The first auction of artwork from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery today at Sotheby's shattered expections, with 23 objects of ancient Chinese art bringing in $16.1 million in just two hours. The gallery originally estimated it would earn $15 million for the entire list of 207 objects to be auctioned through June.
The $16.1 million figure represents the net income to the gallery after Sotheby's buyers' premiums were subtracted from the morning's final result of $18,358,000.
The most sought-after piece this morning, an archaic bronze wine vessel, was sold for $7.2 million -- $4.2 million more than estimated before the sale. The buyer was the three-year-old Compton Verney Museum in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. The museum is a private institution with a highly prized collection of Chinese bronzes.
Other items that sold for far above their estimated value were the massive limestone chimera, at $4.85 million, and a statue of a pensive maitreya for $1.18 million. Both were sold to an anonymous phone bidder.
"You'll see the same interest with the Indian art, Southeast Asian art, and the great Hellenistic Diana," said James Godfrey, an art consultant and former Sotheby's Director of Chinese art, referring to the Albright piece Artemis and the Stag, which goes on sale June 7. "This transcends any of the sales we've seen in the last few years."
A last-minute lawsuit aimed at stopping the sale was thrown out of court last week, clearing the way for the first group of items -- 33 pieces of Chinese art to be sold today as part of Sotheby's biannual Asian art week. The auction is timed to coincide with New York's International Asian Art Fair, which begins Friday.
Albright-Knox Director Louis Grachos said the gallery was sending a handful of staff to follow the auction.
Although Hollywood versions of art auctions give the impression of a kind of civilized showdown -- a roomful of haughty baronesses waving their paddles in the air as the dapper auctioneer belts out prices -- in real-life auctions much of the bidding happens by phone and in a subdued atmosphere.
The auctioneer begins the bidding at or below the reserve price, which is the minimum amount the auction house will accept for a given item. That price is known only to the seller and the auctioneer, so as not to discourage interest or devalue an item. When the auctioneer is satisfied that there will be no more bids on an item that has met the reserve price, he or she brings down the gavel to seal the deal.
The price at the end of bidding is known as the hammer price, to which Sotheby's adds a premium of 20 percent for the first $500,000 and 12 percent for the remaining amount in excess of $500,000.
According to Sotheby's Lauren Gioia, at least half the bids for a typical auction come in by phone. Private collectors will often prefer to remain anonymous while representatives from major museums will usually make their purchases known.
Gioia, who is handling much of the publicity for the Albright-Knox sales, is the daughter of Albright-Knox board member Sally Gioia.
The rest of the gallery's deaccession list will go up over the next three months, with Indian and Southeast Asian art to be auctioned Friday; African, Oceanic, pre-Columbian and American Indian art on May 17-18; old master paintings and European art on May 22; and antiquities on June 7. Expected to be the most sought-after item, the classic sculpture Artemis and the Stag, will be on the block June 7.
Critics of the sale have cited a fear that many of the objects from the Albright-Knox collection will wind up in the homes of private collectors or dwell for long periods of time in the hands of dealers who hoard items as they accrue in value.
Robert Buck, Albright-Knox director from 1973-1983, characterized the sale as a possible blow to the public. "When this stuff goes off the public view, it's not necessarily ever going to be seen by anyone," he said. "It is definitely a public loss, and I think beyond the institution, much of it portends to be a loss for public access."
Hicham Aboutaam, a dealer of ancient art and co-owner of the Phoenix Ancient Art gallery in Manhattan, will be attending this week's auctions with a great interest in material from the Albright-Knox's collection.
"As an art lover, I like to see art accessible to the public, and as a dealer, we tend to think the last destination of any object is a public museum," Aboutaam said. "There is a considerable interest in this collection."
Gallery director Grachos has long said that most items have been out of public view for the last 10 years -- one more reason to sell them to bolster the gallery's endowment for purchasing modern art. But Buck and others have said that many of the prized items had been permanently on display as recently as the late '90s.
"I think people are being blind-sided by the value of contemporary art," Buck said, adding that the today's museums have confused priorities bound to the ever-escalating price of modern art.
The money earned in the auctions will be added to the gallery's restricted endowment for the purchase of new works of art.
... and here are the results (just in as I'm running late).