Art Auction Datapoint of the Day

Remember those furtive seller’s rebates from auction houses? Georgina Adam says that in at least one instance they might have risen to include the entire buyer’s premium:

In some cases the whole of the buyer’s premium was given to the seller, as well as the vendor’s premium being waived entirely. This is believed to be the arrangement David Rockefeller made with Sotheby’s when he sold Mark Rothko’s 1950 “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)” for $72.8m (ߣ36.7m) in May last year.

If anybody can pull off that kind of negotiation, it would be David Rockefeller — good for him, for not only selling at the very top of the market, but also getting Sotheby’s to act as a middleman for free.

Adam goes on to say that there’s still uncertainty over the identity of the buyer of one of the most expensive paintings ever sold at auction:

The best known is the 2006 sale of Picasso’s 1941 “Dora Maar au Chat”, for which a buyer buried half way down Sotheby’s saleroom put in an unexpected and winning bid of $95.2m. The painting’s owner is believed to be Russian or Ukrainian, but nobody, even most of the people at Sotheby’s, knows for sure.

I thought it was pretty well accepted at this point that the buyer was Boris Ivanishvili — the chap who also famously spent $11.3 million on a Peter Doig in 2007. Ben Lewis and

Jonathan Ford, in their excellent article on the contemporary art bubble, even have the kind of details it’s hard to make up:

The Georgian Boris Ivanishvili spent $95m on Picasso’s Dora Maar au Chat–a work of art that he still hasn’t unpacked. When it was flown back to Tbilisi, the airport was closed down and the army turned out to ensure the work’s transfer to a secure warehouse.

I do hope though that the art press will pay attention to another of Adam’s points:

Estimates can be meaningless. Vendors’ expectations can be too high; the auction house may have agreed to an inflated estimate on one work in order to bag others. Alternatively, the estimate can be unrealistically low, to attract potential buyers. Proving the point, Christie’s buries this disclaimer in its conditions of sale: “Estimates of the selling price should not be relied on as a statement of the price at which the item will sell or its value for any other purpose.”

It would be great if reports on art auctions concentrated only on the final price including the buyer’s premium, and pretty much ignored both the hammer price and the estimate. Failing that, we should at least end the ridiculously silly practice of comparing the total amount spent at the auction to the sum of the low estimates in the auction catalogue — a truly apples-to-oranges comparison which sheds no light on anything. Estimates are like training wheels for the auction houses’ more unsophisticated buyers. They shouldn’t be needed by anybody qualified to report on the auctions.

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