Los Angeles museums and art collectors can buy art at auction anywhere in the world with telephone and online bidding. But most of the volume of art auction sales in the U.S. takes place in upscale auction rooms in New York that compete with the best theaters for style, glamour – and even drama. The November 4 evening sale of the Jan Kruger Collection at Christie’s 20 Rockefeller Plaza landmark provided all the drama a Hollywood screenwriter could ask for. The highly anticipated launch to “Auction Week” also added insights about the type of art that appeals to multi-millionaires and corporate collectors in the current market.
The standout of the evening was one of the featured works from the Krugier Collection. Lot 17, a rare portrait of Pablo Picasso’s daughter Paloma and son Claude by the artist himself, far exceeded the high pre-auction estimate of $12 million. When the bidding ended at $25 million, the winning bidder ended the bidding competition with an exclamation point Rather than continue bidding upward in half-million dollar increments, the bidder upped the ante by $2.5 million and let the other bidders know how serious the winner was about adding this iconic work of art to the collection.
Energetic bidding that exceeded high estimates for many lots was boosted by an opening bidding session worthy of a screenplay. The object, a handcrafted wood carving in the shape of a cigar by Pablo Picasso, carried a pre-auction estimate of $200,000 to $300,000. Bidding quickly passed the half-million dollar mark and then became a suspenseful pendulum between two telephone bidders. This captivated the attention of the elegant live bidding audience and stirred the classic emotions of collectors who understand the passion behind their dream of acquiring the rare acquisitions that are perfect matches for their collections. The bidding contest concluded at a hammer price of $890,000. This also provided a subtle reminder that pre-auction estimates play an important role in cases where the bidding far exceeds pre-auction estimates. There are still many collectors and buyers agents that set fixed limits such as three times the high pre-auction estimate and stop bidding at that threshold.
The bidding was uneven and reflected the challenges of conducting an auction based on the range of tastes and buying opportunities experienced by one individual collector. While there were high expectations for Lot 21, the original sculptor’s model for Pablo Picasso’s iconic work at the Chicago Civic Center, very few bidders have the ability to finance purchases in the range of the pre-auction estimates of $25 to $35 million. This rare work was acquired by Jan Kruger directly from the estate of Pablo Picasso, a distinction that also created an absence of sales history complicating pricing or bank financing for the sculpture. And while thousands of avid collectors seek out widely available works like ceramics by Picasso, there are not enough sculptor’s models for public art commissions to support a robust market for this type of art. The high bid of $25 million did not reach the seller’s reserve price and this rarity remains unsold.
The wide range of outcomes and the visual imagery of the art world elite literally holding its breath in suspense evoked a kind of art that is less at home in auction auditoriums and more at home in film and television programs created here in Hollywood. That is the classic “cliffhanger” that keeps audiences on the edges of seats. And now the arts community has one more good reminder that the visual arts and performing arts can nurture each other in a nearly magical way.