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Billionaire ‘outbid on everything’ with art sales steadier than stocks

Buyers have spent more than $1.4 billion during the first four days of a weeklong marathon of art auctions in New York.

Laurence Graff
Laurence GraffRead moreBloomberg

Buyers have spent more than $1.4 billion during the first four days of a weeklong marathon of art auctions in New York, undeterred by wobbly stock markets, Brexit angst, and global trade tensions.

They plunked down more than $1 billion during the first three days of sales that started Sunday, snapping up historic paintings by Pablo Picasso, Rene Magritte, and Edward Hopper, and an additional $362.6 million Wednesday at Sotheby's contemporary art evening sale, a 17 percent increase from a year ago.

"Quite amazing," billionaire jeweler Laurence Graff said as he walked out of Sotheby's Upper East Side salesroom, where all but two of the 65 lots sold. "I was outbid on everything."

Abstraktes Bild, an 8½-by-13-foot Gerhard Richter canvas executed in 1987, led the sale, fetching $32 million after drawing interest from two bidders. That was in line with Sotheby's estimate, but short of the German artist's $46.4 million auction record.

Impressionist and modern art sales earlier in the week were less robust as several key works failed to find buyers, including a $40 million van Gogh at Christie's and a Marsden Hartley piece that Sotheby's had guaranteed for $30 million.

"If tonight is an indication, the market is very strong," Sotheby's chief executive officer, Tad Smith, said Wednesday. "Not frothy. It's a smart market."

The anonymous buyer of the Richter was bidding by phone through Yuki Terase, Sotheby's head of contemporary art in Asia, and had provided Sotheby's with a prearranged bid ensuring the work would sell, in exchange for a $1.6 million fee. About half of all lots carried prearranged bids financed by clients, robbing the evening of much of its drama, dealers said.

"It was a very solid and professional sale," said Guy Jennings, managing director of the Fine Art Group. "But the sense of mystery and theater is almost disappearing."

But not entirely.

At least nine bidders chased Dana Schutz's Her Arms, propelling the final price for the painting to $795,000, a record for the Brooklyn-based artist and almost four times more than the high estimate. Results include a buyer's premium added to the hammer price; the estimates don't.

Works by three black artists also set auction records: The Businessmen, a 1947 painting by Jacob Lawrence who was commissioned by Fortune magazine to observe postwar African American life, sold for $6.2 million; Henry Taylor's I'll Put a Spell on You fetched $975,000; and Ancient Mentor I, a 1985 painting by Jack Whitten, who died in January, went for $2.2 million.

Those works "injected enthusiasm" into the sale, said Miami-based collector Mera Rubell, who was an early patron of Schutz and Taylor.

Lower-priced pieces by blue-chip names also generated spirited bidding. One dealer simultaneously worked two mobile phones as he competed for Jean-Michel Basquiat's Masque. He won the painting for $4.64 million, including fees, topping the high estimate of $4 million.

"Got it!" the man told his client. "It's yours. Good luck. Love you too."