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The Gavel Drops at Sotheby’s

The auction house is under attack by hedge-fund activist Daniel Loeb, who wants it to start making lots more money, in part by refusing to kowtow to rich folks like him.

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Tobias Meyer sold this untitled Rothko at Sotheby’s in 2010 for $31.4 million. It belonged to the collector David Martinez, who had bought it for $19 million from Texas socialite Marguerite Hoffman, whose husband had purchased it in 1998 for just $2.8 million.   

The night that Sotheby’s held its most successful auction ever, and slipped deeper into corporate turmoil, there may have been only three people who fully comprehended the paradoxical dynamic. One of them was performing for the other two as he brought the hall to attention with eight clacks of a hammer. “A very warm welcome to tonight’s sale of contemporary art,” said auctioneer Tobias Meyer. The handsome public face of Sotheby’s (and an imperious backroom power), Meyer exuded europäische cool as the first lot of the house’s big November auction, the Dan Colen painting Holy Shit, materialized on a silently rotating wall.

As the bidding opened, Bill Rup­recht, Sotheby’s long-serving chief executive, took a silent appraisal of his auctioneer’s work as he stood at the margins of the silvery audience. Some were buyers, some were sellers—in the delicate vocabulary of the auction house, “collectors” and “consignors”—but most were accustomed to trading enormous sums. More than any other institution, except perhaps its rival Christie’s, Sotheby’s has brought together the realms of art and finance, producing a lucrative friction. But now the system was under strain, its competition turned self-destructive. Ruprecht was facing intense pressure from restive investors—in particular, the third man in the equation, the hedge-fund manager in Row 8.

Dan Loeb, wearing a trim gray suit that night, is the public company’s largest shareholder. A few weeks before, he had likened Sotheby’s to “an old-master painting in desperate need of restoration,” claiming it was falling far behind Christie’s, and had demanded Ruprecht’s resignation. Though he is an art collector, Loeb wasn’t planning to bid. He sat at the center of the auctioneer’s field of vision, smiling jauntily, trading whispers with his wife and an art adviser, his mere presence signaling a challenge.

An auction is like a secret symphony, its surface spontaneity discreetly orchestrated. As Meyer conducted from his score—a coded book that mapped out likely buyers—few in the hall detected any disharmony. The auctioneer pivoted this way and that, coaxing with courtly invitations. “Shall we bid?” “One more?” Meyer hammered down a Martin Kippenberger for $6 million, a Jean-Michel Basquiat for $26 million, a Brice Marden for nearly $11 million—roughly ten times what the most valuable pieces by these artists fetched a decade ago. Christie’s and Sotheby’s auctioned $8 billion worth of art last year, according to an analysis by the firm Artnet, more than double their total from 2005, and the majority of that growth has come from their burgeoning contemporary sales.

“Contemporary,” in the art market’s taxonomy, is a category that encompasses everything from long-dead mid-century artists, like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, to 28-year-old Oscar Murillo, who has lately been racking up impressive auction numbers. As a sector, they are united by their rapid price appreciation, which has made contemporary art the center of a ferocious battle between Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The two major auction houses must replenish their inventory twice a year, for big events in the spring and fall. The night before the Sotheby’s auction, Christie’s—a private company owned by a billionaire—had featured a selection that included Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud and an enormous Jeff Koons statue, Balloon Dog (Orange).

Sotheby’s was countering with its own trophy. “Which leads me to my favorite,” Meyer purred as he reached Lot 16. “Andy Warhol: Silver Car Crash (Double Disaster).

On the wall to Meyer’s right was an enormous black-and-silver image of carnage, a silk-screened painting he pried from a collector after painstaking courting. “Let’s start the bidding at $50 million,” Meyer said. Within a minute, the price had surpassed Warhol’s auction record of $71 million. Ruprecht peered over a bank of specialists on telephones, plying clients on the other end of the line to go another million higher. Meyer flipped the gavel, small and rounded like a paperweight, and slowed his cadence as the stakes increased. “I shall sell it then,” he said, “for ninety … four … million … dollars.”

When Meyer brought down the hammer, the hall applauded. Counting the percentage fee that Sotheby’s charges buyers, the price was $105 million—a crowning triumph in any other season. But the figure paled in comparison to the sum Christie’s had fetched the night before for the Bacon triptych: $142 million, an auction record. The Sotheby’s auction would end up tallying a total of $380 million, making it the highest grossing in company history, but just over half the $690 million Christie’s brought in. And so the most remunerative night of Meyer’s selling career was also a disappointment.

Even if he’s not always buying, Loeb likes to attend auctions to conduct market research, to see what is selling and who is bidding—“to feel the market,” a confidant says. Midway through the Sotheby’s sale, though, he had felt enough. Loeb stood up, shot a quick glance toward Meyer, and turned and strutted out the center aisle, missing the conclusion of what turned out to be a final performance. Nine days later, Sotheby’s announced Meyer’s departure, a sudden move that left behind internal disarray and much speculation about its connection to the tense standoff between Ruprecht and Loeb.


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