Opening of Fall Art-Auction Season Marked by Crappy Sales, Great Deals

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Greedy art sellers “have learned their lesson,” said Tobias Meyer, Sotheby’s Teutonic auctioneer, after a sale last night where the only paintings that changed hands did so at 30 percent off. The company’s big fall Impressionist and modern art auction raised $223.8 million, $100 million short of its goal, and virtually everything sold below the bids suggested in the catalogue. Three dozen of the various Picassos and Cézannes didn’t sell at all. Meyer still said he was “pleasantly surprised.” Going in, Sotheby’s had almost no bids on the books; the company was worried the art market might be as frozen as real estate and lending, with no paddles in the air.

Big bidders were dealers David Nahmad and bewhiskered ex–Goldman Sachs partner Robert Mnuchin. Larry Gagosian, in gleaming iridescent-lime reading glasses (think Sally Jesse Raphael goes green), looked suspiciously much more tanned than at the opening of his Giacometti/Bacon show Sunday night. Gagosian’s Russia rep, Victoria Gelfand, did a lot of bidding, but the top seller, a $60 million Kazimir Malevich, went to an anonymous phone bidder.

Meanwhile, the rich just get richer: Henry Kravis, parting with a Degas ballerina he bought a decade ago for $28 million, got $37 million on it this time, including Sotheby’s commission.