The SI Newhouse auction 16 paintings 1778 million

The SI Newhouse auction: 16 paintings, $177.8 million

One might expect that paintings from the late magazine publisher SI Newhouse Jr.’s illustrious collection – by Picasso, de Kooning, Lichtenstein and Bacon among others – would set off an explosion in the art market.

But even with that provenance, Thursday night sales at Christie’s, which opened the spring 2023 auction season, were muted. Most of the 16 lots realized solid, if predictable, prices at or just above their estimates, totaling $177.8 million. This could well be because the market has cooled in response to recession fears and spending sprees during the pandemic.

But it’s also because every item came with a guarantee – essentially pre-sold to buyers who had promised to pay undisclosed reserve prices – prompting the increasingly common lament that sales have lost the excitement that bidding once did in the hall and made auctions exciting, even more believable.

Although they lessen the spectacle, guarantees are now considered an integral part of the auction market, allowing sellers to hedge their risk in the event shipments go unsold.

In stark contrast to recent record prices for masterpieces worth $100 million — and the explosive prices paid for art by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen last November — Roman candles sold Thursday night. The highest estimate at Christie’s was around $25 million for Willem de Kooning’s 1947 black-and-white film Orestes.

This important early painting – said to mark the artist’s transition from figuration to abstraction – sold for $30.9 million, including royalties and back-and-forth telephone bids.

The highest price of the evening was $34.6 million, including a fee for a 1969 self-portrait by Francis Bacon. (The total for the evening fell somewhere between Christie’s high estimate of $202 million and the low estimate of $142 million.)

Since Newhouse’s death in 2017, his estate has been selling works privately and at auctions led by former prominent Sotheby’s auctioneer Tobias Meyer. Thursday’s sale was the third group of shipments. For example, Newhouse’s 1986 Jeff Koons sculpture “Rabbit” set an auction record for the artist when it sold at Christie’s in 2109 for $91 million.

Other highlights included Picasso’s colorful L’Arlésienne (Lee Miller), one of seven portraits Picasso painted during a 1937 trip by American photographer Lee Miller as Arlésienne. The play sold for $24.6 million with an estimate of $20-$30 million.

“It’s not for everyone — it’s too wild for some people,” said collector Alberto Mugrabi, noting the low-energy bidding for the work. But he added, “I loved it.”

The painting also had a peculiar backstory. According to legend, Miller accidentally ran into oncoming traffic and was escorted to safety by Condé Nast himself, who signed her as a Vogue model. She later studied photography with Man Ray and began a relationship with him. “We lived together for three years,” Miller later recalled. “I was known as Madame Man Ray because that’s how it is in France.”

Christie’s executives were banking on collectors’ appetites for irreplaceable works. Max Carter, executive vice president of the company’s 20th and 21st Century Art Company, said the sale followed the Allen sale, which hit $1.5 billion at Christie’s in November represented the largest sale in the history of the auction. “These were results to work on,” Carter said.

Not everyone thinks the market can handle more blockbuster sales. “There’s a lot more supply than demand,” said Lisa Schiff, an art consultant. “There aren’t that many collectors in the world.”

Art consultant Todd Levin took part in the auction on behalf of two clients, but ultimately withdrew from bidding. He previously told Christie’s that estimates for three of Jasper Johns’ paintings were overestimated. All three works fell short of their low estimate.

“I was disappointed with the auction,” he said.

Still, the art market has defied the basic rules of economics before, and Schiff acknowledged that exceptional artworks can outsmart logic. Among the artworks in the Newhouse collection that are considered notable paintings, she added, was one of Lee Bontecou’s haunting canvas distortions, which sold for $8.7 million (estimated at $3-5 million).

Despite the lackluster tone of Thursday’s auction, the upcoming auction week is expected to fetch nearly $1 billion for the art market.