 20 Sotheby specialists at each desk handling bids. The morning one had five desks with 20 Sotheby personnel at each one. However, the evening auction was more formal. Everyone was in elegant black attire. Who doesn’t look great in a tuxedo or a little black dress?

The two things all Sotheby employees have in common are impeccable manners coupled with great looks. I’ve never seen so many handsome men and stunning women in one place in my life. I enjoyed the morning auction on-site at Sotheby’s, but for sheer drama the evening got my vote.

THE BOTTOM LINE The Taubman auction resulted in 90% of art sold in two hours. A third auction was held on Thursday night and on November 7th I clicked on the Sotheby website and saw, in big, bold letters:


“In just 26 hours and over three consecutive auctions, more than $725 million of art – including masterpieces by Picasso, Van Gogh, Modigliani and Rothko – changed hands in Sotheby’s New York salesroom this week. (Of this, $420 million was raised in the collection of Alfred Taubman.)”

Delaware Crossing by Frank Stella sold for $13,690,000 (he was born in 1936 and still lives and works in New York)

Photo courtesy of Sotheby’s

It’s not over. Two more Taubman auctions are scheduled. It boggles the mind.

Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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